Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Flying Flowers

Butterflies are self propelled flowers.  R.H. Heinlein

Naturally, the butterfly is an appealing subject to photograph and here in Florida, there are many locations and opportunities to try out your butterfly-photo skills. Until recently, I rarely attempted to seek out butterflies to photograph. When visiting a garden, such as Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden (FTBG), I overlooked the butterfly and focused on other subjects such as lizards, spiders or birds. This was primarily because I figured a successful butterfly photograph would only be the result of an earnest pursuit that would demand time and attention at the expense of another subject. I did not want to take "just another shot"of a butterfly. 

Other than birds, one of my favorite animals to photograph is the goldensilk orbweaver spider. It is the only "macro" subject I have photographed consistently. From my encounters with the spider, I have learned many things that have helped me improve my images. Basically, there are three important things to consider when composing an image; background, lighting and depth of field (DOF). If you don't get those three things right, it is a deal breaker as far as I am concerned. In this regard, macro photography has always been intimidating to me. 

But now, there's a new game to play. A couple years ago FTBG created a butterfly conservatory that they describe as a "World of Fluttering Color".  From a photography perspective you have the advantage of thousands of subjects within a relatively small space. You can't spit without hitting a butterfly! On the other hand, it is extremely challenging to capture a successful image of a butterfly despite the fact they are everywhere you look. What a perfect location for practicing high speed photography!

With several visits, I have learned many things. But the most important thing I have learned is to find a suitable landing location first and then wait. Inside the conservatory, I am not allowed to use flash (because of the hummingbirds), so I must rely on natural light. This is extremely tricky in this small space that is full of plants of all shapes and sizes. So I look for a landing location where there are no contrasty leaves in the immediate background. I like to keep the background at a distance from the flower so that any dark or shadowy objects will be out of focus. Often, the background will appear completely dark or can be rendered in such a way with a little post-processing.

The other obvious challenge is the speed and unpredictability of the butterfly. They flit in and out and don't stay in one spot for too long. To get a fast shutter speed, I need to increase my ISO, typically 1250 to 1600. I like to have some depth of field, so I use an aperture of f8.0 typically. If I stop down too much (say to f11), I have to compromise my shutter speed, which I like to keep at least 1/1000.

I focus in on the butterfly's head most of the time. Although an open wing is quite beautiful, I like the profile images where the entire underside of one wing is in full view and you can see the butterfly's probocis and legs. This is also an advantage as the entire butterfly will be in focus if the wing and body are on the same plane.

With time and patience, waiting pays off. After a few visits, I have been able to anticipate certain shots, including flight shots of the butterfly taking off from the flower. Colors are always a given, so I try to capture them in the light and enhance them with some post-processing.

While my time in the conservatory has paid off with some nice images of butterflies, it's what I have learned that is priceless. At the very least, I've gained some practice time with my tracking focus, a useful skill for any type of wildlife photography. Enjoy these images of the butterfly.

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