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Summer garden photography

  • Written by  Keith Wilson
  • Published in Geophoto
Summer garden photography
02 Jul
Forced isolation has given many of us the chance to better appreciate the nature that lives closest to us. Butterflies are one such visitor – but while easy to admire, they’re not so easy to photograph says Keith Wilson

The flight of butterflies over our gardens is one of the most welcoming signals of summer’s arrival, especially in a year that has witnessed an unprecedented restriction on travel beyond our homes. In recent months, those of us fortunate enough to have a garden have discovered a new-found appreciation in nature’s smaller wonders. Flocks of songbirds and busy squirrels, flowers in full bloom and pollinating insects remind us of the rich variety of flora and fauna that can be hosted by even a small patch of plants and shrubs. With their delicate shapes and vibrant wings, butterflies provoke a sense of wonder and delight in those who gaze upon their fragile form. Along with the ever-active bumble bees and inquisitive robins, they are among the most well-received visitors to Britain’s city gardens. 

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Summer is the time when garden photography can be about so much more than making carefully composed images of verdant flowers and plants; it is also the season for focusing on the small animals that find food and shelter in our backyards. By providing a regular supply of food it is possible to influence their feeding behaviour and thereby guarantee regular visits. For example, songbirds are quick to find a newly installed feeder and thereby provide the means to study their behaviour as well as determine the number of different species to be seen in our neighbourhoods. 

Of course, patient observation is the best way to begin a garden photo safari and time spent is often rewarded with unexpected sightings. Indeed, with so many of us forced to stay at home in the past few months, our gardens are becoming a source of surprise and wonder after years of oversight! Research by scientists has revealed that over the course of a year a typical well-planted 30ft terrace back garden in Britain’s cities will be visited by dozens of different species from blackbirds to bumblebees, foxes to fritillaries, hedgehogs to house martins. But of all these creatures, it is the butterfly that is the most challenging to photograph. 

Butterfly lifecycle 

Fortunately, most butterflies rarely venture far from home, preferring instead to stay no more than a short flight from the plants they ate as caterpillars before forming their chrysalis. As well as the food source, knowledge of the lifecycle of butterflies will help improve your chances of locating suitable subjects for photography. Because butterflies are cold-blooded creatures and need to be warm before becoming active, the best time to photograph them is early in the morning, before they have warmed up sufficiently to take flight. But a butterfly’s life is brief and in temperate climates adults do not live longer than a couple of weeks. 

The speed of the metamorphosis will also be affected by the weather. For instance, a prolonged period of warm temperatures will hasten the speed of the whole transition. Even then, butterflies look at their best for just a few days after their emergence. This is also when they will spend most of their time feeding, and therefore remain still for longer, making it easier to try your luck with the camera, rather than later in the lifecycle when they urgently chase potential mates before they die.   

Because of their desperately short lifespan and susceptibility to changes in habitat, the presence (or lack) of butterflies is regarded as a barometer for the wider state of the environment. Currently, the UK is home to nearly 60 species, more than a dozen of which are annual migrants. Summer is the peak season for sightings, but some migrants such as the long-tailed blue and the monarch are becoming increasingly rare; in all, more than a dozen species of butterfly that used to visit or reside in the UK are now extinct. 

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Depth of field & focusing

The easiest photographs to attempt are those where the butterfly is at right angles to the camera with its wings together. When the wings are in this position depth of field is shallow, so it is easier to have the whole of the body and the wings in focus. However, such a composition isn’t aesthetically pleasing to the eye because what we are seeing is the underside of the wing, with less defined markings and faded, muted colours. Fortunately, butterflies don’t generally rest in this position for long, and the time to frame the photograph is when they bring their wings down for that brief moment before taking off. 

Although their eyesight is poor, butterflies are very good at detecting movement in the air, so try to avoid making a sudden rapid approach as this will cause them to take flight. Instead, keep quiet and keep your distance by using a telephoto zoom or longer focal length macro lens; the greater lens-to-subject distance gives a better chance to frame and focus successfully for the desired result. However, one of the major technical characteristics of a macro lens is reduced depth of field – the part of the composed area that is actually in focus. To gain maximum depth of field, choose a smaller lens aperture, say f/16 or f/22. Also, keep the ISO setting high enough to ensure that the resulting shutter speed won’t be so slow as to risk camera shake when working with available light. When shooting with a true macro lens, remember to select manual focus as this is more reliable than autofocus for making finer focusing adjustments. Another reason for eschewing AF is butterflies can detect sound: a noisy AF motor may prompt your subject to take to the air. 

Garden watch

At this time of year, it isn’t just migratory butterflies that are attracted to these shores by the warmer weather: many migratory birds, notably swifts and swallows can be spotted darting high above the city rooftops, eating voraciously on the wing and nesting under eaves or on high tower walls. At ground level, look out for hedgehogs returning to gardens after their winter hibernation, now foraging through leaf litter for snails and grubs. Summer is also the time for fox kits to make an appearance, emerging from their urban dens beneath garden sheds and garages to play when the coast is clear. If you or a near neighbour has a garden pond then other possible photo opportunities include common frogs and toads leaving the water’s edge to find food beneath shrubs and hedges. Ponds are also home to many species of iridescent dragonflies and damselflies which are abundant at the height of summer and into September. This is also a peak month for several species of migrant butterfly, most notably a new generation of painted ladies, which emerge after a short pupation, following the summer arrival of the previous generation from North Africa to lay their eggs in Britain’s verdant gardens and woodland verges. 

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Macro to telephoto

With this much potential for your camera, you might think there is little to be missed by spending more time at home after all. Most garden subjects, from flowering plants to the myriad species of insects, are smaller than a thumb, so a good quality macro lens with a focal length between 50mm and 150mm is an essential piece of kit. 

Setting up your camera and tripod near some flowers is a good starting point for making a photographic record of the nature to be found on your doorstep. If there is little or no breeze, you can have all the time you want to photograph, varying your point of focus and composition, altering the height and angle of your camera, and experimenting with apertures and shutter speeds to see the effect of depth of field and image blur. 

There is another practical reason to commence your garden safari in this way and that is the prospect of butterflies, bees or other pollinating insects alighting on the plants. After all, the secret to so much wildlife photography is not to chase after the subject, but to bring the subject to you. Your best chance of framing one of these creatures in your viewfinder is when they have settled on a flower or plant to feed or rest, and remain still for just long enough that you can frame, focus and fire the shutter. For photographing birds and other larger garden visitors, swap the macro lens for a telephoto to enable you to frame closely from a distance that doesn’t unsettle your subject. A standard 70-200mm or 70-300mm telephoto zoom lens will give you enough options to compose frame-filling pictures without having to change position. 

Urban sanctuaries

As more rural areas and green spaces are covered by out-of-town retail parks, new industrial estates, housing developments and even prisons, the inner city garden is playing a more significant role in the preservation of our wildlife. Birds nest at varying heights and some favour certain species of tree. For instance, the much-loved English oak supports more species of birds and insects than any other native tree. In recent years, tree-planting initiatives in many suburban streets have seen a greater variety of trees lining our roads, each one a potential roost, nest or feeding station for local birds, small mammals and insects. 

Whether in your back garden or along city streets, a diversity of plant species also promises a longer season of colourful flowers. For instance, hawthorn is also known as the May tree, because its small white flowers bloom in May. The wild yet delicate dog rose flowers in June, honeysuckle peaks at the height of summer in July and August, while most species of clematis continue to flower from June to September. A wide variety of plants and flowers is more likely to attract a greater diversity of wildlife, so it makes sense to plant shrubs, flowers and trees that provide all sorts of species with shelter and food. Of course, you can supplement what plants naturally provide with seed for the birds. As creatures of habit they will return with regularity to gardens that provide them with what they need. For this reason, put out bird feeders in places that will enable you to set up your camera in advance, and pre-focus on the feeder or baited perch, so that you are ready to trip the shutter when your feathered diners fly into view.

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