Wildlife and macro photographer Paul Harcourt Davies describes a memorable butterfly hunt in the Apennines
Paul Harcourt Davies recalls a memorable butterfly hunt in the Apennines
In these situations it is best to set your scale of magnification first and then focus by
gently moving in
The first time I saw an Apollo butterfly ( Parnassiusapollo) high in the French Alps my world stood still, and I have been seeking them out ever since.
Towards the end of the day is the best time to photograph Apollo butterflies, when they settle on thistles in alpine meadows and feed on nectar. In the past I had always used a telephoto macro, but because I am often in the business of revealing how smaller creatures relate to their wider surroundings, and therefore telling a story, I began to hatch a plan to photograph the Apollo in its natural haunts using my wide-angle macro. This way I could set it among the high mountain peaks and get a shot or two for the ebook I was preparing on wide-angle macro with Clay Bolt. Serendipity, that business of making chance encounters, has been a great personal friend to me, and I had found a small colony of Apollo butterflies the previous July, when following my nose to a slope on Mount Terminillo – part of the high Apennines, not far from Rome.
Things never happen to order with nature photography, and it took some five visits over a period of two weeks to get what I wanted, with a car journey of some three hours from my home in Umbria. On my fifth visit, I had arisen at 4am, to arrive before 8am, just as the sun was hitting the slopes. Apollo butterflies come out in the sun, but patches of sunlight appeared only briefly as clouds went scudding across the sky. The pattern had been the same on the first four visits – a few Apollos seen fast-flying and distant, but, as compensation, there were always other butterflies and insects and an abundance of colourful Alpine flowers to photograph.
By 5pm resignation to failure was setting in and I decided to pack up, just before the sun disappeared behind some pinnacles of rock.
As I trudged reluctantly back up the slope with my tripod and over-laden backpack, the sun appeared, as if to taunt me: suddenly, a female Apollo rose up from the grass just ahead and settled on a nearby mullein flower. To get this potentially great photograph, the scramble was on to get out my Nikon D7100 and a 15mm f/2.8 Sigma diagonal fisheye, which has an exceptionally good close-focus. In these situations it is best to set your scale of magnification first and then focus on the subject by gently moving in. This minimises those hand movements that might frighten off the butterfly. Lighting was inevitably going to be tricky, as the background mountains were still in sun, while butterfly and foreground were in shade. To lessen the contrast and add a slight punch to the subject, I decided to use my Nikon R1C1 macro flash unit as a fill, holding it around the lens with one hand, with my other hand on the shutter button… cumbersome, but needs must.
Dropping to my knees I shuffled forward on sharp stones to get about 10cm from the subject. I managed one shot before the butterfly took off, thanks to shutter noise. However, it landed again close by – which was the story for the next 10 minutes, as I fine-tuned the degree of fill that the flash gave.
There were definitely a few keepers among the files, but in my complete preoccupation with the matter at hand, I hadn’t looked at my bloodied knees, which had been shredded by the limestone… no pain, no gain, as they say. To see more of Paul’s work visit www.paulharcourtdavies.com The Apollo might have been elusive on the first four occasions Paul visited, but there are other subjects to be found high on Mount Terminillo These butterflies come out in the sun; if the weather conditions aren’t right, there’s little chance of getting a good photograph of one
04 These flowers suggest this is a good place to look for Apollo butterflies – their caterpillars use this particular plant for food The shot Paul was looking for: a beautifully crisp image of the Apollo butterfly, with its natural environment visible behind