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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Fundraising: Coles ‘Sports for Schools’ vouchers redistribution scheme to help rural, remote and aboriginal Australians

Do you shop at Coles for your groceries? Have you heard of the Sports for Schools program? It would seem that the Australian supermarket behemoth Coles has decided to act charitably of late, with primary school students the lucky recipients. Coles’ time-limited program (running September and October 2010 only) is offering shoppers the chance to help primary schools around the country acquire new equipment for their students. The gesture appears to be inspired by Australian atheletes’ recent Commonwealth Games endeavours in India, and is bound to encouraging more physical activity in a time of growing national concern over childhood (and adult) obesity statistics. While I am not a parent, I have been collecting these vouchers, and as the final date of issue draws near (October 31st) I have been carefully considering where best to dispense these vouchers. I concluded that helping an aboriginal school in a remote area with a small student population and limited resources was by far the best way for my points to be spent.

Last year Emma Sterling and I travelled with Slingsby, a local South Australian theatre company, touring as video technicians on the children’s theatre production WOLF. The tour reminded us how difficult it for schools in rural and remote parts of Australia to gather the necessary resources to offer their students the breadth of extra-curricular activity schools in major cities enjoy. While these students are generally more physically active than their city counterparts, their smaller student populations struggle to garner the financial support that schools in more affluent communities are able to for resources such as the Coles’ program is offering. Australians will know the range of additional disadvantages indigenous Australians face in navigating the two jarring worlds of indigenous and migrant Australia, so I went to the Coles Sports for Schools website to see which aboriginal schools were registered, so I could offer them my coupons.

Sadly, the majority of aboriginal schools in the state have not been registered to date. This is understandable in part, as many of these schools are more than a far cry from a local Coles supermarket. Indigenous communities like Yalata and Ceduna Area School could really benefit from a program like this, but since the nearest Coles to their communities is in Whyalla or Port Lincoln, over four-hundred kilometres is a long way for them to drive for a fist full of coupons and only the possibility of a few new footballs.

The program, while seeming generous, has a sigificant problem: waste. Points are redeemable in a way similar to frequent-flyer points or other loyalty schemes, so a school needs a minimum of 80 coupons before they can claim a package. The intervals between redeemable packages are also great, meaning that inevitably, at the end of the program, every school with have a surplus of useless vouchers. What if these surplus vouchers could be gathered and redistributed to the most wanting schools, in remote areas? Whether intentional or otherwise, the rural and remote school communities are far less likely to benefit from this scheme than the affluent suburban schools of our capital cities. It needn’t be this was though, so here’s my proposal.

After the final tally…

  1. all the registered schools should send their surplus vouchers to a single address (below)
  2. These surplus/waste vouchers could then be re-bundled into valid package sizes
  3. And can be redistributed to school in remote, rural and aboriginal communities

Making this work will take more than my single-handed efforts of course. We will need Coles to extend their deadline to allow for this extra processing, so we’ll have to write to them in appeal. We will also need to contact unregistered schools in these areas, and encourage them to register.

If you’d like to turn wasted opportunity into real community benefits for rural, remote and Aboriginal Australian school students, encourage your schools, post-tally to send their surplus coupons to:

Sports for Schools rural redistribution scheme
c/o danimations
Flinders Partners, Mark Oliphant Bldg
Laffer Drive
Bedford Park SA 5042

In the meantime, I’m sending my coupons to an Aboriginal school in the Coorong called Raukkan. If you’d like to do the same, here’s their mailing address:

Debra
Raukkan Aboriginal School
Taplin St
Raukkan SA 5259

If you’ve read through this and you’re nodding in agreement with my proposal and intentions, please retweet, blog or share this blog post on Facebook with as many Australians as possible… let’s make Coles’ charitable gesture go as far as it possibly can!

Dan Monceaux

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Art: Adelaide artists get a raw deal when producing Rundle Lantern animations

When the Rundle Lantern was first illuminated back in 2008, my mind boggled at the creative possibility of producing pixel art works for public display on a giant scale. The innovative screen design, a 34 x 21 panel matrix of illuminated metal panels, wraps around the facade of a multi-storey car park at one of Adelaide’s most renown intersections, where it teases and titillates pedestrians with its silent lo-res animations and video each night. Making effective content for such a screen is no mean feat and requires a balance of technical competency, design, timing and conceptual creativity. It is also time consuming (especially for dedicated pixel animators like ourselves). Regardless of these barriers to entry, the initiatives we’ve been involved with to create new artistic content for the Lantern have gone unpaid and largely uncredited. The following is an account of our experiences producing lantern content for display during two major cultural festivals in South Australia.

Photo by Kentaro W, courtesy of flickr.com

During Adelaide Fringe back in 2009, Emma Sterling and I were part of the first group of artists offered the opportunity to create and display works made specifically for the lantern. No money was to grace the artists palms- the initiative instead offered artists a waiver of the ‘load-up fee’ the Adelaide City Council and contractor Fusion had worked into the screen’s initial operating business model. Seizing the opportunity, we each produced a new work, and took careful note of the council & Adelaide Fringe’s production guidelines. In order to protect the screen’s integrity as a ‘cultural canvas’, the artists were not permitted to display logos within their work.

As experienced practising artists familiar with the concept of ‘droit morale’ or the ‘moral rights of the artist’ we asked about accreditation for our unpaid productions. We were informed that there would be no accreditation offered to the artists at the site of any kind, despite the works being programmed to loop for the duration of the Adelaide Fringe Festival (which runs for over three weeks). Instead we were offered a credit buried in the bowels of the Adelaide City Council’s website. Again, there was no signage indicating the existence of this website at the Lantern site, which in our opinion rendered the gesture tokenistic and almost entirely pointless.

In light of this oversight on the initiative’s organisational part, as artists we decided to exercise our ‘droit morale’ and add our names as closing credits to our work. The notion of the Moral Rights of the Artist protects the artists right to claim authorship of the work wherever it is displayed (attribution), and with it the right to preserve the integrity of the finished art work (ie, no unauthorised modifications to the work are permitted). At the launch night to our shock and horror our rights had been flaunted on both accounts. The Lantern’s content committee (whose persons remain unknown to us) had edited our work and removed our credits without our permission. While this issue of ‘droit morale’ may cause councillors eyes to glaze over, our right as artists to sign our own works is fundamental, and has been protected by Australian law under the Copyright Act. You can learn more about Moral Rights for artists in Australia at the website of the Attorney General’s Department.

Learn more about the Moral Rights of artists in Australia

This year, we were offered an opportunity (again without payment) to produce work for the Rundle Lantern. An initiative of the South Australian Living Artists Festival (an event we have been involved with since 2006) the financial model was slightly improved for at least one member of the local artist community. The Helpmann Academy offered a paid commission to one artist recently graduated from a Helpmann Academy school. The commision offered a $2000 fee to produce a new work and lead a workshop of participants in the generation of a wave of (again unpaid) new content from other local artists.

Once again the artists’ ‘droit moral’ has been flaunted by the lantern’s custodians with credits again barred from the exhibited works. To date there is no evidence of physical signage accrediting the artists as producers of the work, despite this being promised weeks in advance. It is now the 16th of August, and the works have been showing without credit to the artists since July 31st. From the public perspective, passers by will have no idea that light displays on the lantern have been created by local artists at all, and stand no chance of being able to identify any of the creative residents responsible. SALA festival concludes on August 22nd.

Despite ours and others’ ongoing grievances with the Lantern and the business model which cuts artists out of the financial equation and defies their inaliable right to be attributed as the authors of their own work, things may be changing for the better. At the SALA Awards, a new prize was offered: the Adelaide City Council Encouragement Award. One of the richest prizes on offer, it presented one Adelaide artist with a $2000 commission to produce a new work specifically for the Lantern.

When a piece of public infrastructure like the Rundle Lantern is constructed and a business model created around it, why should the content creator get the raw deal? Why is it that the contractors should command a ‘load-up fee’ for each video posted and annual maintenance fees while the best artists can hope for is an uncredited display and a free load-up? If the power of this structure as a cultural canvas is to be realised, the Adelaide City Council should look at genuine, sustainable incentives to generate content, not convenient cost-saving measures which benefit the council, break Federal Australian law and stiff the artists in the process.

Dan Monceaux

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