Locations; Big City Butterflies; Photographing At The American Museum Of Natural History’s Conservatory
Every year, New York City's American Museum of Natural History (AMNH)
comes to life with a teeming array of mesmerizing and vibrantly colorful butterflies
(and some moths) from around the world. The Butterfly Conservatory houses numerous
specimens reflecting the rich diversity of insects known collectively as Lepidoptera.
In fact, this collection even includes the world's largest moth species,
the Atlas moth.
The greenhouse is housed on the second floor of the museum. You'll step through one set of swinging doors on your way in, another on the way out--designed to acclimate you and prevent escapes. No reservations are required (but you need a ticket). You can stay as long as you want, if you don't mind the tropical conditions.
Be Aware Of Your Surroundings
Many butterflies will flutter past you, but many more can be found feeding. They may feed on a flower's nectar, or can even be found sucking up the juice from oranges or colorful feeders strategically placed around the exhibit. Butterflies and moths remain relatively still while feeding, long enough for you to take a few pictures. Early in the morning--in fact, as soon as the exhibit opens--is the best time, because the insects are still somewhat torpid, requiring exposure to the heat lamps to energize them, making them appear more cooperative. And newly emerged butterflies need to "compose" themselves before venturing out into the world, providing more opportunities to photograph a stationary subject.
As you look around you, butterflies and moths are everywhere. Some will come
to rest on windows and overhead fixtures, but most alight on plants and flowers
(including orchids) within easy reach of your lens. Some butterflies will even
land on the floor, at your feet, so step cautiously. And they've been
known to rest on a head or shoulder--or even a camera. Never handle the
butterflies and moths--leave that to the experts. A friend or even the
friendly staff can help point out some worthwhile subjects while you're
busy in another corner of the conservatory.
When shooting close-ups, pull back at some point for a wider shot--to get a sense of the environment (and as a reminder of the insect's orientation--right-side up, upside down, or somewhat vertical, facing up or down). With tight shots, the orientation may not matter, since there's often no frame of reference.
Recipe For Success: Simple Ingredients
For serious butterfly photography, you'll need an SLR. If you have to change lenses (or film), do it in the vestibule.
I prefer a 100mm macro lens on my Canon EOS 5D. I favor the short telephoto because it affords more breathing room between me and my potentially flighty subjects than a shorter focal length. Also, this combo is a good weight to heft, especially when held in one hand (when shooting with flash off-camera). This focal length would work as well on an APS-C or Four Thirds-format camera (equals 150mm and 200mm, respectively), although with these formats, something a bit shorter should be as usable. For starters, shoot at half life size; as you get more comfortable, move in closer. If you want to tempt fate, add an extension tube.