2021 in the zodiac calendar is the year of the ox – for me it was the year of the butterfly. A birder by trade, previous butterfly seasons failed to come to fruition owing to the complex requirements of these dainty creatures and the skill needed to discern similar species from one another. Often extremely close views are necessary to conclusively make a positive identification – views that cannot be achieved with the naked eye or standard binoculars that simply cannot focus close enough.
This year was to be different. Investment made in the form of the Leica Trinovid 8×32 HD, whose close focus is a staggeringly impressive one metre. No more backwards steps to focus and risk startling your quarry. Also on my side was the guidance of butterfly expert and wildlife cameraman John Chapple. His stunning YouTube footage fuelled my ambition to see some of Britain’s more secretive butterflies, and John himself imparted great wisdom on all things lepidopteron. I set myself the target to see 50 of the UK’s 59 species across the season, documenting the more unusual species, new to me, through photography.
Digiscoping has long been popular, and with the optical advancements in binoculars along with phones having even greater photographic potential, the technique has never been more versatile. This article contains photos taken only with a smartphone through my Trinovids with no extra adapters or expense, and I share my thoughts and experiences to get the most out of the technique and achieve more than that “record shot”.
Invest in your binoculars
Binoculars are far and away the most important investment a naturalist can ever make. A good set of binoculars will last a lifetime and, when they are a joy to look through you will never want to be without them. Indeed, the better they are for viewing, the better they are for photography. Brighter, sharper binoculars with a wide field of view make finding subjects for photography easier and lead to better results. The other advantage is there is less to carry! No DSLR, no telephoto or macro lenses, just a simple set up that you would have on your person anyway.
Get to know your subjects
Understanding your subjects is key to being able to take better photographs. By knowing your subject’s life history and behaviour, you can put yourself in the right place and right time. However always put the welfare of your subject first!
For example, Hairstreaks often come down from the canopy early in the morning to feed and bask in the late afternoon-early evening sunshine. This provides the perfect opportunity to get close to one of the more secretive and difficult to spot butterfly families.
Most modern phones have a manual setting for greater control of your image. By using manual mode you can expose photographs how they should be and avoid any automatic editing from the phone.
A valuable function to get to grips with is the AF/AE lock- by locking auto exposure and focus on your phone you only need to worry about focussing your binoculars. This frees you up to think more creatively about composition.
Don’t be afraid of post production. Many phones now shoot raw, allowing exposures and white balances to be tweaked with minimal negative effect to images. There are plenty of free photo editing apps available too. In time the reliance on these apps dwindle as you get more proficient with the technique.
The biggest change I make post hoc is to crop out any vignetting (the black border) that detracts from the image. Vignetting can be erased by zooming into the binocular before taking a picture, however I find that this reduces the overall clarity of the image and leads to excessive blur from unsteady hands.
Practice makes perfect
My first binocular photos were poor. There was however potential and the results definitely have improved with practice.
My season review
A migrating Clouded Yellow brought up the magic 50 in a season full of highlights. I fulfilled a boyhood dream of seeing an Adonis Blue, watched Purple Emperors patrolling high among the woodland canopy and saw for myself the conservation success story of the cobalt phoenix, the Large Blue – reintroduced to the UK, having gone extinct in the 1970s. It was also a privilege to see the High Brown Fritillary a species that has declined by 96% in the last 50 years, a stark reminder of the fragility of nature.
Being able to discover a new area of nature is magical and was in no small part thanks to the Leica Trinovid. This year was an intimate voyage of observation and discovery. It led me to places I had never been and revealed the photographic potential of a pair of binoculars.