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How I got the shot - Marbled White Butterfly Against the Rising Moon

The marbled white butterfly was originally called ‘Our Half-Mourner’ by James Petiver in the 18th Century. His extensive collections of plants and insects helped found London’s famous Natural History Museum . They are often found on chalk and limestone grasslands and their range has been steadily moving north and west in the UK. It can also be found extensively in other parts of Europe.

A naturalist friend showed me some protected meadows in South Shropshire which for anyone not familiar with English counties, is in the west of the country, on the border with Wales. Here we found a small colony of marbled whites flitting about in the sunshine. One of my goals when photographing butterflies is to catch them roosting at sunset. This is partly as when the sun goes down, butterflies settle and are easier to photograph but it also offers more interesting light.

The most important thing is to be sensitive. The well-being of the butterfly comes first and a telephoto with close focusing helps me keep my distance. At this time of day, I can’t go wrong with my E-M1 Mark III and the peerless M.Zuiko Digital ED 40‑150mm F2.8 PRO. The light weight of this combination is perfect handheld and shooting wide open at F2.8 gives me leeway in low light conditions.

It was a warm summer night and the meadows sloped away from me to woodland and in the distance I could see the summit of Brown Clee, a well known local hill. The moon was rising in the still blue sky as it was a few days before becoming full. After searching for some time I found a roosting marbled white high up on the stem of a Sheep’s Fescue, a typical wildflower grass. I instantly saw the shot I wanted in my mind which required many elements to come together. It was a rare evening of totally clear sky, and the moon was not yet full which meant there was both colour in the sky and still some light on the butterfly.

I lay down in the meadow to line up the butterfly and frame it inside the circle of the moon. Before I switched to Olympus in 2018, I would not have even thought of trying this. One advantage the system gives me is that its telephoto lenses have very close minimum focus distance. I had already worked out the potential of this factor as it meant I could get close enough to fill the frame with an insect, but also use reach to make the background moon bigger in the final shot. To get both close up and capture a feeling of distance in one raw photo opened up a new realm of creative possibilities.

As the moon rose higher and got brighter, I used the 5 cross type AF to focus on the butterfly – I was trying to find the background moon as I was doing this and with a breeze blowing the butterfly all over the place, it was a challenge to place all the elements in the picture. I needed a fast enough shutter to freeze motion but wanted to keep ISO low – so 1/160 second at F2.8 gave me ISO 1000 which would clean up easily in post. Also, no camera likes focusing into the light and when my camera lost focus, I quickly pulled the focus clutch into manual and used focus peaking to find the butterfly again. Once I did, I pushed the focus clutch back into AF and the camera picked up the butterfly perfectly. I wanted to hit the sweet spot as it got darker to get the moon bright enough but still with detail on the marbled white.

This is the decisive moment, when everything comes together and the art of the photographer is to capture the elements of sky, moon, butterfly and colour to make a harmonious whole. The final shot mixed fieldcraft with a moment of grace. It was easily the highlight of my photographic year.

Andrew Fusek Peters


Featured products:

E-M1 Mark III

M.Zuiko Digital ED 40-150mm F2.8 PRO


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