I learned recently that the Minnesota Zoo has a butterfly garden. In addition to demonstrating how incredibly long it’s been since I’ve been to the zoo — a shame — this also presented what I thought was a fantastic photography opportunity! An enclosed building with hundreds and hundreds of butterflies of all kinds, just waiting to be shot. Fantastic!

Well, not so much.

I grabbed my camera and spent a good amount of time wandering from flower to flower, shooting butterflies, having butterflies land on me, whisk out of frame just before I pressed the shutter, or delightfully stay still as if posing.

Monarch Butterfly

1/320th at f5.6 on ISO 400 with 200mm focal length

I got home and wasn’t terribly thrilled with the shots. I grabbed a macro lens and went back, did more shooting and went home again disappointed. Then I realized the horrible truth, something I should have remembered from my Heinlein:

“Butterflies are not insects. They are self-propelled flowers.”
– R. Heinlein

I also hate flowers…

I learned a long, long time ago — back in the wee youth of my photography life — that it was frickin hard to take a good picture of a flower. And the reason it’s so hard is that it’s so easy to take a good picture of a flower. Bear with me a sec — I swear this makes sense.

Say you want to shoot a flower. You zoom in nice and close, leave everything on auto, and then you press the shutter. You now have a glorious picture with bright, vibrant colors offset by a dark, out of focus background. It’s lovely. And it’s just like every other picture every other person takes of a flower.

Butterfly on flower

1/1000th at f7.1 on ISO 400 with 200mm focal length

The reason it’s so hard to take a really good shot of a flower is that it’s so easy to take a good shot of a flower.

There are a bazillion shots of flower that are all good, that all look just like your shot. Your shot doesn’t stand out, nothing makes it remarkable, special. After all “good” and “bad” are qualitative terms, not quantitative. It’s graded on a curve. Something is only good if it’s substantially better than most of the pack.

I’m passing on self-propelled flowers for now

So after two shoots I ended up with a bunch of perfectly acceptable and fairly average shots of butterflies. The best I got, I think, was a shot of a moth on some peeling bark, nicely backlit.

Cecropia Moth

1/90th at f5.6 on ISO 400 with 200mm focal length

I suspect the way to get some truly stunning butterfly shots is to actually shoot them in the air — midflight, perfectly in focus and with their wings spread just so.

I do not have the patience for that. Not nearly. And I’m not sure the nice people guarding the butterfly garden and herding children away would have the patience for me to sit there that long either. So for the time being I’ve decided to take my revenge on the damned butterflies the old fashioned way: by outliving them.