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.

The Butterfly Conservatory may appear small, but it houses such a diversity of butterflies and a few moths that you'll wonder which way to turn first. It's important to remember to acclimate the camera to the tropical conditions before taking pictures. All photos were taken at the AMNH Butterfly Conservatory.
All Photos © 2008, Jack Neubart, All Rights Reserved

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.

Great Mormon
If you're brave enough and move with deliberate slowness, not making any sudden movements, you can capture seemingly menacing shots (at or near life size) of a Great Mormon (Papilio memnon). Since it sat still, I was able to photograph it from various angles with its cape-like wings. Note how the flash created some unusual catchlights in the eyes. (Canon EOS 5D plus macro, twin flash, ISO 400, f/16.)

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.

Orange Eater
The Owl butterfly (Caligo eurilochus) loves oranges. It will sit and feed on an orange for countless minutes--the perfect portrait subject. In this instance, a staff member brought it over for me to photograph, then had a couple of youngsters pose with it so their mom could take pictures. The conservatory staff is always ready to help you. (Canon EOS 5D plus 100mm macro, 530EX flash handheld, ISO 400, f/11.)

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.


JohnnyDocter's picture

Really informative article about the big city butterflies, there seems to be a large collection of butterflies and moth of different variety. Their protection in these greenhouses is a great idea for the conservation of their beautiful species. OmniTech Support