My Journey with a Wildlife and Macro Photographer – (Part 1: The Discovery)

Do you remember Thomas DelahayeI interviewed him this past September and even spent two mornings with him shooting what he does best, butterflies. I wanted to understand how he could take those wonderful and very artistic pictures.  Here I’m about to tell you my journey with a pro photographer.

The Meeting Spot

Thomas set the “rendez-vous” very early, he said “If we want the best possible light and quiet butterflies, we have to arrive at my spot at dawn”. I was ready to go, “Sure! Whatever we need to do, I want to discover how you work”.

“Once Upon a Time” |90mm; f/2.8; 1/4000 sec; 100 ISO | It’s not the sun, nor the moon, but a flashlight. I set my camera on the spot metering mode. You sometimes have to find tricks to be creative. Check out my article about how to shoot silhouettes.

The spot is located nearby the castle of Fontainebleau, about 40 miles (70km) away from Paris, France. As we were supposed to meet

there at 5:30 AM, I had to wake up early, a bit before 4 AM. It was a one hour drive from home.

First lesson I learnt: Be an early bird! The light is awesome at dawn and most species, not only butterflies, are still quiet. They are easier to photograph. You can also shoot at sunset of course, it goes without saying that the light will be different. Sunset light can be good for deer for instance, but not for butterflies as they are way too active at this hour of the day. That’s why we needed to be there at dawn.

“Butterfly’s Planet” |90mm; f/2.8; 1/100 sec; 1000 ISO |Adding an artifact close to the subject but on the foreground can bring an idea of the dimension or just emphasize the bokeh.

I wasn’t used to shoot butterflies before, I didn’t know anything about them by then. While it’s still quite dark, I discover my first difficulty: “trying to find them”. The species of butterflies in this spot are very tiny and seem to hide. I was amazed at how Thomas could see them. He could found them very easily while I was struggling to see even one. That shows that it requires training!

Observing the Pro

Now that we found a couple of them, let’s see what the best perspective is and how to fine tune my camera.  But before that, I observed Thomas to see how he gets set. He lays down on the ground, check a couple of settings, then turns around to see which perspective to take before shooting, the sun is still not at the horizon, it’s too dark to start.

Little anecdote, butterflies might be sleeping at this hour but spiders and gnats are already very active and they all seem to know how to find you! That’s the part I didn’t like (Laughs). They were all over, I think I ate one or two gnats, Eww.

“Above the Mist” |90mm; f/2.8; 1/100 sec; 125 ISO | The mist effect is not actually mist but a trick. I will explain it in the second part of this article.

As soon as the light is getting better, he starts to shoot a butterfly. Let’s see how he does.

Second lesson I learnt: Be observant. It helps finding the butterflies but also to look at how the pro takes his pictures. Don’t rush yourself, you’re here to learn I told myself. Unfortunately, I better do not take too much time either as the light changes quickly at dawn. You might be surprised by the way he takes his pictures and his settings.

First Attempt

So I lay down again on the ground as those little things gain charisma if you shoot against-angle. So let’s start now!

“Sweet Glow” |90mm; f/2.8; 1/100 sec; 100 ISO |

So what about the settings? Well, they are not quite the ones I expected. First and foremost, primes are better in this situation I think. Prior to this experience, I thought zooms could be interesting as they allow you to adapt to your subject but they are not fast enough in this low light situation. So we are the ones moving all around the butterflies. Everything between 90mm and 150mm will do. Thomas also uses a 100mm, 300mm and even a 500mm. But usually the 500mm is dedicated to wildlife photography of course.

Second, Thomas almost never uses his Optical View Finder (OVF) for this kind of work, nor his flash. Great, I have a tilt screen, I’ll do the same, it’s way easier to shoot on the ground with this kind of gimmick that you will quickly learn to love if you like macro work.

“Overlooking” |75mm; f/5.6; 1/400 sec; 800 ISO | This is a good example of how to use a human construction to make an original bokeh. I explain it better in the second part.

I’m used to focus manually for all the macros I do. That wasn’t such a good idea here. It’s not that the butterflies move a lot, in fact, they’re sleeping but the wind can be your enemy. I quickly noticed that Thomas only uses the AF. Unfortunately, I could have noticed it even earlier, I would have missed less shots.

In order to create the composition we wanted, we used the flexible spot mode to indicate exactly where we wanted the camera to focus. I have a touchscreen, that’s even easier. We had to be quick between shots to change the compositions. I had brought my tripod but it turned out that it’s totally useless. To be completely free when composing, we couldn’t use tripods as we did not have hours in front of us to take the best shots.

“Black Pearl” |90mm; f/2.8; 1/800 sec; 100 ISO |Another example of how to use human constructions, this silhouette is obtained thanks to the arch of a bridge. I explain it in-depth in the second part. Stay tuned.

And what about the f stop? I took all my pictures at f/2.8, the depth of field was often a little bit too shallow. Maybe I should have checked regularly my shots to see if they were correctly focused. Closing the diaphragm helps having a wider depth of field and thus focusing on the butterfly. One of the drawbacks is losing light. Remember that we’re shooting at dawn, it’s still pretty dark after all. So I had to fine-tune this element. Between f/2.8 and f/3.2 was generally pretty good. Of course it depends on the lens.

“Karma” |90mm; f/2.8; 1/500 sec; 100 ISO | The big yellow circle is the rising sun through the foliage.

As I was shooting in Aperture Priority, I also chose the spot metering mode in order to control as much as possible my exposure. Thomas shoots full manual so that doesn’t apply to him but I was not confident shooting full manual as I wouldn’t have been quick enough between my shots.

So as soon as the sun was rising, we started to shoot and kept shooting none stop. Changing our positions all around the same butterfly to change the perspective and the light. As I said, it’s quite hard as the light changes quickly and continuously while shooting. That requires to adapt the angles towards our subject and the camera settings. Especially the exposure.

“Instantly” |90mm; f/2.8; 1/125 sec; 100 ISO |Look at the bokeh. They are half circles, not round ones like usually. That’s another trick that I will explain in the second part.

When we’re done with a specific butterfly, we try another one and so on.

Follow up for the second and last part of this experience. You will see that it has been an experience boost and an excellent way to improve my creativity and get inspired!

Don’t hesitate to contact me or leave a message below if you have any questions or comments.

See you for the Part 2 next week!


More pictures underneath:

“Blue Smoke” |90mm; f/3.2; 1/2000 sec; 100 ISO |
“Seabed” |90mm; f/2.8; 1/800 sec; 100 ISO | The background is obtained thanks to the wall of a bridge behind. It’s a good thing to try to use human constructions too.
“Delicacy” |75 mm; f/5.6; 1/80 sec; 100 ISO |High-key example
“Romance at Dawn” |75mm; f/7.1; 1/640 sec; 100 ISO | With extension tubes. Silhouettes are always quite poetic.
“Listen…” |75mm; f/5.6; 1/125 sec; 100 ISO |