I really have a passion for “wide angle wildlife”…which can be a challenge with critters…most of which would rather be a long ways away from us stinky, scary humans. And, of course, to get the bird, mammal, reptile or butterfly a respectable size in the frame, and not just an indistinguishable dot, you have to GET CLOSE!
So, on September 6th I found myself taking a detour off the highway near Lime Springs, Iowa to check out Hayden Prairie State Reserve. It is a 242 acre parcel of tallgrass prairie..and sadly the largest tract in the state outside of the Loess Hills. The prairie honors Ada Hayden, an Iowa farm girl who became one of the first woman botany professors in the country, receiving her PhD in 1918.
I had a few hours to shoot before sunset and I noticed many Monarchs feeding on the sunflowers and goldenrods. But getting close to the Monarchs was not easy…First I tried just walking up to nectaring Monarchs on the head-height sunflowers…but they didn’t appreciate that. Then I discovered a patch of goldenrods where the nectar must be especially good and abundant. The butterflies were a bit more tolerant here. And as anyone who’s shot a lot of wildlife knows, every individual has a different comfort zone. So I just kept trying to find a mellow Monarch.
The image I had in my head was getting the Monarch large in the frame, shooting into the sun so the sky was dark and the sun would be a starburst. Backlit subjects can make for tricky exposures. I knew I had to shoot at high-speed sync in order for the butterfly and sky to be in the same exposure range. I’d pre-set my camera on manual exposure to f22 at 1/1250 and my Canon flash was set to high-speed sync. Then I autofocused on my hand at 4 to 6 inches and then turned off the lens autofocus. The technique was to crawl as close as I could to the Monarch, then extend my arm with the camera and start shooting…keeping my finger on the shutter button as I reached out towards the butterfly. It was low percentage shooting but lots of fun. My knees paid the price though.
Crawling through tallgrass prairie can be tough on the knees…and jeans!
The Monarchs were starting their migration south to Mexico’s Mariposa Monarca Biosphere Reserve where they would overwinter. As any school kid knows, this migration is one of the most amazing in the animal kingdom…A fragile butterfly flying several thousand miles south to the mountains of Central Mexico where this species has likely overwintered for thousands of years. Even more amazing may be the fact that it is a different generation of Monarchs that returns to the north each spring. You can actually track the Monarch’s southward flight on the internet. Check out Journey North’s Monarch Migration map here to check on their southward flight.
To get the “starburst” sun you need to be shooting at f16 or smaller aperture.
[All photos taken with Canon 7D and Sigma 10-20mm lens (between 10mm and 16mm) at f22, ISO 400, 1/1250 second, Canon 420ex flash set to high-speed sync at -2EV]