Butterfly Macro Photography – Lesser Purple Emperor Butterfly – Watch on YouTube
In this butterfly macro photography article, we’re taking a close-up look at the unique iridescent wings of the Purple Emperor butterfly.
The Purple Emperor is increasingly rare in the UK, but we have access to some well-preserved specimens thanks to the MSc Biological Photography and Imaging course at Nottingham University’s School of life sciences.
The Lesser Purple Emperor
This butterfly is special. The slight purple sheen you see on the wings is a unique form of colour created not by pigments, but by structures on the wing. Other butterflies create colour in the same way, but the purple emperor has a trick up its sleeve (or wing).
The colour on the wing of the purple emperor is directional. You can only see it from certain angles and with certain lighting conditions. It’s easy to move your head around and see the colours change in person, but capturing this effect is difficult, it’s been called “The Unphotographable Butterfly”.
The “Unphotographable” Butterfly
The effect on the wings of the purple emperor is called iridescence. A sort of shimmer as light bounces off reflective structures on the surface. There are the usual butterfly patterns on the wing too, but the blue shows as a temporary colour only from certain angles. Easy to see in person, but very hard to capture the full effect in photographs.
While you can demonstrate the effect on video under most lighting conditions, simply by moving the camera around, still images are very tricky. The position of both the light and the observer (or camera) is critical to get the blue effect to show.
As you can see, our butterfly is no longer fluttering. This is a dried specimen, one of many from the entomological collection at the University of Nottingham, some of which are 100s of years old and carry a prestigious heritage from their original collectors.
While the subject being still makes things easier, we do still need to take some steps like raising the butterfly off the shooting surface, and of course, thinking about our lighting.
Lighting for Butterfly Macro Photography
The difference in the images above is diffusion. Exacting placement of the light sources is required to shine off the iridescence and we found that the multi-directional light created by a large diffusion surface area diminished the effect.
Instead, we placed two white Lighting Arm-s, pointed directly at the wings. The Lighting Arms had to cross over, as the correct direction for the light, was coming from about 45 degrees towards the body. to light both wings at the same time would be very tricky without a lot of control over your light.
Luckily the Adaptalux Studio is designed for situations like this, with highly controllable, flexible lighting arms that can be placed in the exact spots needed for each wing. We also used a couple more White arms to light the background under the butterfly.
The strange reflective structures can be seen up close on the wing, arranged in lines. This becomes totally invisible without light bouncing from the correct angle. In-person, the effect is much more exaggerated and beautiful. It shimmers and shines with every movement.
So is the Lesser Purple Emperor “Unphotographable”? It’s certainly not possible to show off the full beauty of the shimmer in still images. You can, however, get it to shine and show off the purple colour, with the right lighting and some patience!
We have to thank the School of Life Sciences at Nottingham University and particularly the team from the MSc Biological Photography and Imaging course for giving us access to their collections and expertise!
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