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Orange-tips (and some background ramblings)

Updated: May 2

I thought that during this spring and summer, especially if the lockdown continues for a while yet, I would write a blog about the specific species of butterfly I have been chasing, or will be chasing later in the year, and the challenges of photographing them.


I need to start off by saying that photographing butterflies is neither an exact science, nor is it an art that can be perfected, I don't think. Every photograph can be improved upon. I look at other photographers - especially those that are repeatedly published in books and guides, and see these perfect images with flat diffused backgrounds, and marvel at the technique, but the images tend to lack character and soul. Other photographers have a skill in capturing the character of the subject. I'm not sure a photograph can really do both, but it's finding that balance between the two that is the ambition for me.


In 2019 I relied heavily on the use of fill flash in my macro photography. For dragonflies and damselflies this poses a problem, because they are very reflective, and my more successful shots were those captured without flash. Butterflies, it seemed, were much easier, because they have no reflective surfaces. On reflection, however, I think there is still something slightly unrealistic about photographs taken with artificial light. Certainly it makes life easier - the light is controlled, the shutter speed is controlled at 1/250th second, and most opportunities are captured. However, at macro working distances, even with image stabilisation, 1/250th second isn't always fast enough to get all the detail. Insects move quickly, and the wind is rarely completely absent. Working at the equivalent of 168mm only 40-50cm from the subject, ideally the shutter speed should be as fast as possible.


Digital photography is always a game of compromise between the variables to achieve the best picture possible. Fundamentally, cameras are not as advanced as our eyes, which can adjust focus and exposure faster than we can consciously think about it. I think with macro photography, fewer of those compromises are determined by the camera, and more of them by the operator - it's why it appeals so much to me as a genre. The photographer is ultimately in control of the outcome, and it doesn't matter whether he or she is using the most high-tech expensive gear or a basic setup. Other genres of photography demand the best of gear to get the best of results, but I genuinely do not think that is true of macro photography, at least when we are talking about living wild subjects in their natural habitats.


Orange-tips then, that was the title of this thus far meandering ramble about photography. I first encountered orange-tips in May or June of 2018. I was walking along the North Esk, having (for the umpteenth time) failed spectacularly at photographing sand martins in flight. Feeling pretty despondent about my lack of photography skills, I headed for home, but spotted two or three of these marvellous little butterflies, flitting from flower to flower in the sunshine. I think until that day I'd been a member of the majority of the club that considered butterflies to come in two flavours - 'whites' and 'brown and oranges'. These ones were white and orange - and I was baffled. Later on in that summer, my friend Ian showed me some images of common blue butterflies he had taken at St Cyrus, and the light-bulb above my head illuminated. There was a whole world of butterflies that I didn't know anything about. I'd started experimenting with reversed lens macro photography the year before, and set about trying to photograph some butterflies - but that wasn't really practical. Ian loaned me a macro lens (a Tamron 90mm) to try out, and I was hooked instantly. I spent many a lunch hour chasing fritillaries around the meadows by my office, with a mix of poor and awful results. Those orange-tips weighed on my mind though - why had I not seen them again, and what were they? It was this that led me to research them and other species, and begin to understand the world of butterflies that often goes unnoticed around us.


By the Autumn, when the Vanessids were out, I was, i thought, beginning to get the hang of it, and began looking forward to 2019. I had invested in a sigma 105mm macro lens of my own, and a speedlight.


In April 2019, I set out to see orange-tips again, armed with the knowledge I'd read on the internet. I set off on a walk along the South Esk, seeking shelter from the Easterly winds and searching for the right habitat. Someone had mentioned that this was a good place to see them, but I was still pretty unsure of exactly what I was looking for. As I explained alongside an image in my portfolio, my first encounter with a sleeping orange-tip was pure chance. I nearly stood on her.

This was that butterfly. I had been hoping to see them flying about, expecting to chase them until they drove me insane - I never expected to find them sleeping. I had my settings dialled in on the camera - a speedlight with a diffuser on 1/16th power, 1/250th second, f8, ISO100 - I couldn't miss. I'm still really pleased with this photo, she was a beautiful specimen, and when I got home and googled the plant I found out that she was resting on garlic mustard, the principal food plant of the caterpillars.


The sun came out pretty soon after this, and she flew away, and I saw many other orange-tips that day, zooming back and forth, never stopping for more than a second or two.


I returned to the same place a week later, on a partially cloudy day. Warm sunshine was punctuated with spells of cloud cover and an easterly breeze, and I discovered that without the sunshine, orange-tips just stop flying. The key is to know where to look, and train your eye to spot them - so amazingly camouflaged, atop garlic mustard, few flowered garlic or wild garlic. Indeed, they are so 'zombified' without the sun, that you can coax them onto a finger tip and onto any perch you like, to photograph them wherever looks best.

This female perched on my index finger quite happily - giving a good idea of how small they are with their wings folded.

Three images of the same butterfly, all taken with similar settings, 1/250th second, f9, ISO100, flash on 1/8th or 1/16th power.


The poses all look a bit artificial to me though, like she'd been placed there against her will, which of course she had. I was really pleased with these images at the time, but they bothered me because they didn't feel real.


When the sun came out, the butterflies started flying around again, and we managed to photograph some males that briefly alighted. Same settings, flash, 1/250th - I thought this was the only method to employ.

I'm still pretty happy with this image, but again it feels a little artificial, with harsh shadows. He was certainly a pristine specimen.


That was largely it for 2019. I saw a few more orange-tips, mostly in Banchory, but their season is relatively short, and to capture them at their best, you really need to see them at the end of April or the first two weeks of May. They might linger on into June, but they'll begin to look a bit rough around the edges quite quickly.

A male orange-tip photographed on the 7th June in Banchory, looking rather weather-beaten and worn.


So this brings me to 2020. The worldwide coronavirus pandemic has made chasing butterflies a real challenge. Several species will be well and truly out of reach this year, but the orange-tips might not be. I have two known locations, on the South Esk at Bridge of Dun - a 4.5 mile walk from home, where most of the above images were captured in 2019, or the North Esk by the North Esk Bridge, a 2.5 mile walk from home. I had tried the latter five times on my daily permitted walks, but the proximity to the coast and the persistent cold Easterly wind made it unfruitful. I saw nothing except peacocks and a couple of small tortoiseshells. It's a great place for a walk mind you, with grey wagtails, dippers and sand martins all along the riverbanks.


The walk to Bridge of Dun is a significant effort, and after one fruitless mission, a second trip brought some joy, but the bright sunshine and relative shelter from the wind meant the butterflies were extremely active. I really only got a couple of passable images.


The aim was, however, to shoot butterflies with only natural light, and to seek a higher shutter speed. Despite the additional control that using flash affords, it is my experience that 1/250th second is not QUITE fast enough. The hit rate without some form of camera shake remains quite low. Images may appear sharp at first look, because of the flash, but the detail is often lost due to underlying movement - perhaps even from the mirror mechanism at these close focal distances. I find the hit rate improves significantly when shooting in live-view, which would support this hypothesis, but conversely the focus hit rate falls using live-view.

This male stopped for no more than 2 seconds on this few-flowered garlic stem - I fired off a burst of images at f4.5, ISO100 and 1/3200th second - no flash. They were underexposed, as I didn't have the time to consider exposure compensating (my camera tends to live on spot metering as it offers the best starting point for manual adjustment in my opinion)

Even looking towards a relatively dark scene, I was able to get a shutter speed of 1/1600th second at f4.5 and ISO100 here. It's not a great composition, but the technique has merit.


Attempts at an even wider aperture of f2.8 or f3.2 resulted in abject failure. I think I need to back off a little from the subject and crop in more in post production, but it's hard to judge in the field when you have only a second or two to react.


What I needed was more time to compose an image and think about the settings.


So we tried the North Esk again. I hadn't seen orange-tips here since that day in 2018, but one had been spotted at St Cyrus, less than 2km away, in 2019, so I figured this was still where they were breeding. On my previous walks here, I had been unsuccessful, and drawn some odd looks and confused questions from other walkers as to why I was staring at weeds. I was beginning to feel like a bit of a fool staring at garlic mustard plants, checking every flower for a roosting butterfly. I must have checked thousands of flowers over the last two weeks, and was beginning to feel it was the wrong approach.


It was freezing cold. As we walked out to the site I was regretting not bringing a jacket, but expected the shelter of the riverbank to help - it didn't . The haar was rolling in and the wind blowing straight up the river, so we gave up the hunt pretty quickly. One green veined white passed, and one tatty small tortoiseshell, but other than that it seemed pointless looking. I kept checking those garlic mustard flowers though - and bingo - my search suddenly bore fruit. Swaying wildly in the cold wind, a solitary garlic mustard plant on the side of the path bore a roosting male, somehow clinging to the top of the flower.


Not only that, but despite the cold, the sun was out, and he was beautifully lit for photographs, if only the wind would abate! I got Hayley to stand to the East of him, to block the wind, which helped a bit, but it was still difficult. There was no way 1/250th of a second would cut it here, and even at 1/1250th of a second, only a handful of shots were sharp at all. However, the natural lighting and natural pose made the images, in my opinion, far more successful than last years' attempts.

f5.6, 1/1250th second, ISO100, +0.3 exposure comp (spot metering)

f6.3, 1/1600th second, ISO100, +0.3 exposure comp (spot metering)


The two pictures above also show the importance of concentrating on the background - the bottom image was taken first, with the gravel track behind the butterfly. For the top image I moved my position down by only a couple of inches, which meant the foliage on the other side of the track formed the backdrop. Both work fine, because they are completely blurred by the depth of field, but they are very different. I prefer the green background as a photograph, but the bottom image was taken much closer, and intended to show off the scales and patterns of the butterfly in more detail, so the contrast helps I think.


The wind was frustrating though, but rather than try to coax the butterfly to a quieter spot, I carefully uprooted the garlic mustard plant and moved it a few feet behind a big rock, that provided complete shelter from the wind. I barely got a shot off before he started to open his wings to soak up the sun, however. Still in a completely natural pose, he remained for a few seconds, wings flat, before fluttering off into the sunshine (and the wind, probably to soon fall asleep again on another plant!)

This was for me, the photograph that had been so hard to get using last year's techniques. The texture of the wings never looks quite right using flash. Even with the great luck of finding one roosting in the sunshine, I only had time to fire off one quick burst of shots here, with just one almost completely sharp across the wings. I closed the aperture to f7.1 (to make sure I got the eyes and antennae sharp too) and this allowed a shutter speed of 1/500th second at ISO100 (still +0.3 exposure comp - I hadn't had time to adjust that). Looking at the back of the camera I was afraid I'd blown it by overexposing, but the detail was thankfully all there when I opened the image in photoshop.


The background isn't perfectly smooth like some photographers seek, but for me this is the orange-tip photograph I wanted to take - he's as sharp as I think I could ever get him from wing-tip to wing-tip, and he is perched on the species primary food plant, garlic mustard. The lush green background is perfectly representative of the riverbank habitat. It's all there, in one composition, and epitomises this wonderful species of butterfly.


I went out again a week or so later, and found a single female in the same place. The weather was changeable so she spent much of the time roosting, or hiding from showers. This gave me an opportunity to try and be a bit more creative.

Hiding from the rain under a Butterbur leaf

Perched on Bee Nettle, amongst the greenery

Nectaring from Garlic Mustard in a brief moment of sunshine

Bee Nettle well named - sharing the flowers with a Carder Bee!


There is no doubt I'll keep chasing perfection, perfection isn't achievable. It's what drives macro photographers to keep chasing these tiny gems year after year. Given that it's less than two years since I saw my first orange-tip, and became interested in butterfly photography, I'm pretty chuffed with this though.


Photographing butterflies without flash is definitely more challenging, but it is also less of a faff, and I do genuinely feel that the results are more natural looking, even if the difference is marginal. I won't discard the speedlight altogether, it has its place, but it is not always necessary.


2nd May 2020 update, a few more photos from both the South and North Esk rivers.

Holding bluebells immediately in front of the lens and trying to shoot through a gap really requires 3 hands,but definitely has potential.

This male and female held hands for a picture - this is a 3 image handheld stack, taken at ISO200, f5.6 and 1/200th second - challenging between gusts of wind with such a slow shutter speed, but the depth of field demanded f5.6 as a minimum, and i didn't want to push the ISO too high. This was underexposed by about one and half stops too - so equivalent to about ISO500 after editing.

I tried several backgrounds with her on the wild garlic - the contrast works OK here.

But the high key approach against the bleak grey sky is my preference. Unfortunately the antennae aren't sharp here - I put my left ear in a clump of stinging nettles trying to get low down, and it REALLY hurt.

I don't think this female was too keen on this perch, and it looks rather unnatural, but made an interesting composition.

And I tried this shot again, and love the three legs hanging over the butterbur leaf.


To be honest, that's probably exhausted Orange-tips for this year, more targets will emerge in May, and I'm getting pretty tired of the same lengthy walk to get to the rivers. Farmers are sewing fields, and clearly annoyed at the number of people exercising around their fields. I need a new place to hunt. Small Coppers perhaps....







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© 2020 By Ben Freeman