I describe here my favourite activity : photography of fling butterflies. I explain how I have found solutions to many of the issues that comes with the high speed nature photography and how digital cameras let me get better results.

Why high-speed photography ?


I had the chance to have a father who is butterflies collector. Therefore, very young, I could discover these splendid insects by listening to him spelling their superb names (Scarce Swallowtail, Orange-Tip, Black-Veined white, Painted Lady, etc) and describing their way of life. Very quickly, the butterflies were for me a passion !

But something disturbed me in collecting the butterflies : why killing them whereas one takes so much pleasure seeing them flying ? This gave me the solution : «I will be nature photographer !».

Now, after years spent in the nature taking picture of wildlife, the butterflies are still my favourite subject. But, what makes them incomparable, it is the fact that they are true flying flowers ! The idea to take photographs of butterflies in flight became my main objective in the middle of the Nineties. Since then, this objective never left me despite the encountered difficulties : ten years passed before I obtain results which correspond to the photographs I had in mind and digital cameras let me find solutions to the main issues.

DSRL help me to solve issues related with high-speed photography


 First, I had to build a very sensitive photo beam trigger in order to release the shutter of the camera when the butterfly crosses the focusing point. I developed several trigger systems all equipped with a Laser dedicated to specific situations. The newest is designed to fit the requirements of the wide aperture I often use with telephoto lenses like the Nikon AFS VR 200 mm f/2 or the 400 mm f/2.8. The Laser trigger system is plugged onto an electronic device that convert the Laser signal into electric information.

Then, I found out more difficulties. I had to overcome additional technical problems : tunning of the Laser, additional adjustment to take into account the shutter lag time, control of the duration of the flashes. This technical work was so long and difficult that I have several times hesitated to give up.

My first high-speed shots were disappointing. Admittedly, I got photographs of butterflies in flight, but results were far away from the images which I had desired to catch. I realized that I was focusing more on technique rather than on my small subjects. I had forgotten an essential element : the light. I did not immediately found a solution for the quality of the light. However, the lighting with the very short flash is essential to froze the very fast wings’ motion.

And the first DSLR arrived : the original Nikon D1 ! During my first test of a sample in October 1999, I realized the power of digital photography for my high speed close-up. The versatility of the digital camera and the features of early versions of Nikon Capture were perfect tools to test various solutions for lighting using short duration flashes. During one year of continuous testing with the Nikon D1, I put together many solutions to get high speed and high quality lighting.

The next generations of professional DSLR  arrived with key features that make me have a complete control on high speed photography. The digital workflow from the camera to the computer is easy to turn into operation. Last but not least, the new generation came with a new flash SB-800. For high speed shots, I can not use the famous new features such as iTTL or wireless slave flashes because the pre-flashes involved with them slow down the shutter lag. SB-800 are connected to my camera with cables. I always use the manual mode in order to control the duration of the flash. Here is a great performance of the SB-800 : the capability to produce short but powerful flashes. And all this is achieved in a compact flash unit ! Moreover, the SB800 is delivered with a complete set of useful accessories : the speedlight stand AS-19 that let fix the flash on any support or tripod, the quick recycling battery pack SD-800 for continuous shooting, the Nikon diffusion dome SW-10H for soft lighting and the colored gel filter set SJ-800 that I use, for instance, to mix the light of a sunset and the flash.

The pictures of butterflies in flight


Today, the technique is always present, undoubtedly more than in the past, but it does not disturb me anymore, it helps me. Now, I can concentrate on what is important: my small subjects and their environment. For example, for my shots of large butterflies like a Scarce Swallowtail, I need time to watch their majestic gliding flight in order to find the best position for the camera and for the lighting. Then, I just wait until one butterfly crosses the light beam of the automatic shutter release equipment. Sometimes, the butterfly looks at the camera with its big eyes and takes a self-portrait.



High-speed photography

A compact laser trigger beam to can be fixed onto the camera and used handhold.

The flash control module SU-800 make possible to trigger flashes without any wire.

The Nikon lens AFS VR 200 mm f/2 gives access to ultra wide aperture.


Copyright Ghislain Simard, All rights reserved