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Tips on photographing the butterflies of Zimbabwe: Irresistible beauty

I have known many specialist photographers in my time. Some are so devout in their particular field that it has almost become a religion. I don’t think I ever met one, however, that could resist clicking away at a butterfly especially the butterflies of Zimbabwe, perfectly posed in a photogenic setting.

For me, of course, covering all aspects and sectors of the wildlife world, the temptation is more irresistible still. This even applies to those species of which I already have numerous perfectly satisfactory images. A little inner voice whispers in your ear that, this time, it could result in a centre page spread in the National Geographic!

The above 3 images are of quite large and similarly coloured species.

Butterflies ways some on the wing

Unlike many Northern Hemisphere countries, such as Europe and the UK, Zimbabwe’s weather patterns allow several butterfly species to be on the wing throughout the year. The time of greatest plenty, of course, is towards the end of, and shortly after, the rains. This coincides with the greatest abundance of flowering plants that provide the nectar that most, though not all, butterflies of Zimbawe species depend on.

A quick glance through a butterfly field guide is enough to blow the average mind with beauty. Many budding wildlife photographers started their careers with images seen in a book and an imagination fired up.

 The above images are of Pansies. One of the more ostentatiously beautiful families of butterflies in Zimbabwe.

Benefits of getting closeups

In truth, many of those unbelievably coloured and patterned species, whose images catch the eye, often prove elusive. They can be almost impossible to spot, let alone photograph.

I have found, however, that there is a compensation for one’s dashed hopes. Many images of species do not exactly leap out of the pages clamouring “Take me. Take me!” prove to be incredibly beautiful in real life. This can be especially so if you can manage to get a close-up. Often it is a case of the image or illustration not doing the creature justice due to poor photography or lack of good lighting.

There are many very small species which, to the untrained eye, may not seem like Butterflies at all at a distance. I never cease to be amazed at how much colour and patterning many of these can cram into such a small surface area. Unfortunately, some pretty good close-up equipment is necessary to do them justice. For those who have that kind of equipment, the sky is the limit butterfly-wise in Zimbabwe, as Wikipedia quotes over 527 species recorded from this country.

There are a great many very similarly sized species and also very similarly coloured. A good closeup photograph, however, will allow you to identify the, often, significant differences. In the case of the Dotted Blue, it shows just how different the top and bottom views of the same insect can be.

Take it how it is

A common misconception amongst would-be butterfly photographers is that the insect needs to be perfectly still, with wings akimbo and in bright light, to obtain the best images. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Firstly many butterflies, even at rest, are seldom “still”. They regulate their body temperature by the surface area they present to the sun and so they are constantly opening and closing their wings to effect this. If you can set your camera to continuous shooting at quite a high speed, say at least 1000th of a sec, then you should be able to extract at least one good shot from your sequence.

This Common Leopard compensated for being neither open nor closed by perching photogenically by the side of a dam.

Don’t wait for the wings to open

Secondly, many species never rest with their wings open but rather with them firmly closed.  A common feature with many butterflies is that their wing undersides are camouflaged. This is to evade detection when they are vulnerable to predation whilst perching. Unfortunately for butterflies, one of their major roles in the general ecology is to be lunch for something else. They form an important part of the general food chain. You can understand them seeking to delay the “evil day” as long as possible. Hence the extremely intricate camouflage techniques some of them display.

Make the most of it

Thirdly many species feature pure white areas, especially in the upper wing patterning. In bright light, this has the habit of “burning out” unless specific camera settings are used to combat it. I prefer slightly cloudy skies without strong direct sunlight but these conditions can inhibit the activity levels of some species. Hey Ho! All life is a compromise and butterfly photography is no different!

Subject identification

Identification can sometimes be a bit of a poser. I would recommend field guides using actual photographic images as opposed to artistic illustrations. Whilst the former may not always be posed at the most photographically advantageous angle they are, nevertheless, easier to relate to your images. Illustrations are often based on dead or theoretical specimens and may not reflect true colour patterns and tones.

In some cases, the identification of the butterflies of Zimbabwe is further hindered by the fact that some species are dimorphic. This results in males and females of the same species being completely different in colour and appearance. It is also a great help in identification if you can capture both top and bottom views. As highlighted with the Dotted Blue above, and the Netted Sylph, both views can be significantly different. Some species are almost identical from one view or the other but it is seldom that they are identical on both.

Waiting for the butterflies of Zimbabwe doesn’t always pay.

We are probably all seeking perfection with our images but, with wildlife, you may not get a second crack of the whip. Whilst I admire those who wait for the perfect moment, I would prefer to make the most of what I’ve got in front of me, there and then. If the perfect moment comes along during it then “what a pleasure”. If not at least I’ve got something for my trouble as opposed to he who waited. All he probably got was a rear-ender shot as the subject flew away or a perfect image of a perch where a butterfly was -until quite recently!

A short but useful life.

We have just come through the lean times, butterflywise, here at Pamuzinda and it seems that as each day goes by I see more and more species on the wing. For many varieties this adult stage of the life cycle is of extremely short duration and can last only but a few days. In fact, some female moth species do not even have mouth parts to enable them to feed. The sole purpose of this stage is procreation and they need to survive only long enough to lay eggs. It is then a case of “job done and dusted” and they quietly fade away.

Brian Pettit

email “wildlifepics@ntlworld.com”

web “www.naturepicturesworldwide.com

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Tips on photographing the butterflies of Zimbabwe: Irresistible beauty

Tips on photographing the butterflies of Zimbabwe: Irresistible beauty
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