A week ago, my photography friend Linda kindly invited me to go with her to the “Wings of Fancy” butterfly exhibit at Brookside Gardens in Wheaton, Maryland.
For two hours from 8:00am until 10:00am, when the public was admitted, about a dozen photographers were left alone inside a large, flower-filled conservatory with hundreds, maybe thousands, of butterflies: a rare privilege.
While the butterflies were undoubtedly beautiful and enchanting to watch, as they flitted from flower to bush, they were maddeningly difficult to photograph because of their constant, erratic motion.
As a slow-working, methodical landscape photographer, I simply don’t have the speed of reaction to make the many decisions and adjustments to my camera controls that are necessary to capture great photographs of fast-moving butterflies.
Unsure of what to do, I first hit upon the strategy of stalking individual butterflies around the conservatory from one plant to another, hoping to catch one in a perfect pose on a pretty flower. At first, I stalked an orange one, hoping it might land on a blue flower, willing it to enter the perfect colour theory composition that I envisaged in my head. That didn’t work.
Next, I decided to kneel by an individual flower, focus my camera on it and wait for an unsuspecting creature to land on it. I must have wasted a good 15 minutes on this ill-judged approach.
Finally, Linda took pity on me and pointed out that the best approach, and the one being employed by all the other photographers in the room, was to prowl around the various flowers and bushes, carefully examining them for a butterfly that had come to rest. This approach worked better than the others.
The next set of decisions I was faced with had to do with lens choice and whether to shoot on a tripod or hand-held. My camera is always on a tripod. I hate hand-holding my camera because it makes precise control over composition nearly impossible. So, I started off shooting with a 70-200mm lens on tripod-mounted camera but it quickly because apparent that this approach slowed me down so much I was unable to keep up with such fast-moving subjects. I then switched to a 105mm macro lens and hand-holding the camera, which at least enabled me to keep up with and get closer to a few subjects, though it did, predictably, lead to a whole host of other technical challenges.
Despite the newness of this photographic challenge, I stuck resolutely to my established method of using my camera in Manual mode, selecting aperture, shutter speed and ISO settings myself and adjusting them for each shot, as I judged necessary. The hardest choice in every case was that of the aperture. What little I know about butterfly photography tells me that a successful image demands perfect sharpness in the head and throughout the wings. To achieve this, I was working mostly in the f8 to f11 range but, with the subject’s wings in constant motion, even that wasn’t enough to guarantee sharpness in many cases because of motion blur.
Over the course of two hours, I shot about 150 images, of which fewer than 10 are usable.
I can’t wait to get back to landscape photography.