In this article, I discuss the difference in approach between nature photography for field guide type of illustration versus taking images that have a more artistic angle to them. The two types of photography are very different but require the same understanding of the underlying technical factors. It is also the case that with artistic photography you often have the type of images you want already conjured in your mind before you set out into the field.

I will illustrate my points with a few examples. On a warm and sunny day in September, I headed to Hutchinson’s Bank, near East Croydon, which is managed by the London Wildlife Trust (LWT). I was aware that Leslie Williams had been sourcing images for a forthcoming London Butterfly Atlas to be published by the London Natural History Society. From my involvement in helping with the London Bird Atlas, I was anticipating that we may need some artistic images which can be used as section dividers in the book that would need to be artistic rather than illustrative to uplift the overall aesthetics of the book. Images that are used as section dividers also need to be ones where if the necessary text can be overlaid on the image such that they do not fall over the main subject. For example, a butterfly positioned in says the bottom left quadrant with a largely plain and empty background can be used with or without text being overlain on the right hand side when used as a section divider. Many photographers will avoid such images thinking that they are wasting space. I knew from experience that images such as these are harder to source as most photographers are more interested in capturing images that show a plant or animal in a way that the subject fills the frame with the emphasis on capturing details that help with identification.

Having alighted at the New Addington tram stop, I was walking down a lane which leads to the reserve when I noticed a number of Small Whites on a verge which had been planted with butterfly plants by the London Wildlife Trust under their Brilliant Butterflies projects. The light was coming towards me and backlighting the butterflies. As the butterflies flitted around, the background rapidly changed from being very dark (caused by an area in shadow from houses shielding the sun) to very bright (the open sky). The conditions were very awkward. If I was only seeking to take perfectly exposed pictures to show what a Small White looks like, I would have continued on until I found some in a situation that was easier for illustrative photography. For something more artistic the conditions were perfect.

But there were a number of things I had to take into account. Firstly, I needed the butterflies to be off centre and artistically placed so that they were just an element of the image and not the dominant feature. Photographers often use what is called the rule of thirds. Imagine the image divided into three horizontal thirds by two lines and similarly into three vertical thirds by another two vertical lines forming a grid of nine rectangles. Under the rule of thirds, the four points of intersection of the lines are where an object of interest is positioned. Alternatively, the rule of thirds is also used to have a landscape image with one-third sky or two-thirds sky which is more pleasing than half each of land and sky.

Although I was not getting so close as to fill the frame with a butterfly, I was still very close to what is a small animal. This creates an issue with the depth of field which is so narrow that it is reduced to a few millimetres. This means that I could not use a central point of focus and then re-compose with the butterfly off centre. That small change could result in the butterfly being out of focus. Digital SLRs allow you to select a point from a grid of focus points in the viewfinder. What is more, this can be done by using buttons so that you don’t have to take your eye away from the viewfinder. As the butterflies flitted about, sometimes alighting for just a few seconds at a time, I had to change the focus point and re-focus and compose. If a butterfly moved even 25 cm the background would change from being almost black to dazzling bright. With a dark background I had to use the exposure compensation button to dial down the exposure and the reverse for a bright background. Experience and judgment were needed to estimate the right amount at the point of taking the pictures. I used another pair of buttons to do this without taking my eye off the viewfinder. Thus, there were three things I was having to do. Re-set the focussing point, adjust the exposure compensation, focus and compose. In the few seconds, it would take to do this, quite often the butterfly had moved on before I could press the shutter release button. To take one or two good images, I would have spent over half an hour. I also found a lot of local people wanted to stop and chat with me and share with me their butterfly-watching anecdotes. With all of this, I would have spent an hour before I continued to Hutchinson’s Bank.

Unlike with mammals, which display a wide range of behaviours, with butterflies there is a limited repertoire of behaviour that lends itself to photography. One aspect that can lend itself to photography, albeit to those in the know, is the habit of some species to use a territorial perch and to sally forth to challenge intruders or intercept females. Once again this requires pulling back and showing the butterfly in context on a perch. Both the Comma and the Small Copper use territorial perches. The Comma often perching high, sometimes at head heigh for a person. The Small Copper is often just 10 cm or so above the ground on a grass head. One of the images I took of a Comma was of one using a territorial perch beside one of the paths connecting Hutchinson’s Bank with Chapel Bank. I became aware of it as it buzzed me fearlessly. With the Comma, I positioned it off centre to show it using a territorial perch as opposed to simply feeding on nectar. For added effect, I positioned myself for a backlit image.

With the Small Copper, after watching carefully at the ‘cutting’ in Hutchinson’s Bank I found one that was using a territorial perch. I went low down and again positioned it off centre and showed the whole perch (a grass flower head) for an image that was aesthetically appealing as well as one that tells us something about its behaviour. The cameras on phones have much more depth of field than one would get using the 100-400mm lens I had on my digital SLR. Although much cheaper, a smartphone picture would actually work better to show a butterfly on a territorial perch scanning the countryside around it. I will keep this in mind for next summer.

Although I have written this with reference to butterflies, these photographic techniques can be applied widely in nature photography to take an image which is something more than just a frame filling image to provide an illustrative record of what a species looks like.

Useful Information

A number of groups in London organise a range of bird-watching and other nature walks as well as day trips by coach or by using public transport to sites further afield from London. Three groups which are especially suited for residents and visitors in Central London are the London Natural History Society, Marylebone Birdwatching Society and the RSPB Central London Local Group.

For visiting nature reserves in London, see also the websites of the London Wildlife Trust and London Wetland Centre. For nature-based activities for children and adults in a Central London Park, see the website of the Holland Park Ecology Centre. For more information on butterflies see Brilliant Butterflies and Butterfly Conservation.