25 February 2017

Butterfly Photography 101 - Part 7

Butterfly Photography 101
Part 7 - Off to the Great Outdoors!

In this seventh and final part of this series, we pack our gears and armed with the theory and tips from the earlier six articles, head off to the great outdoors. Whilst it is important to know your photographic equipment and learn the technical basics of using your butterfly-shooting arsenal, what remains is to get out into the field and test all the techniques that you have learned. Otherwise, it is all theory and classroom information that you have, and no butterfly photos to show for it!

Preparing for an Outing

Have you packed everything that you need for your outing? © Lowepro

Every veteran butterfly photographer will tell you stories of that "facepalm" moment when they reach their butterfly-shooting destination, only to realise that they have forgotten to charge their batteries, or to slot in their storage card in their camera. Yes, it has happened to the best of us, and there is no embarrassment admitting it. So prepare a mental checklist of your equipment before you head out for a day outing.

  • Charge your camera batteries the night before, and make sure you have at least a spare battery in your bag.
  • Make sure you have your CF or SD storage cards in the camera, and your spare(s) in the bag.
  • Charge those AA batteries for your flash and have a spare set on standby if you are going on an extended outing.
  • Pack your correct macro lens in the bag!
  • If you are fastidious about the cleanliness of your equipment, carry your cleaning kit and blower brush along.
  • Standardise your other paraphernalia in your bag and ensure that every item has its place in your bag - umbrella/poncho for rainy day surprises, spare towel and T-shirt, mosquito repellent, snacks, a bottle of water (important!), hat, camera strap and anything else that suits a day out in the field.
Gearing Up for the Outing

Uniformed, camouflaged and all ready for battle!  The butterflies will be out-gunned!

Wear appropriately coloured clothes for your outing. Butterflies (and anything else out there, for that matter) will spot bright coloured objects earlier than drab coloured ones faster, and beat a hasty retreat. So gear up with dull coloured clothing (browns, greens and beige are best) and try to remain as inconspicuous as possible. After all, would you be wearing a bright red shirt or your psychedelic Hawaiian hat for a safari outing in the Serengeti?

A good pair of pants will minimise abrasions and scratches if you have to bash through undergrowth

There will be times when you may need to bash through thick bushes and undergrowth to get at a perched butterfly deep in the forests, so try to avoid wearing shorts unless you want to end up with injuries from thorns and sharp twigs. A good pair of trekking/hiking shoes with thick socks would also help avoid any mishaps off the beaten track.

Where to Look for Butterflies in Singapore

Now you are ready to head out to the great wild yonder to hunt butterflies. But where do you go? Singapore is blessed with excellent accessibility where you can reach a butterfly-shooting location, usually in no more than half an hour's travel. There are many urban parks and gardens where you can find butterflies. Do check out this blog's section on Butterfly Shooting Locations.

Butterfly Hill at Pulau Ubin is a good location for shooting butterflies

The Central Catchment Nature Reserves and our offshore islands like Pulau Ubin are also great places to go to, for the rarer species that are seldom seen in urban areas. Be prepared for the hot humid conditions of our equatorial forests and not to mention the mosquitoes and some biting insects. Fortunately, there are no blood-sucking leeches in Singapore, and that is something that we have to be thankful for (at the moment!)

Stalking and Hunting Butterflies

Being active insects, butterflies are best observed when they are distracted with some activity like feeding on flowers, puddling, etc. With some experience, the butterfly photographer will quickly learn where to find the "hot-spots" of butterfly activity. On bright sunny days, look for areas with flowering plants where Lantana, Snakeweed, Spanish Needle and other favourite nectaring plants grow. Other species are attracted to rotting fruits on the forest floor, whilst others are attracted to bird droppings, carrion or urine-tainted muddy paths and sandy stream banks.

Some butterflies, like this White Banded Awl, are crepuscular and are on the wing during the earlier hours of the morning

We have often been asked, "what are the best times in the day to go shooting butterflies?" In general, butterflies are up and about and most active between the hours of 9am to about 3pm in the afternoon. However, there are crepuscular species that fly as early as 7am and those that remain active till the dusk hours of the day. So, if you want to expand your collection of photos to as many species as possible, it would be advisable to vary your butterfly-hunting hours.

Different handholding techniques for different photographers.  Whichever technique suits you best, practise and get it perfect!

Butterflies are alert to movements, so remember to move slowly and remain still until the butterfly is settled before moving in for a closer look. You should also remember not to cast any shadows over them. Plan your approach when you spot a butterfly and be patient! Moving apart bushes like the T-Rex did in Jurassic Park will not get you many nice butterfly photos.

It is often advisable to stand back and observe the behaviour of your "prey" before moving in to shoot them. For butterflies that are fluttering actively from flower to flower, it is often more fruitful to "predict" which flower the butterfly would next go to, and wait there rather than chase the butterfly when it is already feeding on a flower. You will often have anything between 1 and 3 seconds to compose, focus and shoot, if you are lucky.

Different species of butterflies will have their corresponding "circles of fear" whereby they will take flight if an intrusion is detected. Remember that, to the butterfly, you are no different from a large predator coming in fast to attack them. And the resultant reaction from the butterfly is to take flight. Hence move stealthily and avoid sudden movements. Some species are more skittish than others, and with some field experience, a butterfly photographer will quickly learn how to stalk and approach them.

Proning is the best position for getting that butterfly's eye level shot!  But be prepared for a good laundry effort at the end of the shooting day.

To get that 'perfect' eye-level (the butterfly's eye level!) shot, many photographers have to contend with a spectrum of inconveniences and sometimes agony. These range from being soaked in a stream or having to prone in mud to get into the best position to shoot a butterfly. To the non-butterfly enthusiast, watching a butterfly photographer at work may be amusing, and often perceived as a most inadequate cause for suffering such agony just to get a photograph of a butterfly!

Getting down low for that perfect shot!

Be aware of your shooting environment and set the appropriate settings on your camera and flash to get the best option for the lighting conditions. Once you get close to your subject and focus, press the shutter gently but firmly without ending up in camera shake. In most digital SLRs today, you may also want to shoot a series of shots to minimise motion blur and/or capturing a fast-flying butterfly in the best pose (somewhat like what bird photographers do when they "machine gun" a flying bird)

When out in groups, do practise shooting etiquette and queue up, and everyone will go home with a nice shot of the butterfly

It is often useful to go butterfly shooting in a group of 2-4 so that you have extra pairs of eyes to spot butterflies. In the forests, it is also good to have shooting 'buddies', should anything untoward happen and you require some assistance in an emergency. Larger groups are often less preferable, as too many photographers rushing to shoot a butterfly often ends up with no one getting a shot of it at all!

This ends the Butterfly Photography 101 series of articles, and we hope that our readers have enjoyed the information shared in the series and found them useful. What remains is to go out in the field and keep shooting butterflies until you perfect your craft. The satisfaction of seeing a well-executed shot of a beautiful butterfly on your computer monitor is worth many hours of hard work in the field!

Text by Khew SK : Photos by Bob Cheong, Sunny Chir, Huang CJ, Khew SK, Loh Mei Yee, Loke PF and Simon Sng.