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Photographing Butterflies

( Originally Published 1917 )

There is a famous old saying that to make hare stew it is first necessary to catch your hare. So if one wishes to make perfect pictures of butterflies it is first necessary to get the caterpillars. For though caterpillars are not butterflies they are butterflies in the making and they will show you most interesting stages in nature's manufacture of these dainty and exquisite creatures. This is not, however, the chief reason why the photographer should get them. He will wish to make perfect pictures and in order to do this he must have not only perfect specimens but living butterflies which are willing to look pleasant while he makes comparatively long exposures under conditions of light that he can control. If you catch a butterfly out-doors and bring it in you will be likely to find that it is by no means a docile subject. The sunlight shining through the nearest window will be a call which you cannot counter-act and your butterfly will constantly respond to it in a most vexing manner. So you must catch the butterfly young and take advantage of a brief but docile period in their lives when they are willing to pose before your camera in quite a remarkable manner. This is the period just after the butterfly emerges from the chrysalis when its wings are fully developed but before the tissues have hardened and the muscles in the thorax are strong enough for flight. At this time the butterfly is perfect, every scale is in its place and every spot of color is at its best, and it will rest quietly upon a flower, leaf, or twig while you adjust the camera and expose the plate. From one such specimen one can get many pictures upon different flowers and with different angles, of view.

In order to make admirable photographs of living butterflies it is by no means necessary to have a regular photographic studio. If one has a room lighted from the north or east one can arrange for exposure near the window, using cardboard reflectors to make the light more even from both sides. In such a situation one soon learns the exposure periods required and can easily get many beautiful photographs.

A collection of prints of the butterflies of one's locality would be one of the most interesting photographic exhibits that an amateur could select. It is comparatively easy to get rather full sets showing the life-histories of several of our larger species and such sets are of course of especial interest. In the case of those caterpillars which make nests upon the food plant, like the Painted Beauty larva which remains for weeks feeding upon the leaves of the common wild everlasting, the taking of the pictures of the different stages is comparatively easy. One can keep the plant with the stem in water, and get the caterpillar to change to the chrysalis, and emerge as the butterfly, in the nest made from the flower heads and the upper leaves.

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