Summer can be a tough time to sit in a photo blind, due to stifling heat and hungry ticks, so I often shift my effort to morning hikes in search of eye-catching insects on colorful flowers. I was on just such a hike last summer when I ran across this tiger swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) perched atop a gorgeous coneflower.
The eastern tiger swallowtail is the only swallowtail in Missouri with yellow and black stripes. Some females are yellow with black stripes, similar to males; others are black with darker black stripes. Both female forms have blue scales on the dorsal (top) side of the hindwings. They have a wingspan of 2½–4½ inches.
Adults may be found flying in forests, fields, and gardens. Host plants for the larvae include hop tree, tulip tree, and various species of ashes, apples, and cherries. Adults drink nectar from a variety of flowers. Males are more likely than females to “puddle” (sip liquid and accompanying salts from puddles or damp soil). Eastern tiger swallowtails are found throughout Missouri from late March into October.
Insect and flower photography is a welcome respite from my typical pursuit of mammals and birds, which requires an 18-pound rig, including camera, 500 mm lens, and tripod, all slung across my shoulder, often for several miles.
When looking for insects, I carry the same camera, but with a much smaller
300 mm lens. I still use a tripod for every shot, but one that is half the size and weight of my standard support. The 5-ft minimum focus distance of the 300 f/4 lens is perfect for scenes such as this one, and if I need a closer look, I simply attach a 1.4x lens extender.
Once I close in on a butterfly, I consider the sun’s angle and my point of view to the subject. Unless I’m going for a special effect, such as rim lighting, I try to position myself with the sun to my back. The sun’s rays become a natural flash, illuminating the darker features of the butterfly. As for point of view, I position my lens at eye level with the subject. Shooting at a downward angle to an animal rarely results in a pleasing composition.
Next, I wait for the butterfly to position itself on the flower for the best shot. Often, this requires patience because some butterflies can be downright uncooperative! Also, I keep in mind that the plane of focus of a 300 mm lens is typically less than a quarter-inch deep at close range, so I wait for the butterfly’s wings to fold upward before I release the shutter. This helps to achieve better focus on each wing, and highlights the patterns and colors of the particular species.
Finally, I check for extraneous clutter that might show up in the image after processing. It is easy to overlook an intrusive stem from a neighboring plant when looking through the lens, but it will become obvious as a distracting blur in the final image.
I hope these tips will help the next time you run across a tiger, of the swallowtail variety, during your own photographic adventures.
—Story and photograph by Danny Brown
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