Thursday, August 9, 2012

Chasing Butterflies with the LX5

A couple of weeks ago, I had the opportunity to take a tour of a preserve in order to watch the El Segundo Blue Butterfly, an endangered species found only in a small area of the dunes of El Segundo, California.

The El Segundo Blue Butterfly (Euphilotes battoides) is a sub-species of the Square-Spotted Blue Butterfly.  It is a small butterfly, about the size of an adult fingernail.  Its life cycle is completed within a year, during which time it lives as a butterfly for only one week (sometimes two weeks).  During that one week, the butterfly has to mate and lay its eggs.

Unlike other blue butterflies, the El Segundo eats only one kind of plant (both as a caterpillar and as a butterfly) -- the coastal buckwheat.  In 1976, less than 500 butterflies remained and it became the first insect listed as a federal endangered species.  Through conservation efforts, the El Segundo population has recovered, with approximately 120,000 butterflies counted this year.

For this project, I chose the Lumix LX-5.  I thought that the deep depth of field would help in capturing shots of the butterfly.

We had the help of an entomologist with us and he pointed out the coastal buckwheat plants, where the butterflies would most likely be found.  He also told us that butterflies try to conserve their energy by avoiding the wind.  So if you have a friend stand in a way that blocks the wind from a certain spot, there's a good chance the butterfly will rest at that spot.  Also if it is a windy day the butterflies will tend to stay close to the ground or bushes.  Even with those tips it was very challenging and required a lot of patience because the butterflies don't stay in place and fly away when we get near.

The closest I got to a butterfly was about a foot and a half.  So, contrary to what I expected, I did not get to use the macro capabilities of the LX-5.  Instead, what would have been more useful was having a long lens.  The LX-5 is the equivalent of 90mm at its longest, which is not very long.  However, the LX-5's built-in stabilization was handy for stabilizing the shot not just for taking the shot itself but also while framing the shot.  To help the image be as sharp as possible, I used a high shutter speed and a narrower aperture (keeping in mind that the diffraction limit of a point-and-shoot is wider than for a DSLR).  Given the relatively constant light (due to the cloudless sky), I used manual exposure mode, selecting the highest shutter speed (1/2000), the highest ISO that I consider acceptable for the LX-5 (ISO 400) and varying my aperture between f/4 and f/5.6.

Focusing was also a challenge because of the very busy background.  Even though I manually selected the autofocus area, it was hard for the camera to tell which one was the subject.  I usually had to refocus several times.

With some patience I was able to capture several shots of the butterflies, which I cropped in post to enlarge the view.

I plan to participate in next year's watch for the blue butterflies.  I plan to use both a point and shoot as well as a DSLR (so that I could use a longer focal length; I would just have to use a much smaller aperture for depth of field).