Preparation is key to succesful butterfly photography
In this new series of blog posts, I will share with you my top tips for better butterfly photography. Having photographed and studied butterflies for over 8 years now, these are my learnings, experiences and failures. Today, top tip number 1: preparation.
Knowing where to go
The first order of business is to know where to look for butterflies.
- Butterfly associations: their websites usually offer plenty information on species occurring, distribution and seasonality. Should your country have seasons, it is especially important to check when a certain species actually flies. Keep in mind though that flying times may differ from year to year and climate change affects them all.
- Observation.org is a great tool on a national or regional level. It may help to see where other people have spotted butterflies. It is a website where every individual can easily record species. The international scientific community uses these data for research and preservation (I encourage you to contribute!). You can find all recorded specimens for a specific region or even square mile. Whenever I travel to new places, I use Observation.org to check what I may encounter.
- Fellow photographers are a invaluable source of information. You can exchange tips for the best places, chat about equipment and lenses, discuss trends etc. In a crowded country such as Holland, I often meet other photographers in the field and rarely miss an opportunity to talk.
Planning your trip
- Google Earth is, needless to say, a very useful tool for planning trips. Whenever I go to a new location, I use it to get a feel for the area. It tells me where I can park my car, which is the shortest path through a forest and even whether the exact location may be in the sun or in the shade, depending on how close it is to a treeline for example. However, nothing bets using your own two eyes on location. Let Google Earth be your compass, you stay the captain.
- Taking notes. I try to visit two new locations every year. I always take notes on driving time, where I can park, how much time I need to walk to the exact spot, which locations proved productive and which ones did not. Over the years, I accumulated a wealth of information that I would never have memorized otherwise. Whenever I plan to revisit a location, I check my notes how to plan for it. Saves me a lot of time and trouble.
- Reconnaissance. When I go somewhere for the first time, I often just wander around in broad daylight. It is a reconnaissance mission. It provides an opportunity to see where butterflies mass and where they don’t, which blooming flowers are visited and which are not, and what species are present. It also tells you a lot that Google Earth cannot: the lay of the land, where fences are, what areas are closed to the general public and how thick the crowds are. I stopped counting how many times a place looked interesting on Google Earth and once I got there the “closed” sign ended my day before it had begun. That’s the value of scouting beforehand!
The evening before
- Checking the weather forecast is the first order of business. Nothing annoys me more than having a beautiful butterfly in my viewfinder, seeing it going from left to right and back again in strong winds. The best conditions are windless, sunny and chilly mornings and evenings. Winds up to 3 Beaufort are manageable with a fast shutter time, more windy is less fun. Rain is even much less fun, although a short downpour on a sunny day can provide nice opportunities.
- Set your alarmclock and be bold with it! Yeah, I know what it feels like….you have worked from Monday to Friday and are tired. Just that extra bit of sleep appeals to you. I always regretted it the next morning when I arrived just a little too late on location for the best circumstances. Still happens to me once in a while….I am human after all 🙂 This is also why I note driving and walking times: I know exactly at what time I need to get up to arrive on time.
- Equipment check. I always check if I have enough fuel in my car in order to avoid having to visit a service station, losing critical time going to a location. Again, this may sound pretty obvious, but I would not write this from my personal experience if it wasn’t on my failure list….
More on equipment in the next blog in this series.
Grizzled skipper are my favourite spring butterflies
It is November and winter is coming to Holland. The butterfly photographer in me already looks forward to the new butterfly season. Such a long wait ahead….In the meantime, let us enjoy ourselves by looking back. Maybe the Grizzled Skipper (Pyrgus Malvae) is my favourite springtime butterfly: not only are they quite rare in our country, but they are so tiny that they are hard to find even if you know they are there. The effort is as much fun as are the photographs you bring home, isn’t it?
This is also the story of the value of returning to the same place for a few consecutive years. Each time the circumstances are a little different, the weather plays along (or not) and the butterflies are in differents spots. I have been visiting this particular field for four years in a row. Every time I feel my photographs have improved. This year I believe I have finally brought home a set of photographs that I am really satisfied with.
Exactly seven months ago, my alarmclock sounded at 04:00 AM on a Saturday morning. I quickly rose for the 1.5 hour drive to a place in the province of Overijssel. Having arrived at the familiar field, usually I could spot dozens of Skippers easily. Then, nothing at first. Oh no…going early in season sometimes means too early and this seemed to be such a time. Pretty disappointing if you stand in a field at 05:30 and are shivering from the cold.
But, butterfly photographers should never give up too fast. After some more searching I finally found the first butterfly, albeit on a bad location for a nice picture. Then the sun rose and finding them was made much easier: each specimen was lit up like a candle against the dark earth. One over there, one more over there….an empty field at first glance turned out to be well occupied. I returned home smiling.
Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM f/4.0 1/250 ISO 200
Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM f/3.5 1/500 ISO 200
A great gathering of butterflies on a rocky slope in Mercantour NP
So many butterflies and so many species together! This was heaven for the butterfly buff! The spectacle of mud puddling butterflies is well known: they lick salt and minerals from the mud and rocks. A peculiarity is that only males gather in such numbers.
On holiday in Southern France last July, my wife and I walked along a rocky slope with a small stream when suddenly a cloud of butterflies rose into the air: we had literally stumbled into this mud puddling group. After maybe 30 seconds or so, they settled down again. I went onto my knees to look through the viewfinder and check the species. This was the colourful spectacle in front of my camera:
Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM f/8 1/320 ISO 100
Then, you know there is only one option left: get down flat on your belly and start looking for the best shots. Like this Small Blue (Cupido minimus)…
Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM f/5.6 1/320 ISO 100
…and this Eros Blue (Polyommatus Eros)
Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM f/5.0 1/320 ISO 100
After some 30 minutes my back and knees started to complain about the rocky ground, so I rose again (ouch!) but surely I did not complain at all…what a great day it had been for butterfly photography!
Four butterflies against a dark black background
The world-famous Dutch painter Rembrandt is the undisputed master of light. Living in Amsterdam gives me the opportunity to see his paintings regularly in the Rijksmuseum. The way he makes the subject stand out, the spotlight on the face often against a dark background, the surroundings out of focus, it is brilliant. Many times more brilliant than my humble efforts in butterfly photography…
Anyway, as my style progresses I notice that I simply love to picture butterflies touched by soft sunlight against a dark or black background. It focuses your entire attention as a viewer on the butterfly itself, its beautiful colours, the dense network of veins, the sheer beauty of nature’s creation.
On the first day of our hiking tour through Mercantour NP, I had already noticed many butterflies on a steep hill close to our gîte d’étape. When we returned there on the last day, I set my alarmclock to 5 AM and went up. Found this Bath White (Pontia Daplidice) pretty fast. The sky was cloudless…except for that part of the horizon where the sun would rise. My bad luck. I had to wait for 45 endless minutes for the clouds to drift away. And was rewarded for my patience with this fine view.
Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM f/5.6 1/1250 ISO 250
Returning for breakfast I literally almost stumbled on this Escher’s Blue (Polyommatus Escheri). Never spoil a good picture opportunity, breakfast would have to wait.
Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM f/5.0 1/2000 ISO 200
The very last day of our holiday, in the Italian Dolomite mountains, this Silver-Washed Fritillary (Argynnis Paphia) was searching for food on the edge of the forest. It was around 32° Celsius, the butterflies were spooked by the slightest movement so the big white 300mm came to the rescue.
Canon EF 300mm f/2.8L IS USM f/7.1 1/640 ISO 1250
One of my long-time wishes was a good picture of the Queen of Spain Fritillary (Issoria Lathonia) with its pearly underside. Finally fulfilled!
Canon EF 300mm f/2.8L IS USM f/5.6 1/500 ISO 160
How do you achieve this effect yourself?
- Many flowers grow along the edges of forest as this is where they can catch the sunlight. If you see butterflies foraging for nectar along them, check which flowers provide a dark background and just simply wait for a butterfly to pass by
- Remember the location and return in the next season to improve on your results. Sometimes I need a couple of attempts over the years to achieve the desired result, sometimes I get lucky in one try as in the case of the butterfly photographs above
- Underexpose by at least one stop to avoid blowing out the highlights. Check your histogram and adjust for the correct exposure
Three pairs of mating butterflies that we saw on holiday
Our summer holiday brought us to France and Italy this year. We started off in the Cévennes in the south of France, a beautiful region of hills, dense forests and deep gorges. I expected to see a lot of butterflies there. Apparently, it was also mating season….
While walking south of the village of Le-pont-de-Montvert we came across this pair of mating Silver-studded Blues (Plebejus Argus). As I approached for a close-up, they noticed me and started to disengage, which you can clearly see in the middle of the picture. Quickly I withdrew and left them to it.
Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM f/6.3 1/640 ISO 100
Our next stop was Mercantour NP in the French-Italian Alps. An absolute stunner: both for the scenery as well as the butterflies. Just west of the village of Entraunes, we came across this pair of mating Amanda’s Blue (Polyommatus Amandus).
Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM f/4.5 1/2500 ISO 200
Our third and last stop was in the Dolomites in Northern Italy. A land of ragged peaks and breathtaking views. Usually also a land of many butterflies, but not in our area. A lot of cows were grazing the meadows leaving hardly any flower left. Only on the last day in the middle of a forest I found a lot of butterflies. Just can’t believe my luck that these two High Brown Fritillary (Argynnis adippe) chose to perform the act just in front of me!
Canon EF 300mm f/2.8L IS USM f/7.1 1/640 ISO 125
Will the Tree Grayling survive to celebrate next year?
My site has been live for exactly one year now. Time flies when you’re having fun outdoors! I thought it would be appropriate to post again on the Tree Grayling (Hipparchia statilinus) as this was the butterfly featured in my first post.
This year’s summer in Holland has been as beautiful as it has been brutal: the sun shines every day which is wonderful. It has not rained for three months now, which is not so wonderful. The grass turned yellow, flowers died and butterflies have difficulty finding nectar. The only Dutch population of Tree Graylings is on the brink of extinction. The butterflies may need to fly far away from their usual habitat to find food, cannot find suitable plants there to lay their eggs on and that’s the end of it. The Dutch Butterfly Association planted some extra flowers on the heath to provide additional nutrition. Let us hope that will help them overcome this summer.
Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM f/5.6 1/320 ISO 100
The map butterfly as a bonus
Sometimes the lousiest of locations can yield the biggest returns. This was a small field in Amsterdam directly off the highway. Stuck between a busy road and industry. The first thing I found was a used sleeping bag, next was some garbage. Not exactly very promising. I was looking for the rare White-letter hairstreak (Satyrium w-album) but did not spot one.
However, there were some usual suspects around such as Meadow Brown and Large White. And three Maps (Araschnia levana). Its a common butterfly in Holland but I never managed to take a decent picture with its wings closed, in soft light and with a nice dark background. So, the hairstreak mission will be saved for another day, but cycling happily home I did.
Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM f/6.3 1/250 ISO 400