18 February 2017

Butterfly of the Month - February 2017

Butterfly of the Month - February 2017
The Plain Plushblue (Flos apidanus saturatus)

The first two months of 2017 have been interesting from a global perspective, as the world watched the 45th President of the USA Donald Trump dish out interesting, but controversial executive orders. These ranged from building a 1,000 mile wall between the US and Mexico and immigration orders that barred visitors from seven Muslim-majority countries. There appears to be a shift to nationalistic and protectionist policies in many countries in the world today.

Whilst the rest of the world waits and wonders how all these changes in politics are going to affect each country's economy and trade, 2017 moves into a very uncertain and potentially tumultuous era as the Chinese population around the world heralded the year of the Fire Rooster. Predictions by soothsayers and geomancers from Nostradamus to local experts didn't have much positive news for the rest of the year. So it remains to be seen if their forecasts hold true.

Speaking of roosters, the Year of the Rooster didn't start too auspiciously for a group of free-ranging chickens in Singapore. Apparently acting on complaints of noise nuisance, about 20 of these birds were rounded up by the authorities and summarily culled. This raised the ire of local animal activists and the more tolerant public, which created a lot of buzz on social and mainstream media.

The rationale for the culling was later amended to public health safety reasons, but this appeared more of a bit of back-stepping by the authorities which didn't go down too well with the public. But the news of this fowl play provided quite a bit of chatter and amusement in cyberspace, and everyone, from the local coffeeshop auntie to our politicians gave their two cents worth on the matter.

Then a life was lost when a massive 270-year old Tembusu tree fell at the Singapore Botanic Gardens. The tree, which was over 40m tall with a girth of 6.5m, had just been recently given a clean bill of health by government arborists, when it inexplicably uprooted, tilted over and crashed onto the hapless family who were waiting for a concert to start. Deepest condolences to the family of the deceased.

Investigations are ongoing, but this is going to leave a lot more questions than anyone has answers for, as the tree fell on a normal fair day (albeit it was an exceptionally windy day on that day). I can only hope that the authorities do not adopt a knee-jerk reaction and start chopping down our large and beautiful trees around our City in a Garden.

Our Butterfly of the Month for February 2017 is the Plain Plushblue (Flos apidanus saturatus). This is one of four species of Plushblues of the genus Flos that are extant in Singapore. It is the most regularly encountered of the four, and is moderately common. It can be encountered from our urban parks and gardens to the forested reaches of our nature reserves.

The male Plain Plushblue is deep blue-violet on the upperside, with a thin black forewing border. The female is a shining purple-blue with broad black borders on both wings. The upperside of this species is seldom seen nor photographed, except with the butterfly is encountered in the late evening hours of the day with the full sun shining at a low angle.

The underside of the species bears dark brown cryptic patterns with a purplish wash. There is a small reddish patch on the base of both wings that is more distinct in freshly-eclosed individuals. The hindwing bears a stubby white-tipped tail at vein 2 and is toothed at veins 1b and 3.

The butterfly is skittish and has a strong erratic flight when disturbed. The caterpillar of the Plain Plushblue feeds on a variety of host plants amongst which are two species of the Syzygium which are relatively common roadside bushes. Usually, the species is encountered singly either feeding on the sap of certain plants, on the ripened fruits of the Singapore Rhododendron or on flowering plants.

Text by Khew SK : Photos by Chng CK, Huang CJ, Khew SK, Koh CH, Loke PF, Billy Oh, Jonathan Soong, Horace Tan and Anthony Wong

08 February 2017

Butterfly Photography 101 - Part 6

Butterfly Photography 101
Part 6 - Composition Techniques in Butterfly Photography 2/2

Last week, we introduced some of the more commonly used composition techniques in butterfly photography. Continuing our discussion, we feature some of the more unconventional guidelines that you can consider when composing your butterfly photos. As mentioned previously, 'the only rule is that there are no rules' and all these tips are just composition tools that you have at your disposal to enhance the presentation of your butterfly photos.

Tip #6 - Applying Symmetry

An open winged Silver Royal depicted symmetrically and centrally in the frame

Butterflies are bilaterally symmetrical, where the wings on the left are mirrored along a central axis to the wings on the right. Symmetrical forms convey balance in and of themselves, but they could appear too stable and too balanced, leading to a lack of interest in the composition.

Another centrally composed shot of a Common Mormon emphasising the symmetry of the butterfly's wings

However, making use of the natural symmetry of the butterfly can sometimes allow the viewer to focus on the beauty of the butterfly without any distractions. Placing the butterfly in the middle of the frame and cropping it close, makes for a straightforward composition that can sometimes be refreshingly simple. For symmetrical butterfly shots, usually taken of the uppersides of a butterfly's wings, and depending on the shape of the butterfly's wings, a square crop could be considered in composing the shot.

Tip #7 - Leading Lines

Like in the visual arts, there are often opportunities for the butterfly photographer to apply leading lines towards or away from the butterfly to create dynamic interest to the photo. The use of the natural lines on a leaf or other "props" that a butterfly perches on, can draw the viewer's attention on the subject, whilst the leading lines accentuate the butterfly's position in the frame.

Lines need not necessarily be straight lines. Using sinuous curves that draw a viewer's eyes towards the subject butterfly often tends to create a more interesting and dynamic composition. Using these geometric linearity of supplementary elements in the natural world helps to put a complimentary context to the subject in its environment in butterfly photography.

Tip #8 - Standing Proud

A field shot of a Vinous Oakblue as it is seen, perched on a leaf that naturally slopes downwards.  It is a matter of personal preference whether the photographer would want to tilt his camera to depict the butterfly with the leaf appearing horizontal

Ever so often, a butterfly photographer will encounter a butterfly perched on a drooping leaf and literally end up looking downwards. Some photographers feel that this is how the subject should faithfully be depicted - as it is seen and photographed in the field. However, this makes the butterfly appear as though it is about to slide off the leaf.

The original field shot of a Branded Imperial perched on a drooping leaf

Rotating the camera Anti-clockwise, this shot presents the butterfly perched on an X-Y axis and appears comfortable on its flat and horizontal perch.

Rotating the camera body another 5 degrees anti-clockwise puts the butterfly standing "proud" and looking slightly upwards gives an "uplifting" composition compared to the original shot

Sometimes, all it takes is a slight rotation of the camera body by a few degrees to make the butterfly appear 'proud' and looking upwards, giving it a much better composition with the subject standing upright. Although a matter of taste and preference, take a look at the comparison shots and decide what compositional position of the butterfly works for you.

Tip #9 - Alternative Crops

An opportunity to shoot three individuals of the same species lends itself to a different crop to emphasise the subjects all lined up in a row

Coupled with the symmetry and shape of different species of butterflies, it is sometimes better to crop the frame other than the usual 4x6, 4x3 format. There will be opportunities to change the standard crop to better emphasise your subject (or subjects) in alternative formats other than the conventional crops used in photography.

A portrait crop of a Blue Pansy perched on a vertical grass flower

Consider using a portrait crop instead of a landscape crop, when composing a shot of the butterfly and various elements that the butterfly is perching on. In situations where the butterfly perches on a vertical object, rotating the camera 90 degrees to the portrait position often yields a more well-balanced composition.

A square crop shot can sometimes be used to capture a balanced composition

Using a completely geometric square crop may also work for different compositions of the butterfly. The square crop tends to work well with a symmetrical shot, placed either along the X-Y axis or along diagonals.

Tip #10 - Looking for Fresh Angles

An unconventional underside view of a Commander as it feeds on the fruits of the Singapore Rhododendron

Out in the field, there are often many opportunities for you to be creative and experiment with unconventional angles at which to shoot your subjects. Change your perspective from the usual tried-and-tested compositions to create fresh ideas to showcase butterflies. There will be occasions when the butterfly poses in various uncommon positions for you to capture a new point of view.

Using backlighting and shadows of the wings against the leaf, this part view of the Commander presents the butterfly in a more sinister mood

Do not be afraid to challenge the guidelines of visual composition that have been discussed in Parts 5 and this article. As could be expected in any creative field, sometimes breaking the rules in butterfly photography can result in novel and innovative ways of presenting a subject that can be pleasing to the eye and delighting your audience.

Text by Khew SK : Photos by Sunny Chir and Khew SK

04 February 2017

Butterfly Photography 101 - Part 5

Butterfly Photography 101
Part 5 - Composition Techniques in Butterfly Photography 1/2

After the first few articles in this Butterfly Photography 101 series on selecting equipment, settings on your DSLR, focusing, exposure and using fill-flash for your butterfly photography, you are now ready to get outdoors in the field and start shooting butterflies! For some hands-on stalking and tracking advice, refer to an earlier article on this blog on Stalking and Shooting Butterflies.

No matter how well you know the technical aspects of your photographic equipment, or your ability to acquire the latest in camera bodies and lenses, a badly-composed butterfly photo will put all that to waste. This article shares some important composition tips or guidelines for butterfly photography. Bear in mind that in photography, the most important rule is that there are no rules. However, there are basic guidelines that can make the difference between an average picture or a great one!

Firstly, try to recall a butterfly photo that recently captured your attention. What was it about the photo that you found attractive and pleasing to the eye? Was it the colour, the way the butterfly perched on a flower, the aesthetic balance of various elements in the photo, or something else? Like a painting or a piece of art, a photo that appears pleasing to the eye, often contains certain basic guidelines in composition. At times, it may just be a "feel good" factor about the photo, but more often than not, the photo is composed along the lines of one or more aesthetic conventions used in the visual arts.

Let us try to understand what is "composition" all about. In essence, composition refers to the way various elements in a scene are arranged within the frame. In visual arts, there are certain guidelines that determine how different elements interact within the field of view, which elements are the focus of attention, and so on. These guidelines have been used by artists and painters from time immemorial to create their work. In the field of photographic composition, these guidelines are equally applicable.

Tip #1 - Focus on the eye of the butterfly

Focus on the eye of the subject and make sure it is as sharp as possible!

For a start, this is not a composition guideline per se, but absolutely critical to any nature photo. When shooting a butterfly, it is essential to focus on the eye and ensure that the eye (or eyes) are in sharp focus. When you take a first look at a butterfly photo, you may not realise that your own eyes often tend to lock on to the eyes of the subject. This is a natural phenomenon when looking at a photo of a bird, a lizard, a spider, a butterfly or even another person!

If the eyes are out of focus or blur, the feeling that one immediately gets is that there is something uncomfortable or wrong about the photo. I have lost count of the number of butterfly shots that I have dumped in the trash bin where the eyes of the subject are out of focus. So, from the start, set yourself a high standard in your quest for good butterfly photography and get the eyes sharp!

Tip #2 - Lead Room

A butterfly looks ahead into the "Lead room" makes for a well-balanced visual composition

This composition guideline is very fundamental to nature macro photography but sometimes overlooked. In fact, it is quite relevant to many genres of photography and even applicable for inanimate subjects like a photo of a car zooming along a road. The concept of "lead room" is premised on the idea that a well-composed shot should leave space in the direction where the subject is facing or moving.

Hence compose your butterfly shots with the lead room or "positive space" in front of the butterfly's eyes. Note that the lead room need not only be on the left or right of the frame, but corresponding to where the subject is looking towards. Placing the subject smack in the centre of the frame with symmetrical empty space on the left and right of it makes for a boring and ordinary snapshot.

Tip #3 - Background

An uncluttered background makes the subjects "pop" out of the frame

When I first started butterfly photography some 20 years ago, I was happy enough just getting a shot of a particular species of butterfly. Back then, managing to get a butterfly in focus in my viewfinder was good enough for me. Never mind that the background was cluttered with twigs, bright hotspots, and artificial mess; just getting a shot of a particular species that I was looking for, made my day!

Over the years, I have come to allocate as much importance to the background as I would to the subject. Where possible, having a clean and uncluttered background enhances the subject butterfly and makes the appreciation of the subject easier without too many distractions. Although it is not always possible to dictate where a butterfly stops to feed or rest, in relation to the background, whenever a subject snaps into focus on my viewfinder, my eye quickly scans the background as well, to see if I can shift the angle to get a better background for the subject.

Look for a smooth and creamy background to enhance your subject

In macro work, where the photographer is closer to the subject, the opportunity to throw the background out of focus is much easier (especially when you are using a proper macro lens). Hence if there are minor distractions in the background, using a large aperture to 'soften' the background sometimes helps. But do make sure that the subject is still in sharp focus!

Tip #4 - Rule of Thirds

Placing the butterfly's eye on the intersection of the imaginary grid lines along the "Rule of Thirds" guideline

The Rule of Thirds (coincidentally called a "rule") is an important composition guideline in the visual arts that states than an image is most pleasing and well balanced, when its subject is composed along imaginary vertical and horizontal lines that divide the image into thirds. This guideline is applicable to butterfly photography as well.

Placing the butterfly's eye on the imaginary grid line along the "Rule of Thirds"

Hence, to maximize the impact of your butterfly photos, your subject or your area of interest should always be placed at or near one of the intersecting points or along the imaginary grid lines. These points create visual tension, dynamism and interest in the composition and research has shown that the human eyes are naturally drawn to these intersecting points and the imaginary grid lines.

Make sure that the horizon in your shot is horizontal and not slanting

Another tip when shooting puddling butterflies and applying the composition on the Rule of Thirds, is to make sure that the "horizon" or ground plane behind the butterfly is properly aligned to the horizontal. A slightly tilted horizon behind a puddling butterfly is uncomfortable and may spoil an otherwise good shot.

Tip #5 - Using Diagonals

Composing a shot along the X-Y axis within a frame and respecting the guidelines mentioned above often makes for a good shot. However, there are often variations to the theme when different framing and field conditions allow. For example, using diagonals and taking the subject off the X-Y axis sometimes results in a more dynamic and interesting shot. Diagonals tend to suggest action and liveliness in a shot, creating a notion of dynamism and visual tension.

In some situations, when a shot features a linear element e.g. a twig, a blade of grass or patterns, try to experiment by shifting or rotating your camera so that these linear elements run diagonally across your frame. These options can sometimes create a shot that is more well balanced and interesting to the viewer and not end up as a dull and uninspiring shot.

In the next instalment of this article on composition, we discuss other aspects of composing butterfly shots which are less conventional and challenge the "rules" of visual composition.

Text by Khew SK : Photos by David Chan and Khew SK

28 January 2017

Butterfly Photography 101 - Part 4

Butterfly Photography 101 
Part 4 - Lighting and Using Flash in Butterfly Photography

The earlier articles in this series in Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3 dealt with the variety of photographic equipment that can be used for butterfly photography, the types of magnification devices and the typical settings on a DSLR system that a butterfly photographer uses. We also discussed the interrelationship between the ISO, aperture settings and shutter speeds when taking a photo.

In this week's article, we take a look at how different lighting conditions can "change" a butterfly's appearance and how lighting can be used to enhance your shots. In the macro photography genre, which butterfly photography falls under, the use of artificial lighting is often quite critical. One of the main issues with macro and butterfly photography is the problem of light fall off. As magnification increases, light decreases. This is even more critical as a photographer needs to use a small aperture to get better depth of field for sharp shots, and has to shoot a butterfly under shade.

Macro combo on a tripod. Ideal for non-skittish subjects. For shooting butterflies, tripods tend to be more of a hindrance especially when tracking butterflies that flit from flower to flower rapidly or bashing amongst the thick undergrowth to get at a perched butterfly.

Purist macro photographers have always advocated the use of a tripod for doing close-up work. Shooting from a stable platform allows the photographer to focus accurately on the subject and use appropriate settings to get the sharpest shot and optimal exposure, without having to deal with motion blur. This is fine, if you have subjects that are not particularly skittish and only stop for a fleeting moment on a flower to feed!

Butterfly paparazzi all shooting handheld with an external flash mounted on the camera

Butterfly photographers often have to contend with alert subjects, those that flutter continously for hours on end, and constantly change positions even when they stop to feed. Trying to set up a tripod with sophisticated off-camera flash combos to shoot constantly moving butterflies is at best impractical, and at worst, an exercise in futility! Hence many butterfly photographers train themselves to handhold their shots, as they chase a butterfly and their minimal equipment allows them the flexibility to quickly adjust their positions to capture their subjects without spooking the butterfly off.

Using Flash in Butterfly Photography

We have often been asked if it is better to do butterfly photography in natural lighting without the use of a flash. Whilst it is certainly possible to photograph a butterfly with available natural lighting, conditions frequently change that make it challenging to get a well-exposed shot or capture the true colours of a butterfly's wings. This is where the use of a "portable sun" comes in handy. A good DSLR system comes with technically-advanced dedicated flash systems that make flash photography a breeze.

A butterfly shot in bright sunshine with a flash in front curtain sync. The flash illuminates the subject butterfly accurately, but ignores the background, rendering it almost totally black. Whilst the contrast between the subject and background makes it an interesting shot, it does not appear "natural" and does not accurately reflect what the actual environment looked like when this shot was taken.

Let us start with the typical settings of using a flash in general photography, and the settings that are required in butterfly photography. Most normal flash photography situations employ the use of the front sync (or 1st curtain sync) where the flash fires immediately after the shutter opens. In very simple terms, the camera flash illuminates the subject and exposes it accurately. In butterfly photography, this gives results that appear like a butterfly was shot at night, particularly when the surroundings in which the butterfly was shot is in shade or dimly lit. This is generally not how you would perceive a butterfly in its natural environment.

A butterfly shot in very dim lighting on the shaded forest understorey.  The 2nd curtain flash helps to even out the ambient lighting with an extra fill-flash light to create a pleasing balanced exposure of the butterfly against its background

This is where the rear sync mode (also called the 2nd curtain) comes into play. If the flash fires right before the shutter starts to close to end the exposure, this is called 2nd curtain sync (or rear sync). Essentially, when one uses the rear sync mode, the camera exposes for the whole scene before the flash fires just as the shutter closes. This allows the flash to perform as a "fill-flash" that exposes the subject just before the shutter closes. The result is a more evenly exposed shot of the butterfly with a well-lit background, appearing more natural.

A butterfly shot in bright sunshine with the flash illuminating the subject against a bright background

The following diagrams below show how to set the camera to Rear (or 2nd) curtain sync in Canon and Nikon DSLR and respective Speedlight systems. For other brands, please refer to your camera manuals on how to set these flash functions.

Setting 2nd Curtain flash sync on a Canon camera body. This controls the built-in flash

Setting the 2nd curtain flash sync on Canon Speedlight external flash

For Nikon systems, change the flash settings to Rear (2nd curtain) flash sync until the command screen shows SLOW/REAR under flash mode

Macro enthusiasts tend to use a myriad of accesories to mute the harsh effects of a direct flash - from "softboxes", putting in tissue in front of the flash, and a whole host of creative and customised flash attachments. Others use different flash brackets to take the flash off-centre and off camera to move the flash off axis with the lens. Some advocate the use of ring lights and specialised macro flashes.

A typical "softbox" flash diffuser that some macro photographers use. Large enough to scare off butterflies in the field

Twin macro flash mounted off camera with adjustable brackets. Good for creative lighting in macro work but absolutely impractical for shooting butterflies out in the field! And guaranteed to scare off butterflies with this "monster-like" contraption, long before you can get anywhere near them!

From our experience, shooting butterflies requires a lot of flexibility and ease of freedom of movement in the field. Attaching large devices to your flash will probably scare off the butterflies long before you can get close enough to shoot them. Furthermore, the effect of trying to diffuse the light from the flash is less critical on a two-dimensional subject like butterflies, as compared with beetles with shiny reflective carapaces or a fat (and very 3D) caterpillar.

A typical butterfly shooter's handholding stance with an external flash mounted directly on the camera

Hence, keep it simple. Most of us shoot with the external flash mounted directly on the hotshoe of camera. Canon users don't even put the diffuser on their flashes, preferring to shoot direct and let the ETTL technology do its work. Nikon Speedlights tend to be a bit more harsh and having the diffuser cup on the flash usually gives better results. Whilst purists would argue otherwise, the thousands of butterfly photos featured on ButterflyCircle's online sites bear testimony to the techniques used by butterfly photographers.

However, let us get back to the question of why use a flash in full bright sunshine? The effects of strong and harsh sunlit conditions in the field can be mitigated with the fill-flash effects of the rear curtain sync function. The fill-flash brings out areas of the butterfly's wings that may be in shadow, and evens out the dark/light contrast in bright sunshine.

When the subject is in shade and the background is bright, the camera's multi-pattern metering mode may average the exposure across the frame and render the subject butterfly slightly under-exposed. The rear curtain sync mode will then add in a little fill light to expose the subject and bring it out from under the shadow, giving the final result a more well-balanced exposure against a bright background.

Making use of natural backlighting to create an interesting shot.  The light filters through the translucent wings of the butterfly, creating an artistic shot 

Having explained the benefits of using the rear curtain sync flash mode in butterfly photography, there are opportunities in the field that make use of ambient lighting conditions to deliver a creative and eye-pleasing result. For example, back-lit situations can be used to create artistic compositions that accentuates the "translucency" of a butterfly's wings.

Same subject, different positions of two light sources create different moods and expressions that highlights different details and aspects of the subject

Off camera flash positions can also be utilised to create different moods and artistic expressions of the subject, if an opportunity presents itself where a subject (like this caterpillar) is in a cooperative mood and stays still enough for the manipulation of the light source around it.

Hence, in butterfly photography, whilst there are general guidelines to getting an eye-pleasing shot, there are no fixed techniques or answers to every single shooting situation. The key is to explore, experiment and execute your techniques and see which ones work best to deliver the outcomes that satisfies you most!

Text by Khew SK : Photos by Sunny Chir, Chng CK, Antonio Giudici and Khew SK