A Butterfly Bush by our front door attracts nectar seekers all summer. Silver Skippers are omnipresent, Eastern Tiger Swallowtails arrive in mid July, plus the occasional Painted Lady and more I’ve missed. I am attracted to them as they are to nectar. I never tire of watching or photographing them, the images help me bear the short days and gray bare branches of winter.
Even though our summer days are mostly bright sunshine ( Sunny 16 Rule / EV15 at ISO 100 ) I like to add light with a handheld flash because I can control the light direction and consequently, show the character of something as I see it vs as found with the ambient light.
Light has 4 properties: Intensity, Color, Direction and Quality (Hard or Soft). Direction is the property I most care about because it determines how we see form.
Image 1. Eastern Tiger Swallowtail, below is an example. Balancing ambient light with my flash power setting, I held the camera in one hand and flash in the other, extended as far as I could reach and pointed at the butterfly, from camera left. The flash light raked across the butterfly from the side, creating shadows from the texture of her wings. We get to see what the surface of the wings look like and the scaly texture so important for their ability to shed water and still fly. Shadows define her form, the same as any portrait. It is a she, males don’t have blue spots.
- Eastern Tiger Swallowtail – Side lit with flash, hard light, high contrast
Since my aperture is a stop or two below the ambient exposure, the background goes darker, further increasing contrast. Compare that to the next image, 2. Eastern Tiger Swallowtail. It’s a properly exposed, ambient light image. Images 1 and 2 have very different characters and impacts, accomplished simply by changing the aperture setting and adding a bit of light from the side. And I didn’t have to wait for the butterfly to be in the right spot at the right time.
2. Eastern Tiger Swallowtail: Ambient, front lit, soft light, low contrast
Image 3. Painted Lady was taken within a few minutes of 1. Eastern Tiger Swallowtail. The difference is the light direction, now pointed from the front and a little below. Without the side light, there are no shadows to show texture. The patterns and colors of the wings are well lit and the contrast with the darker background is maintained.
3. Painted Lady: Front lit with flash, hard light, high contrast
Sunday was a rare overcast day, what some photographers call God’s Softbox. The ambient light was mostly directionless ( there’s a half stop difference you can use if you know where the sun is behind the clouds) and soft, so low contrast and very little shadow. A very safe day for Auto mode. Not being satisfied with an ambient exposure, I again used a handheld flash, this time with a snoot to get even higher contrast with the ambient light and background.
Large and colorful butterflies get all the attention but they were in short supply today. Those I saw were really ragged with large pieces of wings missing. Skippers are always around and are more tolerant of my flash. Image 4. Silver Skipper is an example of how you can turn a grey, flat light day into something more interesting. Same setup, camera in one hand, flash in the other, this time with aperture farther below ambient, 2 to 3 stops.
We again get to see the Skipper, its scaly texture and shape. The shadows create contrast, revealing form. The flash illuminates the butterfly but not the background, courtesy of the Inverse Square Law. The light simply falls off before it can be reflected from the back ground. Our small aperture of f16 renders the ambient dark, dramatically increasing the contrast between figure (butterfly) and ground ( background). Imagine the background “properly exposed” and much lighter. The contrast and impact are gone.
4. Silver Skipper: Side lit with flash, hard light, high contrast I used a 28-75mm lens with a 12″ minimum focus distance. Adding a 1.5X Teleconvertor , my minimum focus distance stayed at 12″ but my focal length became 42-112mm, easier for getting close to small butterflies. It also helps in making the subject as large as possible in the frame for the best possible resolution. It’s not true macro, a 1:1 image, but it’s gets close.
A workable Depth of Field requires a small aperture so I stopped down to f16. The DoF calculator showed me that at 111mm focal length and minimum focus distance, f16 gave me about 3/16ths”. At f8, the calculator showed DoF of 1/16″, not something I could use handheld. Macro photographers know the problem well, which is why they use tripods. I have a tripod but it wouldn’t work here as butterflies tend not to wait around for tripod setup.
Looking at small butterflies, I found Image 4. Carpenter Bee, who was very engaged in his work and completely tolerant of my flash. He cared nothing for my work.
4. Carpenter Bee: Side lit with flash, hard light, high contrast
Photo gear used in this post: Pentax K5IIs camera, Tamron 28-75/2.8 lens, Kenko 1.5x TC, YN603N II Wireless Trigger, YN 560III Flash, Rogue Imaging Small Flash Bender.
Editing Tools used in this post: Adobe CC2015, Nik Collection, Pixel Genius Photokit, Wacom Intuos Pro Tablet, Pantone Huey Pro