17 May 2020

Butterfly Photography

Butterfly Photography
My Digital Journey - 2001-2010

A Banded Swallowtail (Papilio demolion demolion) on a Stinkhorn fungus. Taken with the Nikon Coolpix 995

I have been photographing butterflies since the 1990's. Back then, using 35mm film cameras (sounds so ancient), it was a challenge trying to chase down butterflies and photograph them. Each standard film cassette had 36 exposures and it was a matter of hit-and-miss with the equipment that I had. I had to wait until I finished the whole roll of film (which may be over a few outings), send the film for processing and developing, and then pray for the best!

The traditional 36 exposure slide film.  Fuji Velvia and Provia. With today's DSLR's shooting rates of 10-15 frames per second, a roll of film would be finished in under 4 secs!

Towards the end of the last millennium, I had graduated from film negatives to slides and regularly used Fujichrome Velvia (which was a favourite amongst nature photographers). In those years, we were already reading about digital cameras, and in the early 90's, there was talk of a digital SLR launched by Kodak that had a 1.3 megapixels (Mp) sensor that retailed at about S$20,000!

Hang on!  Where's the preview screen at the back of the camera???

In the last 5 years of the 1990's, more and more consumer level digital cameras were launched by various companies like Sony, Fuji and Kodak. However, many veteran photographers continued to scoff at these newfangled devices and proclaimed that digital cameras "will never replace film cameras". If only they could see the future then!

The Sony Mavica, which uses a 3.5" floppy diskette as its storage source

It was in late 1999 when a friend was showing off his new "prosumer" digicam and it was fascinating that you could take a photo and it appears right before your very eyes! No waiting for film to be developed and it took the guesswork out of photography for us amateurs. I tried out handling a borrowed Sony Mavica, which had a 3.5 inch floppy diskette for storage. It was 1.6 Mp camera and each disk could hold about 10-12 photos.

The twist and turn design of the Nikon Coolpix 3.3Mp digital camera

2001 - 2002 

Whilst my photos from the Sony were not as good as those that I shot with my film Nikon SLRs, it was fun being able to see and review my shots immediately, and re-shoot if I wasn't satisfied. I was convinced that digital cameras were the way to go, and invested in a Nikon Coolpix 995 for a princely sum of S$1,300 in 2001. Thus started my digital photography journey that will reach its 20th anniversary this year.

With the small diameter of the lens, it was difficult to capture a subject with a creamy background, as the lens was able to deliver a large depth of field 

The Coolpix 995 was a quirky-looking camera, with its twist and snap design. It was first launched in 2001, and my first digital camera. It had a 3.3Mp sensor, and generated shots of 2048x1356 pixels at its maximum resolution. It came with a built-in pop-up flash and even a 4x optical zoom lens, and had 4 ISO settings from 100-800.  It was fun using the camera, and many of my early butterfly photos were taken with this "modern marvel".

Focusing with the CP995 was challenging as the lens tends to hunt for long periods in low light situations

However, the AF is slow and excruciating, and the flash photography for macro work was totally undependable! Still, it was fun carrying a much smaller camera on my outings and the ability to review and shoot again if the photos didn't satisfy me. (Provided the butterfly was still around!).


My first full-fledged Digital SLR, the Nikon D100 with a 6 Mp CCD sensor

After a couple of years with the CP995, I wanted to go back to use my Nikon lenses which had been sitting in the dry cabinet for some time now. I invested in the newly launched Nikon D100 Digital SLR. Nikon first launched its pro level D1 in 1999, followed by the D1X and D1H in 2001. Obviously, I didn't want to spend US$6,000 for something that I was not totally sure about yet. But the new D100, with a 6Mp sensor came at a price of about S$2,500 and really tempting!

The D100, coupled with a Nikkor 80-400mm VR was still able to deliver decent images

The D100 launched me into the world of DSLRs till today. I finally managed to get my hands on one in late 2002 after a long wait, and was happy to be able to use my Nikkor lenses once again. The quality of the outputs exceeded my expectations back then, and I never went back to film again. Each shot ranged from 4-5Mb and I remember that I had to upgrade my PC and storage drives to accommodate the larger files.

A shot taken with the D100 coupled with a Nikkor 105mm micro lens

It was generally easy to transition to a DSLR as the controls and functions were quite similar to the film SLRs that I had used before. It was a 3 frames-per-second camera and coming from 1-shot-at-a-time for film cameras, it was a luxury. The only limit was the cost and capacity of the CompactFlash (CF) cards at that time. The D100 had an APS-sized camera (crop factor of 1.5x) so my lenses had the "extra" focal length for butterflies.


The new Nikon D70 which I bought in 2004 to replace the aging D100

I used the D100 for almost 2 years and sold it to fund the latest Nikon D70 that I got in Nov 2004, which was touted to have "better noise control at high ISOs". It was cheaper brand new than what I paid for the D100, and had a lighter body.

An image taken with the D70 with a Nikkor 70-180mm micro zoom lens

Though it was still 3fps, with a 6Mp CCD sensor, it supposedly had faster AF and seemed to deliver better results than the D100. At around that time, Nikon also launched their professional range of DSLRs in the D2H (2003), D2X (2004) and D2Hs (2005) which were tempting, to say the least!


My first "pro" Nikon D2X with a 12.4Mp APS CMOS sensor

The D70 was my main camera for about six months in 2005, and I had many good butterfly shots with it. I succumbed to the temptation of a pro-level body and decided (against all conventional wisdom) to splurge on the D2X after trading in the D70. A 12.4Mp APS CMOS sensor was at the heart of this heavy behemoth and it could "machine-gun" at 5fps or 8fps with a reduced sized crop. Weighing in at 1,252g, it was almost double the weight of the D70.

The D2X delivered pleasing results when paired with the Tamron 180mm macro lens

It was fun to use, and I managed to get some "lifers" with this camera. But it was heavy, and lugging it on long outings can be cumbersome. The professional quality body was robust and could really take hard knocks and abuse. It served me well through 2005 to mid 2007, although another new Nikon prosumer body, the D200, was launched in Nov 2005. A friend loaned me the D200 for a couple of weeks, and I put it through its paces to see if it was worth a change. Fortunately, there wasn't any significant improvement in performance, and I stuck with the D2X.

My "backup" DSLR, the Nikon D80

Some time in mid 2006, I somehow convinced myself that I needed a lighter body as a backup to the D2X and decided to get the newly launched D80. Another APS-sized 10.2Mp CCD sensor, I used it on my travels overseas, but somehow the camera could still not match the quality and speed of the D2X. Realising my folly of getting yet another DSLR which was technically inferior to the D2X, I quickly sold off the D80.

The Nikon D80 was only able to shoot at 3fps and the AF was no match for the D2X. The ability to shoot at a higher fps rate often helps to even the odds in situations where the butterfly is always on the move

Whilst the D2X was a good camera, there was always this frustration at its noise handling at ISOs beyond 800. In dim light situations, the camera performed below par. Around this time, my Canon user friends showed me how their new DSLRs could shoot at ISO1600 and even higher, without as much noise as the D2X.


Jumping over to the "other side" with a Canon 1D Mark III for about six months

Now, any camera enthusiast will tell you that once you lock on to a particular brand and its entire ecosystem of hardware, it is extremely painful (and expensive!) to change brands. But the temptation of the exceptional low noise performance at high ISOs pushed me to make the jump over to Canon and I invested in a 1D Mark III. If the D2X weighed a brick, the 1D Mark III weighed a brick and a half!

The 45 AF points of the 1D Mark III in the viewfinder. The D2X only had 11 AF points.

But switch I did, and with the Canon in hand, I had a hands-on comparison between the D2X and the 1D Mark III. The Canon definitely beats the Nikon in noise handling and the 10fps shooting speed trumped anything that Nikon had at that time. The Canon had a 1.3x crop sensor size with 45 AF points compared to the 11 AF points in the D2X - a great help for off-centre subjects.

Images taken with the Canon 1D Mark III DSLR paired with the Canon 180mm macro lens

However, after using the Nikon system for so many years, I was not as comfortable with the Canon interface as I would like to be. Not that anything was wrong with the Canon, but it was just a matter of preference, and I still like the positions of the dials and buttons on the Nikon. Soon, I realised that with technology, each company takes turns to leapfrog over its competitors in terms of advances and improvements - and Nikon did not stand still.


The awesome Nikon D3, with a 12Mp Full-Frame CMOS sensor, 51 AF points and 9 fps continuous shooting.

I bade farewell to the 1D Mark III after about six months, and jumped back to Nikon. By this time, the full-frame (FX) Nikon D3 hit the market. With its 12Mp CMOS sensor, it could reach 9fps and had exceptional noise control up to ISO6400. It was a dream camera to have at that time. So I put the 1D Mark III on the 2nd hand market and bought the D3 in Jan 2008.  It was my first foray into the full-frame DSLR where my 180mm lens now functions at 180mm focal length.

It was an exceptional camera that I used for more than 2 years till the middle of 2010. I only had a problem with the D3 when I was on a trip to Endau Rompin National Park in Malaysia. Somehow, due to the humidity or some other unknown reason, the AF malfunctioned, leaving me with only the option of using MF, although the camera could still fire and the metering was working fine.

It was the only time that I had any problems with the D3, and continued to use it without further issues after being serviced by Nikon. It was an awesome camera - heavy as pro DSLRs are, but a good workhorse with very reliable and fast AF with its 51-point AF module. The larger batteries also lasted a long time, and I could go for 2 weekend outings without having to recharge the battery.


Another upgrade to the new Nikon D3S. Its noise handling capability was unprecedented when it first came out in Oct 2009

Almost 10 years have passed since I started using my first digital camera, and in Jun 2010, I traded in the D3 for the recently launched D3S. Basically a D3 with some upgrades, the D3S functioned largely like the D3 and I had no problems familiarising myself with this new camera. It was as fast and accurate and till today (in 2020) I still have it, and use it once in a while for architectural photography work.

Images taken with the D3S coupled with the Tamron 180mm macro lens

This was my first decade in the journey of digital cameras for butterfly shooting. Photographic hardware continued to evolve and advance. Each iteration made the cameras better, faster and more sophisticated. My preference for the Nikon system certainly does not mean that the other brands like Canon, Sony, Minolta and others are any less capable. Each camera brand and model is equally an accomplished piece of equipment and will deliver awesome photos in the right hands. A camera is a tool in the hands of the butterfly photographer and the output depends on the skill of the photographer and his ability to utilise all the technological gadgetry to his advantage. In the next Part, I will share the next 10 years of my digital photography journey, with further changes and "downgrades" in my equipment choice, as my priorities and criteria for butterfly photography took on a different approach.

Text and Photos by Khew SK