Just when I’m about to give up shooting butterflies, something new always comes along. So even after five years, thousands of shooting hours, and thousands of rejected butterfly photos taken in North America, my new discoveries prove that there’s so much more that I haven’t seen and so much more that I haven’t done. Why should I give up shooting butterflies? I’d like to do so until I’m 100. But here’s why I’m always close to giving up.
Experts say that I should use a tripod and a macro lens. The load, however, is too heavy and cumbersome for me, so I use my Canon Rebel T2i with a 55-250mm zoom lens and occasionally attach to it a 58mm close-up lens for smaller creatures like caterpillars.
I try not to be intimidated by photographers who come to Calgary Zoo’s Butterfly House with their tripods or monopods, twin lite flashes, and what I call paparazzi long lenses. Anyway, I’m just a hobbyist who hasn’t completed my gadgets nor gone to a photography school. Hence, I should feel good with my first shots of a Gulf Fritillary and a Postman Butterfly with their proboscises uncoiled and thrust down the flowers they landed on.
I can’t forget the moment I took these shots. I was ecstatic even if I knew that these shots could have been better with a tripod (or a monopod) and a macro lens. But why should I feel like giving up all the time?
Experts say that I should position my camera parallel to the butterfly’s wings so they come out sharp. After hundreds of shots of this kind, however, I feel like I had models who didn’t know any other way to pose for me. But just when I’m about to give up, I chance upon butterflies that are like balancing acrobats on a twig or leaf.
As macro photographers advise that I focus on the eyes, my wings do not turn out sharp; nevertheless, I thirst for more. Oh, I do focus on the eyes of butterflies that stare at me such as a Banded Orange Heliconian, but the result is not pretty. It’s eerie…
Experts say that I should use a fast shutter, a shallow depth of field or DOF, etc. In short, I should be shooting in manual mode. Now I really need help with this one because whenever I start changing settings, I lose my butterfly! I therefore set my camera to autofocus sports mode and take multiple shots of restless butterflies that go around flowers (perhaps trying to find the sweetest nectar) or jump from one bloom to another. Never mind what the experts say about switching to a point and shoot camera if I’m just using my single-lens reflex (SLR) camera in auto mode. I simply can’t lose a moment with my butterflies. Maybe next time with another subject, eh? At this point, let the experts scold me for what I’m doing.
Experts say that I should take lots of photos, but when I see the same 18 species on the same flowers or leaves, I’m ready to give up and leave the House. But always at this point, I spot new species such as a Malachite and a Tailed Jay, and new “acts” such as dancing and mating.
The dancing ritual is easy to see in the open, but most of the mating couples I see (except for the Zebra Longwing and the Pteronymia Notilla) stay discreet in the shade or behind the bushes and therefore pose more challenges for photographers as the garden is dense and off limits. I can imagine everyone’s jealousy as I balance myself on the narrow concrete border of the garden to reach as far as I can. Not wanting to be selfish though, I step aside and sort of show them the mating pairs that are hidden there.
Whenever I’m ready to give up, I also discover new locations or backgrounds such as the stone bench that surrounds the pond in the middle of the House. A Postman, for example, that lands like a plane on the bench and stares back at everyone is a new composition.
The pond with lilies itself is an interesting subject as coins from all over the world are scattered at the bottom and on lily pads. Visitors treat it like a wishing well, so a butterfly standing next to a coin on a lily pad poses different interpretations depending on the angle from which a shot is taken.
And as the children can’t help playing with the pond water, the bench is always wet and becomes a source of a cool drink for a thirsty Pteronymia Notilla.
Finaly, when my lens captures an extended finger or hand that desires to “feel” the beauty of a butterfly or to offer a flower to a Banded Orange Heliconian, it makes me want more.
The children further inspire me especially when they touch me in the arm and say, “Over there! Look!” in order to direct my attention to the butterflies they see nearby. Of course, their parents reprimand them (either for interrupting me or for talking to a stranger, or both), and the camera shake results in blurry shots, but I really don`t mind. I forgive the children for forgetting or breaking the rule because I think that forgetting is the result of our shared moments of joy with these lovely creatures.
Above all these, however, I think I ought not to give up shooting butterflies because they show me more than eating/drinking, dancing and mating; and complete magical metamorphosis. On several occasions, a pair of Banded Orange Heliconian butterflies presented intriguing behaviors I haven’t heard from butterfly experts. As I usually bend my knees to get to a butterfly’s level, one day I saw a Heliconian on a branch behind some plants. It was later joined by another and the pair started wrestling, as if one had to pin down the other. As I thought that their aggressiveness would lead to one’s demise, I asked myself if I should separate them. Before I could decide what to do, however, their abdomens met and they settled on a hanging mating position. Phew! Time and again though, another Heliconian hovered and tried to interrupt them but in vain.
Did this couple not know or want to do the courtship dance? On another occasion, while balancing myself on the narrow concrete border of the garden as I normally do, I spotted this melancholy Heliconian on a low branch in the middle of the garden, being “comforted” by another whose foreleg was even placed on the other’s right wing.
The usual courting ritual such as fluttering of wings to release the male scent was absent. The two simply shared a quiet moment before the male left. As I was off balance, these shots are blurry and may end up in my trash bin. Nevertheless, the memory of this drama will stay with me like an unsolved puzzle. Was there courtship or simply friendship? Finally, another Heliconian on a palm leaf was joined by another who gently flapped his wings now and then.
Surely there was courtship this time, but the two stayed this way for a long time (while everyone took pictures and waited for the result), and nothing happened. There was no mating, that is. What was the reason for the rejection when they were both of the same species? Had the female just mated? Did they just have a friendly chat? Just when I’m about to give up, there’s always something to think about and keep going.
Ah, butterflies! Ever beautiful, graceful, intelligent and mysterious… I’ll catch you through my lens until I’m a hundred.