The Lime Butterfly, Papilio demoleus malayanus The Common Mime, Chilasa clytia clytia The Common Palmfly, Elymnias hypermnestra agina
The Plain Tiger, Danaus chrysippus chrysippus The Peacock Pansy, Junonia almana javana The Blue Pansy, Junonia orithya wallacei
Shooting butterflies

A BUTTERFLY FEEDING at a sun-drenched flower is a heart-warming sight that many camera-men have tried to capture. They would have found the butterfly uncooperative as it is seldom still and takes to flight at the slightest intrusion into its little world.
 If at all they manage to get a shot, the picture usually turns out to be quite disappointing because they did not have the right lens at the time or could not get close enough to the wary creature. But it is not impossible to get frame-filling shots of butterflies.
 With the appropriate equipment and techniques you will find it quite easy. You may even be encouraged by your early success in capturing these beautiful creatures on film to take up observing and photographing them as a pastime.
 With shrinking natural habitats and ecosystems all over the world, there is an urgent need to conserve the Earth's flora and fauna. Photographing butterflies is a practice that should be encouraged and preferred over making collections of these fragile creatures.
 It requires considerable care and expenditure to maintain a collection large enough to have any practical or scientific value. The systematic study of butterflies entails gathering large numbers of specimens from different localities. This is , in my view, is an undertaking best left to natural history museums, universities, research organisations and dedicated lepidopterists who, it is hoped, will eventually bequeth their collections to one of these institutions.
 Using photography as a tool, the enthusiast can make records and study the biology of butterflies without the hassle of having to catch, set and mount them. For most of us, it is simply not practical to have the large cabinets needed to keep the numerous specimens in our homes.
 What the collector accomplishes with a net and formalin, the enthusiast can achieve with a camera and in a much more pleasant way, too. Photography is perhaps the only means enabling us to learn about the world around us with minimum destruction to our natural heritage.


 The best type of camera for this purpose is a 35-mm single-lens reflex camera (SLR). Even moderately priced SLRs with all-manual functions can give good results. A modern, hi-tech autofocus SLR makes photographing butterflies much easier, but one still has to use it intelligently, instead of "leaving everything on auto", to get constantly good results.
 A telephoto macro lens with a focal length of 90mm, 100mm or 105mm is ideal, In most cases, they enable you to get life-size images on film. They cost much more than the standard macro lens of 50mm, 55mm or 60mm focal length which has a shorter working distance (or camera-to-subject distance).
 If you already own a standard macro lens, a cost-effective way to upgrade is to get a 2X teleconverter which will double the focal length. For many years, I used a 2X macro-focusing tele- converter (MFTC) coupled to a 50mm standard lens. This combination works like a 100mm telephoto macro lens focusing from infinity down to a repro- duction ratio of 1:1, i.e. life-size. It enabled me to photograph some of the smallest species. Not long ago, I substituted the standard lens with a 55mm macro. This later set-up is capable of nearly twice life-size reproduction on film (i.e. 35mm film).
 Most wide-ange-to-telephoto zoom lenses, set in the macro mode, are capable of reproduction ratios ranging from 1:5 to 1:2. Nowadays, a 35-70mm, or 28-80mm, or 35-80mm macro zoom lens comes as a standard with a new
purchase of an SLR. This is good enough for the larger species. Try out an extension tube or a close-up (supple- mentary) lens if you want to increase the magnification of your zoom optics at minimal cost.
 An electronic flash unit with a guide number (GN) of around 20 is suitable for close-up nature photography in situations ranging from the half-light of the forest understorey to the bright sunshine of open clearings. It gives evenly-lit backgrounds for pictures taken in bright sunshine on 100 ISO film, at an aperture of f11 to f16 and flash synchronisation speed of 1/125 or 1/60 second.
 Available light photography is not feasible, even in bright sunshine, with a lively subject like a butterfly. It is just not possible when one has to work fast with a hand-held camera.
 On the other hand, pictures taken with flash, even in broad daylight, often have the backgrounds turning out completely dark although the main subject is correctly exposed.
 The trick is to balance sunlight and flash to achieve a more natural lighting. If the situation allows it, try to shoot against the direction of sunlight.
 Slowly manoeuvre yourself so that the subject, i.e. the butterfly, is between you and the sun. In this case, the flash acts merely as fill-in and is not the main light source. As you approach the butterfly, be careful not to let your shadow fall on it or you may frighten it away.
 Another way to avoid getting a totally dark background while working under the forest canopy is to select a camera angle with a nearby bush, tree trunk or other objects as the backdrop. Some people may prefer having their subject showing up prominently against a dark background.
 Remember that if you are using a 2X teleconverter, you need only set an aperture of f8 on the prime lens to get an effective aperture of f16. And if you use a second flash unit with the same output as the first, you need to reduce the aperture by only a half-stop.
 Most autofocus SLRs have a built-in flash unit with GN of about 12 to 14, which is usually good enough for most occasions. But you may still want to get a more powerful accessory flash unit as it will give you greater picture-taking versatility.
 Keep your equipment simple and light so that you will not be weighed down by heavy hardware when you go after butterflies. When you have put your system together, try it out on less active subjects. Experiment with it outdoors and take note of the aperture settings that give you the best results.


 The more common species can be seen in gardens, in suburban parks, at roadsides planted with flowering shrubs, along village paths, any overgrown patch or belukar and areas near the jungle fringe. Some species may be found breeding in gardens where the food plants of their larvae or caterpillars are available. The Lime Butterfly (Papilio demoleus) and the Common Mormon (Papilio polytes) are likely to be seen in a suburban or rural area where citrus plants are grown. The Common Palmyfly (Elymnias hypermnestra) caterpillars feed on the leaves of most types of palm. If you find the caterpillars eating the decorative fan palm in your garden, you can be sure they belong to this species. You may be able to observe the various stages of development from larva to the adult insect.
 A frequent visitor to suburban gardens and parks is the Plain Tiger (Danaus chrysippus). a close relative of the famous migratory Monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) of North America. Other colourful species often met on roadsides or rural paths are the Peacock Pansy (Junonia almana) and the Blue Pansy (Junonia orithya).
 After you have explored your neighbourhood, you may want to check out the butterfly farms to see the species
they have in stock. You will find hundreds of them in a large enclosure, flying or feeding at the brightly coloured flowers cultivated specially to provide nectar for them. You could get some good pictures here. There are large butterfly farms in Kuala Lumpur, Malacca and Penang. There is also one on Singapore's Sentosa island.
 However, nothing beats stalking butterflies in the wild. There is a certain sense of adventure when you explore the forest and its river corridors and waterfalls in search of these creatures. You will feel a sense of discovery when you find a species that you have never encountered before. Besides, a walk in the woods will do you good. It is exercise for the body and a salve to sooth the city-worn soul.
 In Malaysia, there are recreation forests near almost every urban centre. It could be quite rewarding for a budding nature photographer to find out what they harbour. In Singapore, there is still a small patch of primary forest at the Bukit Timah Forest Reserve that could yield some surprises.
 In this tropical region, butterflies can be seen all year round. some species appearing to be more common at certain times of the year than others. Most are active from mid-morning until mid-afternoon on bright days.
 A few species fly late into the afternoon. For example, the famous Rajah Brook's Birdwing (Trogonoptera brookiana) may be seen in the forests near the foothills of the Main Range (Titiwangsa) as late as 5 or 6pm. Several species are crepuscular in habit; they are active only in the evening.
 The best time to photograph butterflies is mid-morning when they have just emerged from their roosts to feed. They are so preoccupied with feeding that it is easy to get really close to them for a frame-filling shot. They get very active around noon, enlivened by the hot sun. By late afternoon most of them are ready to retire into the shade of the forest or the bush.


 There is a certain thrill when you manage to photograph a butterfly that you have seen for the first time. You will want to find out the name of the species.
 To help you identify them, there are several books available in the market catering to both the novice butterfly-watcher and the committed enthusiast. In time you will be able to identify most of the common species as well as some uncommon ones. If you keep at it, you will have a substantial photographic record, or portfolio, of the different species that you have spotted. It will give you endless pleasure to pore over those pictures.
 But there is a practical value in those pictures. All those beautiful images can be used in postcards or calendars, to illustrate books, and so on. Because of the wide variety of wing shapes, colours and patterns, the images of butterflies are also often used in advertisements or brochures.
  Most publishing houses still insist on colour slides* even though with modern laser scanning technology colour separation can now be made from high-quality glossy prints. But the margin for error is smaller with slide film; a well-taken picture on slide is far more readily marketable than print.
 Consider banking your images with a stock photo library which will do the marketing, leaving you free to indulge in your pastime. Your pictures may earn enough to subsidise your hobby, or even turn in a tiday profit. In either case, it will surely be heart-warming when you see your pictures published.
 Happy shooting!
 (This article was published in Sojourn Vol 8 No 2 (June-August 1996).)
 * This is no longer the case as digital cameras and digital imaging in general have come a long since this article was written in the mid-1990s.
The Psyche, Leptosia nina nina The Green Dragontail, Lamproptera meges virescens The Royal Assyrian, Terinos terpander robertsia
The Malay Lacewing, Cethosia, hypsea, hypsina The Orchid Tit, Chliaria othona The Fivebar Swordtail, Graphium antiphates itamputi
This page revised on August 20, 2018. Copyright © Chin Fah Shin