Notes on butterfly photography


My equipment. From 1998 to 2003 I used the entry-level SLR Minolta Dynax 500si Super. Unfortunately I did not invest in a true macro lens right away, and so my first season was all but ruined by a heavy macro/wideangle add-on lens for camcorders (!), which was pedled to me as a cheap alternative to a macro lens. Talk about ignorance being punished... I did learn my lesson the hard way, and for the next season got the Sigma AF f2.8 105mm EX macro (1:1) lens, which delivers great image quality and allows a comfortable working distance with all but the most nervous butterflies. Since in the field I am mostly collecting or actively observing butterflies, I do not use any of the bulky and unwieldy flash systems recommended for this type of photography. Natural light, however, is practically never enough for a good, sharp close-up with this lens, which has to be stopped down to f/16 or so to obtain sufficient depth of field. By trial and error I found out that in fact the camera's built-in flash works very well as a fill-in light source in aperture priority mode, despite what purists like to say on the matter. I used slides (ISO 100 Kodak and Fujifilm).

My equipment: on the left Minolta Dynax 500si Super with the Sigma 105mm EX macro (1:1) and (detached) kit 28-80mm lens ; on the right Minolta DiMAGE A2.

As of November 2004 I moved - permanently - to the digital camp, with the 8-megapixel fixed-lens Minolta DiMAGE A2. The A2 has a tele macro mode capturing a field of view about 5 cm across (vs. the 3,5 cm of the Sigma macro lens when used with a full-frame body) with no distortion whatsoever and leaves a comfortable ca. 20 cm distance between the front of the lens and the buterfly which allows excellent application of the built-in flash for fill. Despite not having a dedicated 1:1 macro mode as the Sigma, I found that the macro mode on A2 delivers stunning quality with at least equally good rendition of fine detail in close-ups. Having compared scans of my best slides with the output of A2, I think that actually the A2's quality is better than that of scanned slide film. The reason appears to be that when digitizing (scanning) slides there is definite loss of some tonal gradation and subtle fine detail. Much has been made of the noise levels of the small-sensor 'prosumer' cameras such as A2, but for this type of photography digital noise is a non-issue. Compared to the grain of scanned ISO 100 slide film, the noise of A2 at lowest ISO (64) is finer and interferes less with rendition of fine detail such as butterfly scales. Speaking of which, I recently tried the A2 for digitizing slides by placing the slide on a light table and the camera in macro mode on a tripod above the light table. The results, while a far cry from the detailed output of a dedicated slide scanner, nevertheless turned out surprisingly well after some post-processing, and look especially good when reduced for the web. Most of the slides reproduced on these pages have been "scanned" using this method.

I have identified four major advantages that A2 has over a (D)SLR when shooting butterflies in the field :

1. It is about half the bulk and weight of a (D)SLR with a (heavy) macro lens attached.

2. It allows the shots to be composed with the camera at arm's length from oneself, with the tilting LCD screen allowing for comfortable handling near ground level or above the head. With a (D)SLR framing the butterfly and focusing requires the eye to be stuck to the viewfinder, which usually means that 1) the photographer often has to resort to extremely uncomfortable acrobatics to get himself and the camera close enough, and 2) the added bulk (head, shoulders) that has to be brought nearer to the butterfly together with the (D)SLR is liable to scare the butterfly into flight more easily than just the proximity of an inobtrusive small object like the A2 held away from the body.

3. Its sensor is physically much smaller than that of an APS-size (let alone full-frame) DSLR of the film frame of a 35-mm SLR. This means that A2 has much (I am told about 7 times) greater depth of field at identical apertures than the (D)SLR.

4. The A2 has very effective image stabilization which gives around 2-3 stop advantage. This is immensely important for hand-held shooting with available light only.

Occasionally (when I had left the A2 behind, not suspecting I might encounter butterflies worth photographing) I have had to use my second digital camera, the compact 5-megapixel Panasonic LZ-2, for butterfly photography. While not well suited for that subject (in macro mode one has to get to within only several centimetres from the butterfly to get a large enough view, which not many specimens tolerate), I have been surprised at how good photos this camera can take in the right conditions. Of big help here is the fact that it has image stabilization which, as in the case of A2, allows the camera to be held with outstretched arms, making it possible to (sometimes) get the camera close enough. Unfortunately, the extremely large depth of field of such small-sensor cameras means that in many cases the background is a bit too well focused to make the main subject stand out sufficiently.


Butterfly collecting vs. photographing. I have no sympathy or understanding for those insisting that we already know so much about butterflies that it is time to stop massacring them and just enjoy their beauty through the viewfinder. Not that I am not appreciative when a shot turns out particularly fine, or when a 'difficult' specimen suddenly strikes a perfect pose for just as long as it takes to successfully immortalize it on film. That I do enjoy. And yes, photographing live butterflies does teach us a lot about their behaviour (preferred resting places, habitat, nectaring plants, position of the wings, etc.), which a study of pinned specimens cannot possibly reveal. The point is simply that, when it comes to gathering scientific data, live photography is only an additional method of study, not a total substitute to collecting. The identification of many species from an image is impossible, and it is just plain irresponsible to base a record of such a species on a photograph. I'd very much like to shake hands with the person who can separate, based only on a photograph, the three species of the Hipparchia semele complex occurring in the Balkans, or Plebeius icarus and P. andronicus, or Leptidea sinapis and L. reali, or Melitaea britomartis and M. aurelia. And so on. For reliable identification of these and many other species their genitalia have to be examined, and sometimes even this may not be enough if only single specimens are available. True, many otherwise similar species (e.g. many Pyrgus, Plebeius, etc.) are actually not difficult to identify when specimens are available for examination so that both upperside and underside can be examined (by the way, that does not necessarily mean killing them - specimens can be captured, examined in the net, identified positively, recorded and then released - but one does need considerable knowledge and experience). The problem is, most often photos of such species tend to capture only either wing surface, and not necessarily the one of use to identification. In the field I combine, whenever possible, collecting and photography, taking voucher specimens that I have just photographed if their identification presents itself as in the least ambiguous.

Back to the beginning of the preceding chapter, self-complacency of the "we already know enough to stop killing these things of beauty"- type reveals nothing more than ignorance, no matter how well-intentioned. Political decisions based on such thinking such as German legislation that effectively forbids collecting of all but a few of the commonest butterflies are not only populistic, badly misinformed and counterproductive - they are very dangerous in that they distract public attention from the real culprit behind decline of butterfly populations, which in nearly all cases is habitat destruction and degradation, not collecting. Such legislative restrictions prevent us from learning more - and we can never know enough.

To belabor the point, let us take one of the most telling example of recent years. For decades photographers in Europe have taken pictures of Leptidea sinapis - a common, widespread and easily recognized, if not a particularly spectacular species. However, a bit more than a decade ago it was shown that in fact there are two good biological species in what was till then considered to be "sinapis", which differ in the size (length) of the male and female genitalia. To complicate matters further, it has since emerged that both species, sinapis and reali, occur together in much of Europe. Which means that, in order to get a correct picture of their distribution and possible differences in ecological preferences, in each "sinapis" locality large samples need to be collected, dissected and analyzed. There is just no other way to do this right. The broader implication is that more 'surprises' like this are certainly awaiting us - and they will hardly be discovered while gazing at a pretty slide.


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