Butterflies at RHS Wisley


Giant Owl (Caligo telamonius memnon) – ISO 1600; 60mm macro; f/2.8; 1/160 sec (click image to view larger size)

This week I paid a visit to the RHS gardens at Wisley in Surrey, where up to 6000 butterflies will be flying around inside the glasshouse. Officially opening on Saturday 14th January, I went a few days early after a tip from a fellow camera club member that they would be in place before the opening and hopefully not so busy. It certainly was fairly quiet and they may not have had all 6000 in flight, as I imagine most are still to be released into the glasshouse, but there were enough to provide a challenge at photographing them!

The main challenges were shooting handheld with limited depth of field, sometimes in lower light, achieving a fast enough shutter speed to counteract any camera shake and keeping important parts of the butterflies in focus. With all that to contend with, you also need to be aware of the background so it’s not too cluttered and doesn’t detract from the subject (something I’ve written about before). Take this example:

Blue Morpho (Morpho peleides)

Blue Morpho (Morpho peleides) – ISO 1600; 60mm macro; f/4; 1/320 sec.

Not totally in focus but just about acceptably sharp, the butterfly looks fine but the busy background is too distracting for my liking even though it looks natural.

The contrast with this is obvious:


Identity unknown – ISO 3200; 60mm macro; f/4; 1/90 sec.

Even though that is much more pleasing, the dark blob near the tips of the antennae doesn’t feel right and if I’d noticed it at the time I would have moved the camera position slightly.

Being in a very hot and humid environment also had drawbacks. I had to keep checking the front of my lens to wipe away moisture and the humidifiers were spraying mist into the air roughly every ten minutes when very fine water droplets would be falling down so I covered the camera with a cloth whenever this happened. Wearing winter clothing meant I was also overheating and feeling uncomfortable, I really felt that I should have been wearing shorts and a t-shirt!

Great Owls at feeding station -

Great Owls at feeding station – ISO 1600; 60mm macro; f/2.8; 1/550 sec.

For anyone else planning to go, here are some thoughts and tips from my experience that might help:

  • Practice at the feeding stations (previous image) to get your technique right, they’re at a nice height and the butterflies mostly remain stationary
  • The Giant Owl butterflies (main image at top) aren’t too bothered about you getting close, so are good for macro close-ups
  • Take a cloth to clean the lens and keep water droplets off
  • A tripod/monopod could help with camera stability but might be tricky in confined spaces and with crowds
  • A lens with a wide aperture will help keep your shutter speed up and give you a diffused background, but will then give you a narrower depth of field to work with
  • Don’t be afraid to push the ISO up, at one point I was using ISO 3200 to get a shutter speed of 1/30 sec at f/4
  • Manual focusing can work better than auto-focusing on some cameras/lenses, especially when dealing with tiny areas as your point of focus
  • If your camera has focus peaking, use this to highlight the area in focus and move the camera very slowly forwards and backwards until your selected point is in focus
  • I also find that shooting in mono helps when using focus peaking, but that might just be due to my less than perfect eyesight! (shoot RAW and convert to colour later)
  • Try continuous shooting mode to fire a burst of 3-5 shots, hoping that one of them will be stable and in focus
  • If you have a tripod, try a technique called focus stacking
  • Some butterflies rest out of reach so a longer telephoto lens would be useful for them
  • It’s warmer on the upper level, so go downstairs to cool off a bit
  • If you’re on the upper level, you can have drips of water land on you if you’re beneath the humidifiers as they start spraying mist, so beware

Remember to move slowly and look around, not especially to avoid disturbing (or treading on!) the butterflies, but also take the time to look properly. You never know where you will spot them. This one I noticed on a small rock in the middle of a pool and I had to balance precariously while holding the camera out in front of me:


Giant Owl (Caligo telamonius memnon) – ISO 3200; 60mm macro; f/4; 1/30 sec

I wasn’t even aware of those tiny water snails on the rock until I saw the full sized image on my PC screen!

Also, try looking up now and again:


Giant Owl (Caligo telamonius memnon) – ISO 1600; 60mm macro; f/4; 1/100 sec

After two hours of shooting, I think I probably came away with maybe six images (of butterflies) that were acceptably sharp, but remember there are other subjects to try. These are a few of the additional images I took of ferns, palms and other plants:

I’m due to visit again in just over a week with a group I belong to (about 30 of us!), but on a Saturday when I imagine it will be a lot busier. Hopefully, there won’t be too much elbowing or kicking of tripod legs!

If you are thinking of going, then make sure you book a timed ticket to avoid the queues at busy times.

All images were made with the Fujifilm X-T1 and the XF 60mm f2.4 macro lens.

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8 thoughts on “Butterflies at RHS Wisley

  1. Some lovely photos and I like your dialog. I went last year and used a very low power flash for some shots which worked quite well. It didn’t seem to be a problem for the butterflies or officials.

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