My Painted Lady Makes the Big Time

In the middle of August of 2014, I took some photos of a painted lady butterfly feeding on the nectar from a Buddleia plant (butterfly bush) in our yard. Many of the pictures were out of focus, too far out of frame, had technical problems of one sort or another or were just uninteresting. However, due to the amount of pictures I had taken, a few turned out okay.

Painted Lady Photo for DocumentaryI put together a small post touching on the life cycle of painted ladies as well as their migratory patterns (Painted Lady Butterfly). While gathering material for the article, I was amazed by the distinct lack of research I could find on this species, and by the small amount of information that existed, particularly about the migration paths. I thought that the painted lady would have warranted greater interest, considering that it has the widest distribution of any butterfly, as well as the longest migration route (multi-generational) of any insect species in the world.

As I sifted through what little data I could find, I became fascinated with the truly amazing story of the painted lady. But I submitted my post, and moved on to other things.

And then earlier this year, I was contacted by ITN Productions in London. This company was in the process of filming a documentary about the migration of the painted lady from north Africa to England. This in itself was something I was happy to hear. But they went on to say that they were interested in possibly using one of the photographs from my butterfly post in their documentary.


The Great Butterfly Adventure: Africa to Britain with the Painted Lady

The documentary aired on BBC Four on October 10th. I was eager to see if they had actually used my photo in the film, and if so, how it was used. I was surprised to see that my picture was enlarged and was prominently hung in the communication center, which was shown several times throughout the film.

Documentary ClipThe Great Butterfly Adventure is hosted by Martha Kearney, an Irish journalist who works for BBC Radio. Kearney brings exuberance to her roll as she plays a part reminiscent of an inquisitive child, with a sincere excitement about each new discovery.

Guiding her through the science is entomologist, Dr. James Logan, who, with the help of others, attempts to answer some of the questions surrounding the painted lady butterfly. The film focuses on unlocking the mysteries surrounding the butterflies’ migrational routes, taking on such questions as:

  • Why do the butterflies need to migrate?
  • How is the painted lady, weighing less than a gram, able to complete such an epic journey?
  • How do the butterflies navigate?
  • Why do butterflies sometimes deviate from the established migratory routes?
  • Why do some groups of butterflies take alternate routes?
  • Why do some painted ladies stop at specific areas along the migration route, while others continue on?

Painted Lady on Butterfly BushThe story of the painted lady begins in north Africa in early March, as the butterflies begin their migration northward. The 90 minute documentary examines the painted ladies’4,500 mile migration from the Moroccan desert to Britain.

Along the way, scientists conduct groundbreaking experiments as they unravel some of the painted ladies’ long kept secrets.

The film also enlists the help of amateur butterfly spotters who report sightings of painted ladies and send in photos and videos, some of which are included in the movie. This dedicated army of butterfly enthusiasts plays a significant role in the film.

At points, this documentary lacks polish. However it really shines as a piece which brings together professionals specializing in several areas, a number of leading institutions as well as average people willing to lend a hand. This gives the viewer a real sense of teamwork, with all of these individuals and groups coming together for a single purpose–to broaden our knowledge of the painted lady.

The Great Butterfly Adventure is billed as a “major entomological event.” Whether or not this is true, one thing is for sure–it is a giant step in getting to know the most widely distributed butterfly species on the planet.

But this film is not just for the butterfly enthusiast. The tale of the Painted lady is one of perseverance, determination, the fight for survival and adapting to the surrounding environment. This is something we can all relate to.


How I got the shot

The first couple attempts at photographing butterflies ended rather poorly for me. Up until then I had been accustomed to shooting things like mushrooms, lichens and mosses. These Painted Lady on Buddleiaorganisms did not move around a lot. Once I tried photographing butterflies, I realized that every shot I took was either out of frame or extremely blurry.

To make things worse, my camera (Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX7) would not allow me to position it a couple feet back and zoom in, if I wanted a full frame close-up of a butterfly. I literally had to be 2 or 3 inches away from the subject.

It wasn’t until I changed my approach, that I started seeing better results. My instinct was to rush in and get as close as possible before the butterfly flew away. My new technique was to be patient and slowly work my way closer to the butterfly as it went from blossom to blossom. Eventually the butterfly would get accustomed to my presence, and not see me as a threat. Of course there is always the risk that the subject will fly away while you are gaining its trust, but this definitely beat the way I was doing it before. This method seemed to work well with tiger swallowtails as well as painted ladies.

Vanessa carduiFor this painted lady, my patience rewarded me with a good 15 minutes of shooting from inches away. It was a sunny day, so I had to contend with harsh shadows. I tried to use the sun to my advantage.  For several of the photos, including the one that was used in the documentary, I positioned myself in a spot to catch the sun filtering through the butterfly’s wings, creating a nice glowing effect.

I am not a photographer by any stretch of the imagination, but I do like the challenge of finding something interesting, trying to capture it digitally, learning something about it, and then sharing it with others.

Painted Lady Photograph 8-17-14: Shutter Speed: 1/1600, F-Stop: f/1.4, ISO: 80

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4 Responses to My Painted Lady Makes the Big Time

  1. Fantastic that they used your photograph for the documentary, Rick! Congratulations! And it’s a beautiful contribution, too. How wonderful to see it enlarged like that. We never know where our own interests and curiosities will lead.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Bruce says:

    Rick, very nice post. Great shots as well. I know well the difficulty of photographing insects without specialized camera equipment, a lot of patience or persistence. I take lots of shots an maybe get a few reasonably good shots. occasionally, I get a good one. check out this blog.> blogs-no-reply@ucanr.edu The writer is particularly good and her photographic skills are exceptional. She posts interesting things about bees, other pollinators, butterflies, moths, and other garden insects.

    Liked by 1 person

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