29 December 2007

Stalking and Shooting Butterflies - A Personal Perspective

Butterfly photography is a rewarding and satisfying hobby, and one can be out in the field for some exercise, fresh air and sunshine and at the same time, learn about photography and butterflies.

In this feature article, ButterflyCircle member, Sunny Chir shares his tips and secrets of how he is able to get those amazing and awesome shots of butterflies over the past two years of picking up this hobby.

Photographing Butterflies

Butterflies are beautiful creatures and they are my main subject in photography. Being skittish in nature, shooting them is not as easy as it appears. They are amongst the most difficult subjects to get close to in the wild in macro photography.

I have always been asked about my equipment setup and how to get close to them from beginners picking up this hobby. Here are some tips and tricks that I have learnt in the past 2 years and many hours of hard work and practice out in the field.

Stalking the Butterfly

In general, there are two broad categories of butterflies, the sun loving and the shade loving. So, depending on what you are stalking, choose your location accordingly. Some species of butterflies can also be very localised and found only within a small radius of their preferred habitat.

Knowing their host plants and nectaring plants before stalking will increase your chances of finding a particular species, so do a bit of research on what plants they lay their eggs on (host plants) and what types of flowers they feed on (nectaring plants). Concentrate your search at locations where such plants are abundant, and that will save you kilometers of footwork. The common flowering nectaring plants most butterflies feed on are Ixora, Lantana, Coat Button (Tridax procumbens), Snakeweed (Stachytarpeta indica) and Mile-a-minute (Mikania cordata) flowers. Some species feed on tree sap, seed pods and fermented fruits. Some species tend to stay in the vicinity of their preferred host and nectaring plants for days.

Puddling and sunbathing are behaviours exhibited by a number of species of butterflies. In certain families of butterflies only the males puddle, using their proboscis to extract mineral contents from damp spots on the ground. The mineral contents are stored as a “nuptial package” to be transferred to the female during mating. These puddling grounds are a bonanza for a photographer, for up to hundreds of butterflies may be seen at these spots during a feeding frenzy on some sunny days. Some species tends to congregate at certain spots and at a particular time, either to mate or to sunbathe themselves. For such species once you get to know their habits and timing, it becomes relatively easy to find them.

The best time to shoot butterflies is when they are pre-occupied in warming up their dew covered wings in the early morning, or when they are feeding or mating. In the wild, butterflies are sighted mainly when they are in flight, by their motion and contrast with the surrounding vegetation. In the cool morning hours, they tend to be more sluggish, as they are “solar powered” and need to warm up before taking flight. So, unless you have intimate knowledge of a particular species and its favourite hangout, finding a Lycaenid size butterfly amongst the foliage drying its wings is tough. To me, the best times to hunt for most butterflies are around 10am-12pm and 2-4 pm on sunny days when they are actively feeding.

Butterflies are sensitive to bright colours and objects, hence avoid bright coloured clothing. Wear drab or camouflaged clothing to avoid spooking them. In the field, scout around their host plants and nectaring plants, and use your peripheral vision as the surveillance mode to detect movement. Your peripheral vision will cover a wider angle and increase your probability of detecting movement within your field of view.

After detecting them, your eyes will automatically switch to tracking mode, following its flight path till it lands. All butterflies, and for that matter all insects, have their respective ‘circles of fear’ - a radius at which they will take flight when there is abrupt movement or intrusion. Do not be in a hurry to rush in for the shoot, as the butterfly will still be at very high alert state after being startled by your presence. Wait perhaps 10 -20 seconds, let it settle down and get used to your presence, before trying to approach closer for the shoot.

Think of how you want to frame the butterfly and select the angle of approach accordingly from a distance, with camera at chest level Approach the butterfly in a straight line slowly with minimum sideways movement that will alarm the butterfly. Avoid casting your shadow on the butterfly as it reacts instinctively to interpret a moving shadow as a potential predator attack.

Equipment Setup

If you have approached the butterfly without startling it off, set yourself up and let the equipment do most of the work. Spend more time working on your composition and background and this will improve your chances of keepers.

You have to be familiar with the equipment you use and employ them effectively. I use either a Canon 20D or 40D coupled to a Tamron 180mm macro lens and a Canon 580EX flash. The Tamron 180mm provides a longer working distance for shooting butterflies and it is legendary for being a sharp macro lens. The sweet spot of this lens is around f/8 to f/11. All my shots taken on the 20D or 40D are recorded in RAW format to provide the flexibility to post-process the images in Photoshop.

Even with the reach of the Tamron 180mm you are likely to be within the ‘circle of fear’ of most butterflies. With small butterflies, you will have to get closer to the subject to get the magnification you desire. At times, you might have problem finding small butterflies through your viewfinder while the lens is focusing. Just open both eyes and look at the subject using the other eye that is not glued to the view finder. The butterfly should appear approximately at the center of your view finder when the AF sensor snaps the image into focus.

Typically, you will have perhaps 1-4 sec to focus, compose and take your shots before it flies off. To me, there is no time to set up a tripod or fiddle with camera settings. For this reason, I preset my camera settings and shoot hand-held most of the time. I use high speed servo mode to increase my chances of having some keepers for the brief encounter. For rare species, it might be the only chance in your lifetime to get a shot. I only use a monopod when the vegetation and situation allow.

My camera is always set at ISO 400, AWB, AV mode, aperture at f/8-f/11 range and ready to shoot. I let the camera take care of the shutter speed and accept whatever shutter speed it computes. You can experiment with your camera and if the shutter speed is too low to prevent motion blur due to hand shake, increase the ISO until you have developed a more steady hand holding technique. With most of the fiddling out of the way, I concentrate on focusing, framing and getting a clean background for the shot. I use auto-focus most of the time, but when lighting is poor, I switch to manual focusing. In low light situations, I make adjustments to whatever f/ setting that is required to get proper exposure; which at times can result in shutter speeds as low as 1/30 sec, so a steady hand with correct breathing techniques helps.

To reduce handshake I hold the camera with arms close to the body, leaning on whatever available support nearby to stabilise myself. If the butterfly is at a lower level, I kneel down on one leg and half bend the other, rest my elbow on my half bent thigh and control my breathing when I squeeze the shutter. If all these are not enough, a higher ISO setting will be selected to increase the shutter speed. With some practice most photographers should be able to handhold at 1/120sec (using a 180mm lens) with a high keeper rate.

There will never be enough depth-of-field (DOF) in macro photography. One has to juggle between DOF, background, exposure and shutter speed to get the picture you can best produce under the given conditions. I try to help by maximizing the DOF by getting the camera sensor parallel to the butterfly as much as possible with my active AF point placed on the eyes of the butterfly.

I use the 580EX flash mainly as a fill-flash in "Rear sync", to bring out the finer details of the butterfly. Once the flash is on the camera and set to ETTL, rear sync mode (second curtain mode) I do not fiddle with it, and aim directly at the butterfly. With the "rear sync" mode set, after letting sufficient ambient light in, the camera and flash are intelligent enough to figure out what is the optimal power to bring out the details of the subject, so I do not try to outsmart or confuse it by adjusting or tilting the flash and use additional diffuser or Omibounce.

Knowing the theory is not good enough for any photographer - you will have to be able to do it through hands-on practice. Joining outings regularly organised by ButterflyCircle would be a great way to learn shooting in the field. At these outings, the experienced and friendly photographers in the group are always ready to help newbies into the hobby. Such outings are fun and relaxing for a weekend morning and well worth the time and effort, and much more effective in improving your skills than just reading about it on the Internet.

A convenient place for beginners to practice and shoot some butterflies is the Alexandra Hospital Butterfly Trail, where over 100 species of butterflies have been recorded so far. There will be at least 4-5 species of butterfly present at anytime during daylight hours to hone your skills.

Most of what I have written above is learned from fellow butterfly shooters and some from my own observations. I hope by sharing these observations, you can try them out and use some of them to improve your success rate of keepers in shooting butterflies

......otherwise, shoot and shoot and shoot till you succeed!


Text and Photos by Sunny Chir

22 December 2007

A Christmas Exclusive - Singapore's own Painted Lady

A pretty American visitor comes to Singapore

A Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui) feeds on the flowers of the Mile-a-Minute (Mikania cordata) bush whilst visiting Singapore!

Some time late last year, when the migration of the birds was in full swing, as they flee the cold weather in the northern hemisphere for the warmer temperatures of the south, the Monarchs were also migrating via their usual and well-charted routes from Canada, to the USA and all the way down to South America.

A much smaller and lesser known migrant also made its way to warmer temperatures. The Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui) is described as "the most widespread of all butterflies" and having migratory habits which can rival those of the Monarch. It is one of the most widespread of all butterflies, found on every continent except Antarctica.

The Painted Lady is a pretty Nymphalid, with orange, black and whilte markings on the upperside, whilst the undersides feature a series of cryptic lines mottled with grey patches with submarginal ocelli and a wash of rose on the forewing. It is also known as the Thistle Butterfly or the Cosmopolite.

Its favourite host plant is the thistle (Asteraceae). The species is described to be abundant in the USA, and a website described that "Larvae were so common in the city of Orange (California) that in late April 1973, the city sprayed a vacant lot literally infested with the larvae. The spraying was in response to complaints by homeowners that the larvae were turning swimming pools black with their bodies, in addition to feeding on numerous ornamentals."

The Painted Lady Arrives in Singapore

Three of our ButterflyCircle members were fortunate enough to encounter two pristine specimens of the Painted Lady at different locations in Singapore. One was observed at one of our urban hill parks, whilst the other was spotted at an open wasteland in the north near one of Singapore's minor rivers.

Whilst definitely not as abundant as in its home country, the discovery of the Painted Lady in Singapore was not an unexpected surprise. It was a matter of time before one showed up here, given its reputation for being a renowned 'world traveller'. The two pristine specimens were spotted and photographed, before taking off to their next unknown destinations. How did they appear in Singapore? Were they bred specimens, inadvertently 'imported' with some goods from the west or brought back by some hobbyists?

We will never know. Nevertheless, it was still a pleasure for those of us who were lucky enough to make the encounter with this pretty Lady from the west. We hope she will visit sunny Singapore again soon!

Text by Khew SK ; Photos by Horace Tan, Richard Ong and Sunny Chir

References :

  • Garden Butterflies of North America by Rick Mikula
  • Field Guide to Butterflies - National Audobon Society by Robert Michael Pyle
  • A Field Guide to the Butterflies of Eastern North America by Jeffrey Glassberg

09 December 2007

Singapore's Sun-Loving Pansies - Part 2

Singapore's Sun-Loving Pansies
- Part 2

In Part 2 of this feature article of Singapore's Sun-Loving Pansies, we feature the remaining two - Grey Pansy and Peacock Pansy. Both these species are comparatively rarer than the Blue Pansy and Chocolate Pansy, but still can be found regularly in their favourite locations in Singapore.

The Grey Pansy (Junonia atlites atlites)

The Grey Pansy is the rarest of the four Pansies in Singapore. However, it appears quite seasonally, and in certain locations more than 3-4 individuals may be found. The butterfly is a pale grey above, with the undersides lighter. Both wings have dark brown irregular post discal and submarginal lines. The more prominent ocelli are orange crowned with black spots. The species is characterised by distinct wet and dry season forms where the underside markings are more pronounced and darker in the wet season, with the markings showing a tendency towards obsolescence in the dry season form.

The species flies with a flap-glide manner and on bright sunny days, it stops to rest on the upper surfaces of leaves with its wings opened flat. It tends to return repeatedly to its favourite perch after flying sorties to chase away any 'intruders' into its space.

The caterpillar is a dull black with white longitudinal stripes and feeds on a small-leaved host plant which can be found in water-logged areas. The known host plant is Hygrophila sp.

The Peacock Pansy (Junonia almana javana)

The Peacock Pansy is bright orange above with prominent white-eyed ocelli which may have given it its common name "Peacock". Both the forewings and the hindwings have a prominent ocelli each, with the one on the hindwings larger and coloured orange, black and white. The undersides are paler and the eye-spots are more lightly marked.

The species is relatively common, and can be found in parks, gardens as well as in the nature reserves. It is a fine-weather species, and tends to be more active in open grassy areas in bright sunshine. Like its other cousins in the Junonia genus, it adopts a flap-glide flying style and rests on its favourite perches with its wings opened flat. When the weather cools down, it stops with its wings folded upright and tries to camouflage itself amongst the grass and leaves.

The caterpillar is pale ochreous brown with black longitudinal stripes and has been bred on Ruellia repens. An interesting observation of ovipositing females of this species is that the females often lays her eggs on nearby plants instead of directly on its host plant. There was even an occasion when it laid an egg on a stone! However, the actual host plant is always nearby, and it is likely that the emerging caterpillar will be able to find the hostplant to eat, albeit having to crawl much further to reach the host plant than usual.

Text by Khew SK : Photos by Sunny Chir and Khew SK

08 December 2007

Singapore's Sun-Loving Pansies - Part 1

Singapore's Sun-Loving Pansies
- Part 1

Singapore is home to four different Pansies - Blue Pansy, Chocolate Pansy, Grey Pansy and the Peacock Pansy. The four Pansy species belong to the genus Junonia (Hubner. 1819) which is characterised by their falcate forewings, brightly coloured uppersides and more sombre undersides.

The Junonia species are very susceptible to seasonal variation and often occur in both wet- and dry- season 'forms' In the latter, the underside has a cryptic pattern resembling a dead leaf and reduced ocelli.

The caterpillars of the Pansies tend to feed on species of Acanthaceae.

In Singapore, the four species can be considered common, perhaps with the exception of the Grey Pansy, which tends to be seasonally seen. Of the four, the Chocolate Pansy is by far the commonest species, occuring in the most varied habitats from urban grassland to forested areas of the nature reserves.

All four species tend to prefer open grassy areas and are most active in full sunshine. They also tend to be territorial, often returning to their favourite perches and chasing any other butterfly that comes within its 'circle of control'. They have a habit of frolicking with another individual of the same species, or engaging in aerial 'dog-fights' with each other.

The Blue Pansy (Junonia orithya wallacei)

The male of the Blue Pansy is considered the prettiest and most colourful of all the four Pansies. The forewing is black, with a whitish subapical band, post-discal ocelli. The hindwing is a bright blue with an orange-red subtornal ocellus. The female is more sombre, usually featuring only brown uppersides, and occasionaly sporting a reduced patch of blue on its hindwings as compared with the males. The females' hindwing ocelli are generally much larger than those of the males. The undersides are a pale greyish brown, with cryptic markings and ocelli.

The butterfly is common in parks, gardens and open grassy wasteland and flies in an able gliding fashion. It often stops with its wings open flat to sunbathe in the sunshine.

It has been bred on the very common and abundant secondary vegetation species of Acanthaceae, the Common Asystasia (Asystasia gangetica). It is highly likely that it has alternative host plants.

The Chocolate Pansy (Junonia hedonia ida)

The Chocolate Pansy is the most common species amongst the four Pansies. It is a reddish brown above and features a prominent row of post-discal spots on both wings. The undersides are a lighter brown, with pale purplish bands on both wings. The post-discal ocelli on the undersides are much lighter, more orange than reddish-brown ocelli on the uppersides. The median stripe on the underside of both wings gives it the butterfly a leaf-like appearance when it stops to rest amongst leaf litter, rendering it some measure of camouflage from predators.

The caterpillars have been bred on a dimunitive weed, Ruellia repens which is common in open fields and cultivated areas. It is also likely that the species has other alternative host plants.

Text by Khew SK ; Photos by Khew SK and Sunny Chir

01 December 2007

Butterfly of the Month - December 2007

The Malay Lacewing (Cethosia hypsea hypsina)

This is a new monthly series where a butterfly species is featured as the Butterfly of the Month. To start the series, I have chosen the Malay Lacewing, a favourite amongst butterfly enthusiasts and photographers.

The Malay Lacewing (Cethosia hypsea hypsina) belongs to the genus Cethosia, which includes some of the most beautiful butterflies in the region. The upperside of the wings of both the male and female of this species feature a bright orange-red colour with black borders. The outer margins of both wings are serrated, particularly more so on the hindwings, giving the wings a saw-toothed appearance. The intricate 'lace' patterns on the undersides of the wings are likely to have given rise to the origin of its English common name, Lacewing.

The Malay Lacewing is described as the commonest species of the genus in Malaysia and Singapore. It is characterised by the pale yellow subapical border on the forewing above. Males tend to fly more energetically than the females. It is essentially a forest butterfly, preferring to stay within the confines of the nature reserves in Singapore, and the forested areas. The Malay Lacewing can often be observed at the flowers of Leea indica, Snakeweed (Stachytarpeta indica), Mile-a-Minute (Mikania cordata), Ixora spp. and Lantana camara. It is always a joy to watch this pretty butterfly flutter amongst the flowering bushes, searching for its favourite nectaring source to feed upon, and flying nonchalantly in a spectacular display of its bright cheerful colours

A Malay Lacewing feeding on the nectar from the flowers of Ixora javanica.

With its wings slightly opened, this Malay Lacewing balances on the flower of a pink Lantana camara as it sucks nectar.

Females of the Malay Lacewing have a yellowish-white dorsal patch on the forewings above, which is absent in the males. The females also appear a paler orange-red whereas the males sport a darker shade of orange-red on the wings above.

Left : Male Malay Lacewing Right : Female Malay Lacewing. Note the extra yellowish white triangular patch on the dorsum of the forewings of the female.

The wine-red caterpillars of this species are known to feed on Passifloraceae. The species is distateful to predators.

Text and Photos by Khew SK