(Published March 2008 in Murray Bolesta's "The Borderlands Photographer" in Tubac Villager.)
This month’s topic is a very manly one. It's “mucho macho.”
Real men love bees, butterflies and blossoms. Now, spring is just around the corner in the borderlands and very few photo opportunities during the season will surpass the vivid beauty of this topic.
In a way, this article is a sequel to last month’s, which was about birds, since bees and butterflies provide a similar delight and challenge to the borderlands photographer.
Bees are bathing in a saguaro cactus blossom's pollen. How
can they fly like that?
I enjoy taking close-up images; some of my favorite shots are close-ups. One of my books is on this month’s topic [link]. Close-up photography reveals a whole new world that escapes most humans. Also, there are probably more opportunities for capturing striking close-up images than for landscape photography – there’s simply more content available, if you look for it.
In close-up photography, the subtle play of light and shadow and shape combines with a rainbow of colors coming from your subject, creating a universe of options. As with bird photography, the subject’s surroundings can turn a bee, butterfly, or blossom photo into artwork.
To me, butterflies are as beautiful as birds and probably easier to photograph. Getting close to butterflies for good shots is not as difficult as with birds, since generally they don’t scare off so easily. There are exceptions, of course, and some butterflies are skittish subjects for portraiture.
I use a zoom telephoto lens for taking most butterfly photos. I’ve come to call it my “butterfly lens” since it allows me to position myself at just the right distance from the critter to fill a frame, while providing narrow enough depth of field, or focus area, for the image to have a blurred background. This background is what can produce a fine image, when your subject itself is well focused. The background may be filled with color, shadow, and light but blurring it allows the photographer to highlight the photo’s central subject, the pollinating critter.
|Bee and prickly poppy blossom.|
In borderland Arizona, I started out taking cactus blossom pictures, which is common. While a flower by itself can be a great image, a better composition is a picture that combines a shot of a flowering plant with an energetic pollinator. This does require patience to achieve the right composition. The position of the critter should either emphasize its pollinating function or its inherent beauty, or both.
A bee or butterfly which is hovering is the best, requiring a high camera shutter speed. Technically, butterflies don’t really hover, so catching them in flight with the camera is sometimes harder than capturing a bee.
|A dazzling blooming ocotillo and friend.|
There are many specialty lenses used for close-ups. By and large, they are called macro lenses. Whichever lens you use, depth of field is the key to these images. Your focus depth should be enough to highlight the subject but narrow enough to blur and simplify the background so that it’s not too “busy” and doesn’t distract from the subject. When using a zoom lens, the farther you zoom, the less depth you get.
Many artful shots, as distinguished from reference shots, don’t require the subject to be entirely in focus. With butterflies, it’s important to have a clear image of the head and antennae and proboscis (or “tongue” which sips nectar). With flowers, often just parts of them are required to be in focus, such as the stamen and pistil together, or several petals.
The wings of butterflies are the highlights of the show, and it’s good to remember that the undersides of wings sometimes are not as striking or colorful as the top of the wings.
Dragonflies and damselflies are very fine subjects, too. These critters are delightfully delicate; it's best to get their entire wings focused if you can, in order to highlight the detail. Improving your odds is the fact that dragonflies and damselflies are more patient posers than bees and butterflies.
Finally, for the amateur naturalist in borderland Arizona, the scientific identification of a photo’s subject is a big part of the fun. Field guides exist en masse to help you with this, and can be used for taking notes while you shoot, or better, back at the ranch with your finished pictures in front of you. I often use the internet for reference. For identification of any critter, it’s best if you achieve shots from different angles, and for flowers, you should include shots of its stem and leaves for quicker identification.