Photography: Shooting Australian Butterflies and the magic of super-macro

My journey into the world of macro-photography began after meeting fellow photographer Emma Sterling in 2003, and gazing in wonder at her fantastic floral abstract works. Back then, the 35mm film SLR was still the weapon of choice for the early-career photographer, and I quickly aquainted myself with the tools of the macro trade: extension tubes, bellows, close-up filters, ring flashes etc. I was also introduced to the variety of technical challenges that arise when seeking to capture and share the world beyond that visible to the naked human eye. In short, macro was an expensive, complex, slow and cumbersome business.

During that awkward period where DSLRs were obscenely expensive, and point ‘n’ shoots were too crude, the cost of shooting film made maintaining my habit cost-prohibitive. I turned my attention to filmmaking and then HD video production and then, suddenly in the last two years, the game changed. I now have the convergence of video and still camera technology to thank for re-engaging me with macro-photography, and providing me with the affordable tools I yearned for many years prior. Remarkably, I’m not talking about DSLRs, and to date I still do not own one.

Chequered Swallowtail Butterfly by Dan Monceaux

Macro photography’s tough, but it’s never been easier

While I purchased a Casio Exilim EX-FH25 camera initally for its high-speed (slow-motion) video capabilities (which I will demonstrate and describe in a future post) the camera also offered some less publicised strengths. A point ‘n’ shoot camera styled to look like a compact DSLR, the camera can auto-focus down to 1cm from the lens’ front element. It was this Super-Macro mode that I used almost exclusively to produce the images you see here, and in my debut Butterflies of South Australia calendar, which is now available for purchase.

Butterflies of South Australia Calendar by Dan Monceaux - available to buy now

When working with a living and unpredictable subject such as the butterfly, a super-macro mode isn’t enough to guarantee the best possible pictures. I have listed below several key considerations to make when choosing a camera to shoot living macro subjects with.

Set focussing to Super-Macro

The best macro detail you’ll get from a point ‘n’ shoot camera will be in its dedicated Super-Macro mode. This setting will allow the camera to focus as close to the lens as possible- in the case of the Casio EX-FH25 at a distance of 1cm. Other macro modes may be seriously limited in how close they can focus, and actually work more like a tele-photo macro setting. This can be handy for larger butterflies (shot from a few metres back) but for the tiny ones, with wingspans under around 2cm, you’ll want to go super-macro. This mode also disables the zoom, so you have to work harder to get the right composition, and become a master of stealth and patience.

Set your camera to Burst Mode

Burst Mode (also know as rapid-fire or sequential shooting) is a camera setting which allows the camera to shoot a speedy series of frames at full or very high resolution. The Casio EX-FH25 can do this at slightly lower than full resolution: 9 mega-pixels for 30 consecutive frames, at a rate of up to 40 frames per second. The benefit of shooting in Burst Mode is that you will find the critical sharpness and subject pose will vary in any given series, and instead walking away with a couple of frames, you will have many more to choose from. If you’re really lucky, you might even capture a rare image of a butterfly taking off at the end of a burst.

Wattle Blue Butterfly by Dan Monceaux

Use Fast Shutter Speeds on Shutter Priority Mode

If you want to catch a butterfly in flight, you’ll need as fast a shutter speed as possible. Higher end consumer cameras and professional cameras have a Shutter Priority mode, whereby the user sets the desired shutter speed, and the camera automatically adjusts aperture and ISO according to the available light. Anything that saves time when working with live subjects is a blessing, believe me. You’ll also have immense difficulty focusing (even with auto-focus) on a flying subject. Feeding or resting butterflies allow for slower shutterspeeds to be used, but bear in mind that shooting macro at shutter-speeds slower than 1/100th of a second will likely soften with a degree of camera shake. The closer you are to your subject, the greater this problem becomes. Don’t bother trying to shoot from a tripod, as you won’t be able to reposition yourself fast enough (super-macro mode typically does not allow zooming) and the tripod will cast shadows and bump foliage, disturbing the subjects.

Know your subject

Butterfly behaviour varies from species to species, but from my experience, the best photo opportunities typically arise when butterflies are either feeding on tight clusters of flowers, or basking in the sun with their wings spread. Butterfly photo-opportunities are fleeting to say the least, so learn from the shots you don’t get, as well as the ones you do. As mentioned before, avoid casting shadows over the butterflies with your body or lens, and avoid making any sudden movements, sounds or disturbing the foliage. Remember, stealth and patience are essential to capturing macro magic with living subjects.

Discover more at NatureScope Photography

If you found this article interesting and enjoy nature photography, you should pay a visit to my new project website, NatureScope Photography. At NatureScope you will find regular posts of nature video, photos, production tips and news on environmental issues and actions… as well as a broad catalog of photographic images by Emma Sterling and myself to purchase and enjoy.

Dan Monceaux

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