False Apollo: Trade-offs, Chances, Hopes, Frustrations

This time for something different (don’t worry, orchid fans: normal service will be resumed shortly 😉 ).


As some of you will know if you’ve read my ukbutterflies trip report (link in the links page), you will know that I’ve become something of a butterfly nut(!) of late.  In the early stages of planning my trip to Greece early this year, I knew that I’d have a time window of about week or so during which to spend at least part of the time to do some macro photography.

Last July my trip to Greece was pretty much exclusively a hunt for butterflies, and it was very successful, in that I came away with 51 new species (74 species in total) and a range of good new photographs, some of which are now adorning the room I’m writing this from, as large prints on the wall.

I may well have opportunities in future to visit other high-altitude locations on the Greek mainland (particularly noteworthy for the wide range of Lycaenidae – Hairstreaks, Coppers, and Blues). On this occasion, however, I determined to push myself further, learn about orchids, practice my flower photography skills, and also get some new butterfly species, by taking a springtime trip.

In particular, I hoped to find two species new to me, False Apollo (Archon apollinus) and Green-underside Blue (Glaucopsyche alexis): the former, the present subject, is a large and distinctive species with diaphanous wings, which has a distribution from Eastern Greece through Turkey and down into Israel and Jordan – hence Samos being a good place to try for it in Europe; the latter is more widely distributed within Greece but I just missed them last summer, so I thought I’d try again.  As it happens, I found both species on Samos, which was great.

Trying to get technically good butterfly shots is a very different ballgame from working with flowers, especially in warm to hot, sunny conditions.  The traditional way of shooting butterflies is to be out early or late in the day when the butterflies are sluggish or asleep, and shoot them as if they were static subjects rather like flowers.  I have to say that I’m yet to fully master this approach, which requires a very high degree of patience and luck as well as technical skill; and, in places like Greece, there’s still no guarantee that butterflies will be asleep or sluggish, when early morning temperatures can already be in the mid-teens Celsius at least.  My personal approach with butterflies is generally to work as flexibly as possible with a handheld setup that allows me to stalk subjects quickly but maintain sufficient working distance not to spook them when they are feeding on flowers (my lens-plate setup also means I can quickly switch over to tripod-shooing).  This handheld method can produce excellent results, but the percentage of wasted shots can often be very high!  For comparison, last year when I was hunting just butterflies in Greece, I shot over 58GB of shots in 10 days; this time, with a mixture of handheld butterfly- and tripod-based orchid-shooting for the same time, I shot less than half this amount.

So how does this all relate to the present shot of the False Apollo?  Well, I was delighted to find this subject, but, as I feared, it was the only one I saw during the whole trip.  I had to try my best with what presented itself to me…

My files tell me I took 231 shots of this single butterfly in 10 minutes!  (Even for me this is pretty extreme!)  And none of the shots are technically perfect.  First of all, the subject itself is far from in top condition.  Secondly, the lighting was pretty harsh, and even with a diffused flash and a polarizer, the large reflective wings of the subject were always going to be difficult, something which no amount of post-processing would entirely resolve (you can’t use a large UV diffuser with active butterflies!!).  Third, it preferred to perch on flowers pretty low to the ground – ok for small subjects, but for the larger butterflies this usually means that isolating them from busy backgrounds at the larger f-numbers required is often difficult or impossible.

When you are on the shot you know all this, and keep going in the hope that you’ll have at least something for your efforts, with as much of the subject in focus as possible, and a reasonable, if not perfect, background.

So this is a record-shot rather than one for the wall, and a testament to the frustrations as well as excitement of butterfly photography.  Nevertheless, species number 94 for my wild butterfly life-list!

Technical information for the shot:

Location: above Vorliotes, Northern Central Samos, 524m altitude (another spot for orchids, but which turned out in fact to be better for butterflies and birds)


Nikon D3S/200f4micro/cpl/SB600/softbox

ISO 400 1/250 f/18 handheld

2 thoughts on “False Apollo: Trade-offs, Chances, Hopes, Frustrations

  1. A cool and unusual butterfly – I think the image is good, the condition of the butterfly is;t, as you write. I’ve never seen a temperate zone clearwing butterfly like this – just tropical ones.

    • Thanks for this, Tom, and thanks for stopping in. Yes it’s very much as you say; it’s quite a shame with these guys since the wing margins which are the first to get damaged have nice contrasting patterning which you of course can’t see here.

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