Facebook Twitter



This is miserable, I thought. Why am I doing this again? For the third time that chilly morning I was crawling slowly toward my intended subject. The rugged terrain of the desert floor kept ripping at my clothes and scratching my elbows and forearms. My mouth was parched and the continued exertion was causing me to tremble slightly, but I was getting closer. Ten feet had shrunk to just barely a foot as I approached closer. Charidryas neumoegeni must have seen me but still remained frozen in place.

The flash control unit was whining softly as I spun the focusing ring until the Desert Checkerspot came into sharp focus. Without looking away, I moved my hands slowly up to the twin macro flashes and adjusted their alignment. With all the stealth I'm capable of, I moved laterally just a couple of inches to get the Checkerspot's wings and body parallel to the film plane of the camera. Again, I checked for critical focus. POW!! POW!! POW!! For a few seconds the butterfly remained motionless, seeming to enjoy the warmth of the repeated flashes of light. Just as suddenly with a quick downbeat of its wings, it was gone, zig-zagging up the dry desert wash.For a second I stood and brushed the dirt off my clothes - then the thrill of the chase started to wane. My heart started beating normally again. Heck - it might as well have been a bull elk or bighorn ram I was photographing - the thrill was the same.

Butterflies are Utah's jewels on the wind. They add a delicate counterpart of beauty to this land of harsh extremes. The spectacular blooms of desert wildflowers along the Beaver Dam Wash can be followed within days by a wilting, scorching heat.

While to the north, the pristine highlands of the Wasatch Front and the Uintah Mountains with their colorful, flower-carpeted meadows can be covered overnight by a late summer snowstorm. Within these contrasting environmental zones, butterflies recreate their entire populations, year after year. They are worthy wildlife subjects for nature photographers who want to photograph something different.

Success photographing Utah's butterflies can be more than just a hit-or-miss occurrence. Understanding some basic attributes of butterflies and their habitat can lead to an amazing number of colorful species many people will never see in their yards or gardens. A greater knowledge of butterflies and a few basic photography principles can lead to some awesome photographs.

Butterfly attributes

No matter what language you translate the word butterfly into, it still comes out beautiful. The Spanish translation is mariposa, in French it's papillon and even in Swedish - fjaril, and Russian - babochka. Within the insect family, butterflies are found in the order Lepidoptera - insects with scale-covered wings. It is the intricate scale shapes and their broad range of colors that first attract. I suppose their counterparts in the bird world would be hummingbirds. But instead of fledgling hummingbirds developing their adult feathers as they grow older, butterflies go through an amazing scientific process - still not completely understood - called metamorphosis.

Yet this is just the beginning of a series of attributes that make butterflies unique among all the life forms. Much like lizards, butterflies are able to adjust their temperature by controlling the amount of light, and thus heat, that reaches their wings. Because butterflies are cold-blooded, and strictly diurnal - active only in daytime warmth - a photographer can use this handicap as a tool for finding butterflies at rest or incapacitated by a lack of sunlight.

Cool mornings and overcast days mean relatively stationary butterflies and greater photographic success. You can't chase butterflies. Trust me when I say that you will tire first.

Cool mornings will generally find butterflies out in the open, sunning themselves from a perch - this could be a rock, or road, or the tops of leaves exposed to direct sunlight - with their wings laid down horizontal to the sun to absorb the greatest amount of heat. Once they reach their optimal internal temperature, they are off seeking food or mating partners. When temperatures become excessively hot, they will perch in the shade with their wings parallel to the sun, thus reducing their exposure.

While some people resort to capturing their subjects, or buying them, and then chilling them to reduce activity and placing them on appropriate vegetation for photography, you - the photographer - lose an important element in doing this. You lose the vibrancy of life found in natural settings.

Personally, I rank chilling butterflies right up there with renting semi-tame or injured animals for "wildlife" photography sessions. Good photographers and most naturalists, whether experts or amateurs, can tell the difference. And even if they can't tell, you lose the excitement of the chase and capture of the photos - personal satisfaction that gives many nature photographers the thrill that keeps them shooting. Some types of technical photography may demand this type of manipulation, but certainly most do not.

The types of host plants butterflies favor is an important consideration when locating butterflies. Each butterfly specie prefers a particular host plant - the plant to which the eggs must be laid on in order for the newborn to survive. For example, one of the most common butterflies in Utah is the Lupine Blue, Plebejus icarioides. As its name indicates, its preferred host plants are lupines, of the plant order Leguminosae, of which many types are found in Utah.

Adults feed not only on the nectar, but also sip mud as many other butterflies do. When you find a field of lupines in Utah - you will find lupine blue butterflies.

One particular shrub that I look for in Southern Utah is Yerbasanta or mountain balm, Eriodictyon angustifolium. This shrub's fragrant white blossoms are a favorite of many butterflies. There have been times when I have just stepped into the middle of a Yerbasanta shrub and photographed a dozen species feeding together at arm's length.

With more than 700 species in North America, identifying butterflies can be a nightmare. Since butterflies rarely locate mates through the use of pheromones, an air-transmitted hormonal scent, they use color, wing patterns and the manner of flight to identify possible mates. While these field marks can help in identification on the wing, some appear so close in their visual make-up that a color butterfly guide will be the only way to positively identify them.

The best guide that I have found is "The Butterflies of North America: A Natural History and Field Guide" by James A. Scott published by Stanford University Press. I've relied heavily upon it for identification of butterflies I've photographed. Besides color photographs of the upperside and underside of wings, the book has a detailed range chart, as well as facts on each species host plants, wing venation (wing cell pattern) and other characteristics that can aid in identification and likely habitat.

The Audubon Society and the Peterson Field Guide series also publish field guides to butterflies. A good book on local flora, with color pictures, will also aid you greatly. Line drawings or black-and-white photographs make identification difficult.

Butterfly habitat

Once you understand a little about butterfly attributes, then habitat becomes the next key issue. Butterflies require areas where adequate water supplies can support a variety of host plants. This area of layered vegetation can provide butterfly "hot spots," areas where many species can exist together with food, water, plants and shelter available.

However, butterflies are everywhere. While some favor different plants found at different elevations at different times of the year, there is no place in this state where butterflies aren't found in their season.

Leeds Creek, a small perennial stream that flows out of springs fed by Pine Valley Mountain above the old mining town of Silver Reef - in southern Utah, is one location that supports a tremendous number of butterflies, possibly the most per mile in the state. Sagebrush and Utah Juniper end abruptly on the bench above the stream, and an "oasis-type" feeling ensues as thick growths of wild flowers, grasses, sedges, cactus, agave, Gambel's oak and wild grape takeover. As the creek's elevation rises closer to the mountains, nearing Oak Grove campground, a similar change takes place among the vegetation - maples and pine replace oak and juniper - while the species of butterfly change as well.

Along a single two-mile stretch of this creek I've photographed nearly 40 species, and seen many others that I wasn't able to approach. Like Leeds Creek, many of our mountain systems in Utah act as habitat islands above the desert sagebrush environment of many of the valleys, especially in western Utah.

Transitional climate zones bring together the type of climate, water, variety of flora and fewer people required for butterflies to thrive. Some other favorite areas are the Temple Fork creek area in Logan Canyon, the Mt. Timpanogos trail just past Sundance Ski Resort, the Beaver Dam Slope near Utah's border with Arizona and Nevada, and the meadows on Cedar Mountain near Brian Head Ski Resort.

Photo equipment

While your choice of photographic equipment is unlimited these days, there are some important considerations to keep in mind to make nature photography easier.

First, choose a 35mm SLR system that allows you to change lenses, attach flashes and has a broad enough system to do all the types of photography that might interest you.

Second, use good film. Because most butterfly photography will require the use of a flash, to fill the shadows and allow for greater depth-of-field, slower speed films can be used successfully.

Ninety percent of my butterfly photos are taken with a 100mm macro lens.

Take notes and experiment. Eventually you'll discover a method that works for you and delivers the results you want.

Photo tactics

This is where knowledge and equipment come together. Once you've found the subjects and approached with the right equipment there are three things left to do.

First, get close. Start shooting from two or or three feet away, then work closer - as your subject and discretion will allow. Mating butterflies should be carefully approached so as not to frighten them off. Move slowly and change magnification often. Habitat is important to your photography, it adds a realism and sense of place to the photos.

Second, get parallel to the butterfly's wings. If the butterfly is basking with its wings laid out horizontal, absorbing light, try to get above as much as possible. If the butterfly's wings are parallel to the sun, decreasing exposure, then you have to come in from the side.

This is something that will become more obvious as you shoot photos. If you aren't parallel to the wings, then they will go out of focus near the edges and appear soft and fuzzy.

Lastly, use the exposure compensation dial to control flash output. For instance, if you are photographing a light-colored butterfly, such as blue (which has white underwings) or a cabbage, and the frame is only partially filled with the butterfly, the flash senses the dark background and increases light output to compensate. In this situation you can dial in a 1/2-stop on the compensation dial to correct the light output.

Experience will help you in improving your initial photographs. Photographing the intricate beauty of these dynamic, living creatures can be a rewarding experience. The more patient you are, the more success you will have in the field.

While everyone is familiar with the generally seen wildlife and the infamous species, such as rattlesnakes, there is an entire world of natural beauty that exists just below the leaves - just out of sight.

There are a number of butterfly organizations, such as Xerxes Society and the British Butterfly Conservation Society. It is interesting to note that the ancient Greeks compared the metamorphosis of butterflies from larva, to pupa, to butterfly, with the death and resurrection of the human soul. Their word for both soul and butterfly was the same, psyche.

Utah is a great state, with an amazing amount of natural splendor hidden just below the surface. Take your camera and do a little exploring and the beauty you uncover might surprise you.