Updated: Jul 5, 2018
I've started making more of an effort to walk everyday, and lose some weight. Walking at lunch time near my office, there is a mix of coniferous woodland, broadleaf riparian woodland and wetland areas. What initially started as a rough search for dragonflies and damselflies soon identified a diverse population of butterflies and moths within a few minutes of work.
Early in the season I saw a Speckled Wood for the first time, and set about trying to capture a shot. Many fails later, I still haven't got a decent clean shot of one. I also saw a huge number of Orange Tip butterflies in May, and again failed to get a decent shot.
A bit of research into these species revealed that we don't actually have very many butterflies in Scotland - in fact there are only 26 species that can be seen in the North East, and even a couple of them are not known to breed here.
A few more walks, and a few rough images of more species - mostly taken with my 100-400mm lens at 15-20 feet away - and I was somewhat hooked on trying to see as many as I could.
I spent an evening at a friend Ian's house photographing moths from his trap, using a reversed prime lens on extension tubes, and a home made diffuser to use the on-camera flash on my Canon 70D - I felt I really needed to get my hands on a macro lens.
The reverse lens system works well for sleepy moths, but it necessitates getting very very close to the subject and is not very flexible.
Ian had recently replaced a faulty Tamron 90mm macro lens, and generously passed me the faulty one to try and repair or use on manual extension tubes for more flexibility. Having pinned down the fault, I have devised a workaround that avoids it malfunctioning - for the majority of the time anyway - and set about trying to establish less unwieldy method of diffusing the on-camera flash to let me get closer to butterflies, capture more detail, but not have to be 3 inches away like I was with the moths.
The solution is pretty simple - made from gaffa tape, two layers of tracing paper, and a couple of old low E strings from the guitar to give it a structure and shape - and stop it falling to bits after 30 seconds. It's attached to the camera by two small velcro patches stuck to the camera body with double sided tape. It detaches and springs flat, so slides neatly into the back of the camera bag. You can probably buy some fancy thing to do this job, but this cost about 8p, so I'll stick with it.
My homemade solution
I think the key thing here is that for subjects like butterflies and insects, the flash need not be very powerful, and it seems pointless to spend money on external flashes when they'll be dialled down to 1/32 or 1/16 power - when the camera has a built in flash that is more than powerful enough, it just needs diffused and directed properly.
This setup allows me, on a sunny day, to shoot at 1/250th second, ISO 100 and around f9. Increasing the ISO a little lets me increase the f-stop and get a bit more depth of field. The amount of flash maintains a natural looking background but softly fills in the detail on the subject.
But back to butterflies - how to go about getting pictures of them...
It has very quickly become apparent that, while butterflies (and moths) offer a similar challenge in many ways to other types of wildlife photography, the margins for error are much smaller. 99% of shots have a clear flaw, and the search for a perfect shot is both extremely demanding and addictive.
There are several variables that impact on the success of shots. Here are my top 5: -
Different butterflies fly in different weather conditions, more specifically different temperatures. They are cold blooded and rely on the sun the warm their blood, so as the temperature rises they will often sit with wings open, and as it gets hotter they are more likely to sit with wings closed, or search out shade to cool off. Some species never sit with wings open, like the Small Heath for example.
Ringlet butterfly on a hot day (left) seeking shade with wings shut, and in cooler conditions (right) warming itself by sitting with open wings.
2) Depth of Field
The depth of field is absolutely critical. Butterflies rarely sit perfectly straight on to the camera, and it is very difficult to get the whole thing in sharp focus while maintaining a suitably fast shutter speed, when you might only be 2 or 3 feet away from it at 90 or 100mm focal length. Increasing the depth of field by reducing the aperture also brings into play the third challenge.
In order to isolate a butterfly or moth against the background it is again important to control the depth of field and also the amount of ambient light that goes into the composition. Strong flash might freeze the subject, but can eradicate the background altogether. Many photographers bring their own backgrounds to place behind a subject, but I personally find this idea a bit artificial, and like to capture things as naturally as possible.
Northern Brown Argus (left) with a messy background, due to the butterfly being close to the ground, and Common Blue (right) perched on the top of a tall plant allows a nicely blurred background to let the butterfly itself take centre stage in the image.
Again - quite a lot of this comes down to the butterfly species behaviour, and where it is most likely to sit. It is important to be able to adapt to the different species to capture them in the best way possible.
4) The Subject
Butterflies and moths are incredibly delicate. They get buffeted by the wind and will become tatty and damaged over time. Capturing a perfect one is nigh on impossible, but sometimes the otherwise perfect image will be ruined by a butterfly with a chunk of wing missing, or a broken antenna.
5) That Blade of Grass!!
Butterflies and moths rarely understand the concept of posing for the camera, and I think the greatest challenge is capturing the perfect image without one rogue blade of grass ruining the whole shot. The image of the Green Veined White above is somewhat compromised by the out of focus stem on the left hand side for example. Here's another that I thought was a cracker at the time - until I saw the image on the computer.
Above all this, it's not always very easy to find butterflies, or to be in the right place at the right time when they pose on a pretty flower. There's a huge amount of trial and error that goes into trying to get good photos, and it is arguably even more frustrating than photographing birds. The need to get within a couple of feet of the subject is a challenge, as they tend not to be that keen on human company.
As mentioned previously there are 26 species of butterfly that can be seen in NE Scotland, and I have now ticked 14 off that list.
Red Admiral, Dark Green Fritillary, Small Pearl-Bordered Fritillary, Common Blue, Green Veined White, Small White, Large White, Northern Brown Argus, Meadow Brown, Small Heath, Speckled Wood, Orange Tip, Small Tortoiseshell and Peacock. Hopefully I can add to this list as we go forward...
The challenge therefore continues. Hopefully this fine weather will continue and more opportunities will arise. The elusive Small Blue, Scotch Argus, Comma, and Pearl-bordered Fritillary remain to be seen amongst some of the very very rare ones that can be seen in Scotland. In the mean-time, daily efforts to nail the perfect images of the more common species has taken over my photography.
And just to prove that persistence and patience DOES pay off, here is the elusive Speckled Wood. FINALLY!!