Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Tropical Butterflies in mid Winter!

It’s that time of year when hundreds of people flock to the glasshouse at the RHS garden at Wisley, Surrey,  to see the tropical butterflies on display there. Many photographic “purists” may balk at the idea of photographing captive, bred specimens, but I think this is a wonderful opportunity both to see some spectacular insects close-up, and to try out new kit and techniques. I’m off to the jungles of Borneo later this year, and hope to see some of the butterflies there, but doubt that I will get as good an opportunity to photograph them in such detail.
Wherever possible I always use a tripod or monopod, though this will not be possible when members of the public are present in most places. If in doubt. ask one of the attendants.
This Tree Nymph (Idea leuconoe) is perched on a cultivated variety of  Anthurium, but I think still makes an interesting image.

Of course, the images you obtain will not be natural, and it is highly possible that you will get south American butterflies perched on Asian plants for example, but it is really the only way of photographing these species without travelling to exotic locations.  I also use it as an opportunity to try out new camera angles and composition. It can be very boring seeing a series of butterfly shots where the wings are all parallel to the camera, and square in the frame. Try tilting the camera, or photographing the butterfly head on. Again, this would not be easy in the wild.
This Mexican Bluewing (Myscelia ethusa)  stayed  still for long enough for me to try out a few compositions before it flew off. The foliage is neutral enough to be plausible.


Photographing in controlled conditions can give unique opportunities to photograph butterfly behaviour. Mating, laying eggs and emergence from pupae are worth looking for as the subjects will generally stay in the same place for a good length of time.  Many butterfly houses have emergence areas where pupae are hung on sticks, where you can watch and photograph butterflies emerging from their pupae.
When laying eggs, insects will often stay in the same place. This Malay Lacewing  (Cethosia hypsea)  took more than an hour to lay this batch of eggs. I used a small piece of silvered card to throw some light underneath it.

There will also be good opportunities for shooting close-ups of eyes and other details.

 Butterfly houses are a great place to try out macro techniques. This a species of Charaxes.


The question I am asked most is how to prevent condensation forming, when taking a cold camera into a hot glasshouse. The trick is to warm the camera first. I used to put a hot water bottle in my camera bag, but now pack two or three re-usable handwarmers around the camera to keep it warm whilst I travel to the garden.
The larva of the Owl butterfly (Caligo memnon) feeds on banana trees and grow to a large size.


A well designed butterfly house will have a number of paths through vegetation, so the subjects should never be too far away, but even so, a relatively long focal length macro lens will be useful. I frequently use my 105mm macro lens with 1.4 or 1.7X tele-converters, or a 70 – 200mm lens, sometimes with a small extension tube. A 200mm length macro lens would be good.



I always prefer to use natural light whenever possible. The light in glasshouses is often soft and diffuse, particularly if the glasshouse roof is whitewashed, or has blinds to diffuse the light. On sunny days though, the light will be harsh and contrasty. Small reflectors or diffusers can be useful; though do require a very co-operative subject! All of the images shown here was shot with natural light.
Generally I try to avoid bright areas in the background, but this image shows that it is always   worth trying new angles and ideas. The backlighting on this Malachite butterfly (Siproeta stelenes) is particularly effective.

If you haven’t done so already, do make a trip to Wisley in the next few weeks. The butterflies are there until the 8th March. I doubt that you will be disappointed!

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