top of page

Miracle on the Wing

Pay close attention to a close up's details.

September 26, 2014 Close Ups / Insects

It’s migration time in the Midwest. Shorter days signal a change in the seasons and we’ll see the first migratory songbirds at our feeders any day as they refuel for their long, southerly trips. Experienced adults guide the juveniles from their northern nesting grounds to warmer places. Some will travel a thousand miles before they reach their winter roosts.

But a journey even more amazing is the annual odyssey of the monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus). Not only will it travel that far or more, it does so without ever having done it before and without a guide. In late summer, monarchs east of the Rockies make their way south, most often to Texas. They’ll fly from there to a Mexican mountain range where they’ll roost on oyamel fir trees all winter before they make the journey back to Texas next spring.

Monarch butterfly on goldenrod.

A female monarch butterfly rests on a goldenrod plant just before the sun rises on a tallgrass prairie.

The butterflies that migrate to Mexico are the last generation of the summer. The monarchs that roosted in the Mexican woodlands last winter flew back to the southern U.S. last spring where they mated, laid eggs and died. The three or four succeeding generations of monarchs flew northward. They mated, laid eggs and died after two weeks, maybe a month. Each generation moved farther north until the butterflies reached their northern limits in Canada. Now the last generation makes its way south on the signal of shorter days. These monarchs are sturdier than the earlier butterflies – they’ll need to be to make the long trip, survive the winter and then make the return trip to Texas.

The whole thing sounds implausible for an insect. And when you look at it from a butterfly’s point of view, the story is unimaginable. Of the five hundred eggs laid by one female in her short life, only one or two percent survive the elements and predators to mature and produce their own eggs. Add to those odds that the late-summer butterflies have to make the long flight to a small forest in Mexico they’ve never seen before, then back to Texas next spring and it sounds downright impossible.

A monarch butterfly has a four-inch wingspan and weighs about as much as a paperclip. Its life is focused on sipping nectar from flowers, finding a mate and laying eggs. And besides the weather and its natural enemies, it struggles against the loss of habitat in Mexico and North America. So to do our small part to aid its survival, we’ll plant more flowers in our perennial garden beds next year that will provide food for growing caterpillars and nectar for butterflies of all kinds. It’s a simple-but-important thing we all can do for these miracles on the wing.

:: To learn more about Monarch Butterflies, their conservation and research, visit: Monarch


MAKING THE PHOTOGRAPH (Techniques for Photographing Insects and Close Ups)

SUBJECT: Monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) on Canada goldenrod (Solidago altissima).

CONDITIONS: A calm, warm, dewy morning on a restored tallgrass prairie at Goose Lake Prairie State Park, near Morris, Illinois.

EQUIPMENT: Nikon F5, 200mm f/4 microNikkor, tripod, ball head, cable release, Fujichrome Velvia

(This is a photograph from my files in a teaching program I was updating.)

EXPOSURE and SETTINGS: 1/60 sec at f/11, ISO 50; Manual exposure mode, Spot meter, Manual focus.

TECHNIQUE: My goal was to make a pleasing photograph of this monarch resting on a goldenrod flower just before sunrise. I wanted a simple photograph of the butterfly and the flower without distractions in the background. To this end, several elements of a good closeup composition were important: working distance to the subject, control of the background details, getting parallel to the butterfly's wings, and keeping the camera and lens steady. Let's look at these considerations:

The working distance from the camera to the subject was a function of the focal length I chose. I wanted to keep from startling the monarch, so keeping my distance was important. It can't fly until it warms up a bit at first light. Until then, its defense against a threat is to let go and fall into the covering plants below. It could drop into a spider's web or to where a mouse might find it. The 200mm lens allowed me to stay comfortably away from the butterfly and more importantly away from the plant it was resting on. If my tripod leg bumped the plant it was on or another plant that was touching it, it could frighten the butterfly.

The 200mm lens also helped control the background coverage around and behind the butterfly. That meant I could select a position and an aperture that would avoid distracting details and create a soft, out-of-focus background.

I wanted to have sharpness on the butterfly most of all. So I worked carefully to get the film plane (now it's the sensor plane) parallel to its wings. This helped me choose an aperture sufficient for sharpness top to bottom, side to side, but kept things behind it blurred. The process took many small adjustments of the tripod position and lots of patience.

Once I was as parallel to the monarch's wings as I could get, it was time to choose a pleasing aperture. I started at f/8 and used the depth-of-preview function. This let me see exactly how sharp the wings were and how many if any distractions showed up. I stopped down to f/11 and engaged the depth of field preview again. Then I did the same at f/16. It showed me too many background details, so I went back to f/11.

With an adequate aperture selected, I spot metered the out-of-focus background in the upper left and manually dialed in a shutter speed that brought the meter to zero. I called that out-of-focus green a medium tone (or middle tone). And since there were no wildly bright or deep dark tones of consequence in the composition, all the tones fell within the 5-stop contrast range of the film and I knew it would be a correct exposure.

This process is always a compromise between depth of field and distractions. You can see that in this situation, f/11 gave me enough sharpness on the butterfly's wings, but not enough for background details. It wasn't even enough depth to make the flower buds sharp ahead and behind the monarch. Even its closest antenna is out of focus. But the wings were sharp and that was good enough.

If I wasn't parallel to the wings, I wouldn't have gotten the edge-to-edge sharpness that pleased me. So taking my time with the camera position and with the choice of aperture was worth it. But getting sharpness didn't end there. I also needed to make sure the camera and lens were rock steady. A sturdy tripod and a medium-sized ball head gave me a solid platform. Then I engaged the mirror lock function which prevented vibrations from the action of the camera's mirror flipping up and out the way when the shutter clicked. Finally, I used a cable release and that meant my finger would be off the camera's shutter button which could cause additional vibrations and blurring.

The combination of a thoughtful approach, proper equipment choices, careful positioning and good technique all came together for the final photograph. Some days the whole procedure tests my patience and my back. But when the results make me exhale and smile, I know it was worth it.

Recent post
Featured Post
A RetiringThought
bottom of page