Photography’s Reality Distortion Field

Looks like the Adonis Blues took a bit of a hammering in the high winds we had recently. I was at our local Site of Special Scientific Interest yesterday and there were, as I’d heard, numerous Adonis Blues on the wing.

I took a few pictures but came across none that were in really mint condition. The wing edges of even the shiny, fresh ones looked frayed. No surprises really as winds here gusted to 40 MPH for a couple of days. In the sheltered valley where we live, the blustery wind managed to break a substantial branch – ten or twelve foot long – off a willow tree next to our garage. The wind must have been quite violent on the exposed downland. 

Edges frayed so that the usual checkered fringe is no longer visible.
Lovely pale blue fur though.

But of course the animals and plants that live there have adapted to the conditions. I noticed this time that the Buttercups on the site really do hug the ground – just a couple of inches or so off it – whereas in the field next to us, in the valley, there are Buttercup plants two to three foot tall. Don’t know if they’re the same or similar species (must check it out), but they have very different dimensions. Of course, individual plants adapt to the particular environment in which they find themselves. Plants that are cropped by grazing animals (or lawn mowers) produce shorter flowering stalks at their next attempt – but I wonder whether there is also some local selective pressure that favours the genes of plants with shorter flower stems. A question of balancing the advantages of attracting pollinators with higher more visible flowers against the likelihood of being snapped off in a strong wind – a kind of evolutionary Tall Poppy Syndrome.

There’s another aspect of flower heights that occurred to me, which is probably not quite as academic as questions of Survival of the Fittest. It’s to do with how accurately photographers represent their subjects’ environment.

At this time of year, during their first emergence, Adonis Blues spend much of their time sipping the nectar of the Horseshoe Vetch (which is their caterpillar food plant and which, not surprisingly, there are plenty of where you find the Adonis). They seem to me to spend more time on these bright yellow flowers, which grow close the ground, than on any other. The problem for the photographer is that when the flower they’re attracted to most is so close to the ground, it’s difficult to achieve a nicely thrown-out-of-focus background. And their being in amongst the matt of ground foliage, you often get other plants obscuring your view and throwing shadows on to your subject. As a result you tend to spend most of your time looking, and waiting, for butterflies that have perched on something taller – grass seed heads, or taller flowers.

You can see that the image on the right with the Adonis perched on a Horseshoe Vetch flower is a bit muddled with the in-focus grass stems all around, one of which is casting a shadow over the butterfly itself. Not ideal. But perhaps it’s a truer image of the butterfly in its habitat than the one at the top of the blog which is a better picture. There is also a heavy shadow on the central image of a mating pair, which isn’t great either, but I’ve included it here because you can see how vividly orange the underside of their antennae tips are – it came as a surprise to me.

Does it matter that the pictures you end up with are not particular representative of the butterfly’s habits and habitat or their flower nectar preferences? Not sure. Probably not. But that was certainly the case for the selection I took yesterday. Aesthetic considerations distorting reality? Nothing particularly new there: don’t let facts get in the way of a good story; don’t let Nature get in the way of a good image.

Battered male Adonis, perched on a grass seed head

In the above image of an Adonis on a grass seed head, we can see evidence of all the Horseshoe Vetch plants in the background – maybe the best of both worlds.

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2 Comments

  1. Love the Adonis. Made two trips to the Chilterns to see them (second brood) https://blhphotoblog.wordpress.com/portfolio/adonis-blue-delight/ they are very special.
    Now your main point, this was a discussion I had with another blogger, Mike at https://alittlebitoutoffocus.com/?wref=bif (worth checking out). Most of those perfect images, a perfect butterfly on a perfect flower with a neutral background are quite often set up by capture and chilling and a generous dose of post processing. If that’s what the photographer wants then fine, great for books or magazines but not a reflection of reality. Myself I try to achieve perfect shots without resorting to the above. All mine are natural and if I get a ‘perfect shot’ then it’s usually through pure chance. I take thousands of images and spend many hours in the field taking them and I suppose the number of ‘perfect’ shots is only a couple of dozen or so!

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    1. I didn’t realise those perfect images you see are often posed and the butterflies chilled. Chilling butterflies! That’s given me quite a lift, thinking about my own efforts. I’m with you: it needs to be natural. A big part of the fun is discovering other things in the photos that are part of the habitat and which you hadn’t been aware of when you took the picture. And of course sometimes there are happy accidents, unintended elements, which make the photo special. Having said all that, it is nice – if you can manage it – to get a crisp shot of a beautiful butterfly with a nicely blurred, neutral background in just the right colours. Now and again. Thanks for the pointer toward that blog. Will check it out.

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