28 May 2016

Butterfly Photography 101

Butterfly Photography 101
Part 1 - Hardware and Equipment

Plain Lacewing - Shot with Nikon D750 and Sigma 180mm macro lens

For a long time after we set up ButterflyCircle's website, forums and blog, we have had quite a number of questions from newbies and nature enthusiasts on how they could take better pictures of butterflies in the field. In terms of photography, questions like "what camera or lens do you guys use?", "Why do you use flash in broad daylight?" or "Which aperture should I use for butterfly photography?" were quite typical of what beginners would like to find out.

Blue Glassy Tiger shot with Panasonic Lumix PNS camera

This mini-series on butterfly photography will hopefully answer some of these questions. The articles will focus on various aspects of butterfly photography, from technical equipment, composition, using flash, exposure and depth of field and a number of other "how-to's" that would be shared with our readers to hopefully benefit their journey into the world of butterflies and butterfly photography.

My first digital camera which I used 16 years ago, the Nikon Coolpix 995

These articles are not meant to be high-level professional advice, but merely sharing ButterflyCircle members' years of experience in the field and learning about butterfly photography through trial-and-error and managing our equipment in the field. Advice given is by no means cast in stone, and the important outcome is that each photographer experiments with his/her own techniques, improves and is happy with his/her own work.

A shot of a Little Mapwing taken with the Nikon Coolpix 995

Readers should also remember that whilst you can read and arm yourselves with a lot of theory, nothing beats grabbing your camera equipment and going out into the field to practise, practise and practise. Review your own work critically, and then ask yourself how you can make the shot better. In butterfly photography, you can rarely control the way your subjects behave. This is nature. Unlike shooting human models where you can tell your subjects to look a certain way or shift to another position, in butterfly photography, you take whatever, however and whenever a butterfly comes your way.

Another shot taken with the Coolpix 995

Part 1 of this mini-series deals with the fundamentals of choosing your hardware - i.e. camera equipment. Suffice to say that if money were not an issue (and it usually is!), then all of us would buy the most expensive and sophisticated equipment that money can buy. However, this is not necessarily the case when you want to start on butterfly photography. Whilst it cannot be denied that good equipment helps, it is the person behind the camera that is the most important part of butterfly photography.

A close up Plain Tiger shot with an iPhone 5s - a photographer has to acknowledge the limitations of the small sensor on a smartphone

So what are the types of cameras that are available for reasonably good butterfly photography? Let us assume that we are talking about digital devices only, as the debate about analog film cameras has long abated, and we do not need to delve into nostalgic discussions on whether film or digital cameras are better. Taking price points as a base for looking at digital cameras, we can start at the lower band of cameras, being the basic point-and-shoot (PNS) digital cameras.

An external macro lens attachment on an iPhone 5s can work as a butterfly shooter in the absence of any other equipment

For a start, even a smartphone with a macro attachment on the built-in camera can take quite decent shots of butterflies. However, you may have to move in so close to the subject that it can be frustrating to even get a simple shot of a butterfly (before it flies away). In the absence of proper equipment, a simple handphone shot can sometimes save the day, especially when you suddenly encounter a species that is rare or not often seen.

My small "backup" PNS camera, the Canon G11 with a swivel LCD screen, which served me well for many years

Moving up the scale, would be the typical compact PNS cameras. There are probably thousands of brands and models out there that a photographer could choose from. The range is mind-boggling, and the capabilities of each camera are so diverse that it would be quite futile to discuss the merits of each PNS camera for butterfly photography. However, I have seen shots from a range of these cameras that would put more expensive and dedicated macro equipment to shame.

A shot of the Postman (Heliconius melpomene) taken with the Canon G11 using the macro-mode on the camera

Firstly, be aware of the limitations of a PNS camera. The sensor is usually much smaller than the professional devices, and the outputs from PNS cameras are best suited to posting your shots on social media or online. The depth-of-field (DOF) of such devices are extremely good, and you can often get sharp shots, but the background and subject are usually all in focus. This may not be what you desire in your shot, if you want to focus on the subject and make the background creamy and out-of-focus.

The very versatile Nikon P900, which has an optical zoom equivalent to a 24mm - 2000mm lens!

The benefits of PNS cameras are that they are usually small, light and easy to carry about. For those with a long zoom, you can shoot anything from macros to landscapes to birds. An all-in-one camera if you can call them that. For beginners with a limited budget, you can consider a compact PNS camera and move up from there after you are convinced that your interest butterfly photography is something that you can sustain and are keen on, for the longer term.

A Common Bluebottle feeding, taken with the Panasonic Lumix

However, the quality of shots from a simple PNS camera cannot be under-estimated. For example, butterfly enthusiast Mei Hwang, wielding a simple "packaged deal" PNS camera, a Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ60 non-interchangeable lens camera, can deliver quite admirable butterfly photos. Many of her shots deliver the typical quality of higher end equipment - sharp subjects, clean backgrounds and punchy but natural colours.

Shots taken with the Panasonic Lumix DMC FZ60 by Mei Hwang.  The butterfly photos are as good as any taken with much more sophisticated equipment

We leave the PNS cameras for now, and move on to the higher end of digital cameras - the Digital Single Lens Reflex (DSLR) cameras. Even within the realm of DSLR cameras, there is a relatively wide spectrum from the entry-level DSLRs to the high-end professional DSLRs that can make a big hole in your wallet! Whilst I am not advocating any particular brand, I will use Canon and Nikon DSLRs as examples of decent camera bodies for butterfly photography as these brands are the more popular brands amongst butterfly photographers.

Some entry-level offerings from Nikon and Canon - the D7200 and EOS700D

Entry-level DSLRs are relatively good, when coupled with proper "magnifying equipment" i.e. proper lenses, close-up filters, teleconverters or extension tubes. For a butterfly photographer who is just starting out using DSLRs, he/she can consider many of the capable entry-level models. As mentioned earlier, it is important to feel comfortable with the system and camera chosen, and then going out in the field to use the camera as much as possible.

Two mid-range DSLRs from Nikon and Canon - the D750 (full frame sensor) and the EOS7D MkII (cropped frame 1.6x sensor)

The advantages of DSLRs camera bodies are :
  1. Larger sensors with higher Megapixel count. Although high MP is not the be-all and end-all of digital photography, having more MPs can make a difference whether a cropped shot of a butterfly is usable or not. For the full-frame DSLR bodies (36x24mm format) the amount of detail one can get out of it, is far superior than most cameras, if you plan to enlarge your shot significantly.
  2. The focusing and metering accuracy of the higher end models often gives a butterfly photographer an edge when chasing after these skittish subjects. The ability to track and accurately lock on a subject makes a difference between a nice shot, and those destined for the trash folder.
  3. Higher frames-per-second (FPS) does tend to help in nailing a sharp shot especially when a butterfly moves constantly when feeding, or flaps its wings unpredictably, even when puddling on the ground.
  4. Better noise control is another plus point for the DSLRs. Very often, butterfly photographers have to contend with shooting a butterfly in a dimly lit forest understorey using high ISOs. The ability of the sensor to handle high ISOs also make a difference between a "keeper" (usable shot) and those that would be deleted.
The downsides of DSLRs would of course be the cost, bulkiness, and weight. Not every photographer endears themselves with lugging around 2-3kg of equipment, hand-held, and hiking long distances to shoot butterflies. So make your decision based on the various pros and cons of choosing between a good DSLR system or a preference for simple PNS equipment in your butterfly-shooting forays.

An Orange Emigrant shot with the full-frame Nikon D750 and a Sigma 180mm macro lens

In recent times, the appearance of premium compact PNS cameras, mirrorless interchangeable-lenses cameras and more and better offerings in the market is changing the photography market rapidly, and it is anybody's guess what we will be using to shoot butterflies in the coming years.

A Red Helen shot with the cropped frame (1.5x) Nikon D500 with a Sigma 180mm macro lens

In the next part of this series, we will share our thoughts on the "magnification equipment" and recommend different lenses and equipment to shoot butterflies.

Text by Khew SK : Photos by Goh EC, Khew SK and Mei Hwang

21 May 2016

Life History of the Linna Palm Dart

Life History of the Linna Palm Dart (Telicota linna )

Butterfly Biodata:
Genus: Telicota Moore, 1881
Species: linna Evans, 1949
Wingspan of Adult Butterfly: 32-35mm
Caterpillar Local Host Plants: Bambusa multiplex (Poaceae; common name: Hedge Bamboo, Chinese Dwarf Bamboo).

A female Linna Palm Dart, wing upperside view.

A female Linna Palm Dart, wing underside view.

Physical Description of Adult Butterfly:
On the upperside, the wings are black with an orange post-discal band on the forewing running from the dorsum and bent over at vein 6 to continue along the costal margin. The orange-yellow post-discal band on the hindwing runs from vein 1b to space 6. The male has a grey brand on the forewing from about the middle of vein 1b to vein 4. The brand is usually straight and not placed closer to the forewing cell or the inner margin of the post-discal band. Base of space 2 in the forewing of the male is black or largely so. The female has the forewing generally darker, with much of the basal organge darkened. On the underside, the wings are ochreous with post-discal bands outlined with black. The veins crossing the orange-yellow band on the hindwing are not dark-dusted.

A male Linna Palm Dart, wing underside view.

A male Linna Palm Dart, wing upperside view.

Field Observations of Butterfly Behaviour:
A recent addition to the Singapore Checklist, the Linna Palm Dart is moderately rare in Singapore. The adults are strong flyers and are typically sighted along the forest edge and grassy undergrowth. The swift flying adults have been observed to visit flowers and sunbath with open wings in sunny weather.

A Linna Palm Dart visiting flowers for its sugary intake.

A male Linna Palm Dart.

14 May 2016

Butterfly of the Month - May 2016

Butterfly of the Month - May 2016
The Blue Glassy Tiger (Ideopsis vulgaris macrina)

The scorching temperatures from last month carried forward into May, with only a little reprieve when there were occasional rainy afternoons which cooled us down somewhat. The 36.7ºC temperature recorded last month was the 2nd highest temperature ever recorded in Singapore! Many days in May continued to see 33-35ºC temperatures, which, when outdoors, felt more like in the 40's! The NEA reported that the El Nino effect is likely to weaken by mid year, with changes in weather patterns caused by the La Nina effect taking over.

In the meantime, butterflying in Singapore can be a rather hot affair as the unforgiving weather takes its toll on both the butterflies and butterfly-watchers. The drying out of vegetation in many areas appeared to have an impact on butterfly population, particularly in the nature reserves. Whilst some species are subject to seasonality in their appearance in Singapore, there is a general drop in count and diversity of the forest-dependent species.

There is probably a strong correlation between new growth of plants (brought about by wetter weather) and the number of butterflies in the environment. Given that the weather has been hot and relatively dry in the first 4 months of the year, this may be one of the reasons for the lower butterfly counts in general. Urban species appear to be less susceptible and populations are generally stable.

Singaporeans wait for the dreaded annual haze, usually coinciding with the dry weather and slash-and-burn season in neighbouring countries. Thus far, it appears to be under control, but for how long, no one can tell. At least there are now satellite images that would give a forewarning of forest fires burning out of control. But that is all that it can do - warn of the imminent deterioration in air quality.

The general global economy is not particularly cheering anyone up either. Political battles in the form of a bye-election in Singapore and the Sarawak state elections in Malaysia resulted in definitive victories for the governments of the day with both the PAP and Barisan National winning their respective positions convincingly. Perhaps the voters chose to stand on the side of political stability of the governments in both countries in the face of the uncertain global economy.

Over on the western front, our American friends are also in the thick of their own forthcoming elections by year end, as the Republican and Democrat candidates slug it out in the primaries. It would be interesting to see what happens at the end of the year, when the new President steps into the Oval Office. What would be critical to the rest of the world, would be the foreign policy in the hands of the incoming 45th President of the USA.

Our Butterfly of the Month for May 2016 is the common Blue Glassy Tiger (Ideopsis vulgaris macrina). This medium-sized butterfly with an average wingspan of about 75mm, is widespread and appears in urban parks and gardens, mangrove environments as well as in the nature reserves.

Blue  Glassy Tiger feeding on a variety of flowering plants

It is most common in habitats where its lactiferous host plants, Tylophora flexuosa syn. tenuissima, Gymnema sp. and probably other similar vines of the Apocynaceae family grow wild. These host plants are most evident in mangrove and wetland environments and this is where the butterfly, and its closely related cousin, the Dark Glassy Tiger (Parantica agleoides agleoides), which shares the host plants, can be found in numbers.

The Blue Glassy Tiger has wings that are bluish-grey, streaked with black stripes. The ground colour of the wings appear bluer in flight when compared to the Dark Glassy Tiger, which appears greyish. The black transverse bar in the forewing cell distinguishes it from the Dark Glassy Tiger. In recent years, another species - the Grey Glassy Tiger (Ideopsis juventa sitah) has been spotted in Singapore, and it is likely to be a migrant species for the time being. In this latter species, the cell areas of both wings are lightly marked, and it appears much paler in flight than either of the extant species.

Blue Glassy Tiger on the dried seed pods of the Indian Heliotrope (top) and fresh flowers of the same plant (bottom)

The Blue Glassy Tiger flies in an unhurried manner with a slow flying characteristic. It is often seen feeding on flowers of many plants, but is particularly partial to the dried plants of the Indian Heliotrope (Heliotropium indicum), which also attracts other Danainae butterflies. Males of the species feature a distinct brand (usually of a darker colour than the surrounding area) at the sub-tornal area of the hindwing.

Blue Glassy Tigers feeding on False Dill flowers

Besides the Indian Heliotrope, another plant, the False Dill (Eupatorium capillifolium) also attracts various species of Danainae. The butterflies are attracted to the flowers of the False Dill and dried or damaged parts of the plant. There appears to be some form of alkaloids that the Danainaes go for. The Rattleweed (Crotalaria mucronata) also attracts the Danainaes and the Blue Glassy Tiger is no exception. It can often be seen feeding on sap from the stem, leaves and seed pods of the plant.

Blue Glassy Tigers resting in the shady understory

After feeding, a unique behaviour of the Blue Glassy Tiger is that it will look for heavily shaded areas to rest, clinging on to vines and thin branches under shade, keeping very still unless disturbed. The Blue Glassy Tiger has been successfully bred on the lactiferous vine, Tylophora flexuosa (syn. tenuissima). The spotted caterpillar sports red based tubercles and is quite attractive.

Text by Khew SK : Photos by Chng CK, Goh EC, Khew SK, Loke PF, Jonathan Soong, Horace Tan and Tea Yi Kai

07 May 2016

Butterfly Photography at Our Local Parks - Gardens by the Bay

Butterfly Photography at Our Local Parks
Featuring : Butterfly Sanctuary @ GB

An overview of the Butterfly Sanctuary @ GB with the Marina Bay Sands Hotel in the background

Singapore's premier waterfront gardens, Gardens by the Bay, have attracted well over 24 million visitors since it opened its doors in 2012. Its visitorship numbers have exceeded similar garden attractions in the developed world by quite a bit, hovering around 6 - 8 million visitors per annum. A visit to Bay South Gardens would never be complete without taking in the awesome exhibits at the Flower Dome, Cloud Forest and the Supertrees!

Different views of the Butterfly Sanctuary @ GB

ButterflyCircle conducted a series of surveys at Bay South gardens some time back in 2013, and recorded nearly 50 species of butterflies around the gardens. All the butterflies were spotted outside the glass conservatories, of course, although there are often people who asked if there were butterflies inside the Flower Dome or Cloud Forest. One of the conservation visions of GB was to enhance the local biodiversity and to attract more species of fauna back into the site after the development was completed.

Birds galore at Gardens by the Bay

Indeed, the number of birds, butterflies, dragonflies and other mammals increased manifold after the Gardens were completed and opened to the public. A family of otters was also regularly seen frolicking around the gardens, particularly areas which are adjacent to the Marina Reservoir. Despite the human crowd, it is interesting to observe that urban biodiversity continues to return to GB. Bird watchers and photographers are seen toting their "heavy guns" around the lush greenery at GB. The Common Kingfisher (which is ironically, quite rare), is often seen at GB.

And so I've often been asked, where can you find butterflies at GB? Butterflies are free-ranging in our open environment. They are generally thermally-sensitive creatures and have been observed to shun heat sinks like buildings and metal facades that radiate heat. You will more likely see butterflies in open gardens areas where there are nectaring plants.

Location Map of the Butterfly Sanctuary @ GB

A small area near the Meadows was set aside as a "butterfly sanctuary". Though not officially known as a butterfly garden, nor are there signs to indicate that it is, this small area of roughly 600-800sqm was planted with numerous butterfly-attracting plants. Both host and nectaring plants were judiciously placed in planting beds, with a wide path allowing visitors to walk up close to the plants to admire the pretty flowers and observe the butterflies feeding on the flowers.

A Plain Tiger caterpillar on Crown Flower Plant

Amongst the caterpillar host plants available are Blood Flower (Asclepias currasavica), Crown Flower (Calotropis gigantea), Seven Golden Candlesticks (Senna alata). Rattleweed (Crotalaria retusa) and many others. Colourful flowering plants dot the entire area with Lantana, Ixora, Cosmos, Marigold, Asystasia, Snakeweed and many others, making this quiet sanctuary a nicely-designed landscaped garden.

On a typical day, an observer can spot at least 10-15 butterfly species flying around. The most obvious species (and plentiful), is the Plain Tiger (Danaus chrysippus chrysippus), flying leisurely around the flowers and often seen feeding on the red-and-yellow flowers of the Blood Flower plants. The fast-flying Lemon, Orange and Mottled Emigrants are usually around too, but are quite challenging to photograph, as they are skittish and tend to fly around non-stop.

The sun-loving butterflies like the Blue and Peacock Pansys can be regularly seen, dog-fighting amongst the shrubbery. The smaller Lycaenids like the Cycad Blue, Pea Blue and Gram Blue are sometimes seen flying skittishly amongst the flowers. Do remember to look out for the small blues like the Lesser Grass Blue, Pale Grass Blue and the Pygmy Grass Blue amongst the wild flowers growing at the turfed areas.

All the "Tigers" shot at Gardens by the Bay!

Amongst the other Danainaes, the various "tigers" are often seen - Blue Glassy Tiger, Dark Glassy Tiger, Common Tiger and Black Veined Tiger. There are also a number of Skippers zipping around in the early morning hours. The Yellow Palm Dart (Cephrenes trichopepla) is often observed and do keep a good lookout for this species basking in the sun.

Look out for the little butterflies at the Ixora bushes!

Over at the Meadows driveway and carpark, you can find the Javanese Ixora (Ixora javanica), Red Tree Shrub (Leea rubra), Bandicoot Berry (Leea indica) lining the planter beds. This area is pretty good for the shade-loving Hairstreaks like the Peacock Royal, Common Tit and Ciliate Blue. A quick walk around these flowering shrubs may sometimes pay good dividends as far as spotting these pretty Hairstreaks are concerned.

So, if you want some quiet time with the butterflies, do pop over to this little sanctuary at the Meadows. Unless there are big events planned at the Meadows, the butterfly sanctuary is usually quiet and serene. On most of my visits in recent months, I've had the whole place to myself for the entire morning! For those who drive, the car parks are always empty in the daytime and on weekends. The little garden is also close enough to public transportation networks and is a short walk away if you come by bus or MRT.

Butterfly Sanctuary @ GB is a convenient place for a butterfly "quick fix". It is also an ideal and safe place for beginners who are starting out to photograph butterflies, and near enough to amenities like a water cooler, public toilets and so on, if jungle-bashing is not yet your cup of tea. And there should be enough butterflies to keep you busy for an hour or two on each visit.

Text by Khew SK : Photos by Sunny Chir, Chng CK, Khew SK, Loke PF, Nelson Ong and Anthony Wong.

* All the butterfly shots on this blogpost were taken at the Butterfly Sanctuary @ Gardens by the Bay