Swallowtails Along the Wetland Trail (Shaw Nature Reserve)

August 1, 2013

Over the last two weeks I’ve been photographing swallowtails and other insects along the wetland trail at my favorite nature area, Shaw Nature Reserve. I can’t tell you how beautiful the trail has become this month with compass plant, blazing star, butterfly weed, ironweed and several other forbs in full bloom. Also, it has been so nice to carry my lightweight 300/4 lens, which is much more suited to photographing insects and flowers than the 500/4. The 500/4 lens has a minimum focus distance of about 15 feet so by the time I get that far away from the butterfly, I lose the advantage of the extra focal length. The little 300 has a minimum focus distance of about five feet so it is perfect for making images such as the ones I’ve featured in this post. Sometimes, I attach the 1.4x extender and it becomes a dandy substitute for a macro lens.

I’ve especially enjoyed my treks down the wetland trail when Joyce has joined me because she is an excellent insect spotter. I consider myself a pretty good photographer, but I tend to overlook great opportunities sometimes when I’m ambling down the trail. Often, when I’m photographing one thing, Joyce finds something even better.

Photographing butterflies would seem like a simple operation, but it’s not that easy. First, you have to find a swallowtail that is in good shape. Sometimes I’ll see an individual perfectly positioned on a flower and as I close in for the shot, I’ll notice that it is missing one of its spurs or a wing is torn. You could say, “Well Danny, that just documents a realistic situation in nature,” but I’ve found that people prefer seeing butterflies that are in good condition.

Once you close in on a perfect butterfly, you have to wait for it to position itself in a way that allows you to capture most of its wings in a very narrow focus plane. Sometimes it is difficult, as you can see from the blurry forward wing tip of the tiger swallow (second image) of this post, but it helps to get as much of the subject in focus as possible. As I’ve mentioned before, you should dial in the highest aperture setting possible, keeping in mind that each stop decreases your shutter speed by half. Light and wind will affect your final decision regarding camera settings.

Finally, you must check for extraneous clutter around the shot you are framing and work with the sun to close the deal on a great image. Nothing is worse than getting an almost fantastic butterfly image except for a wayward stem of a neighboring flower that has drifted right into the shot!

The swallowtails I’ve featured in this post are similar, in that they both have stripes. The featured image is a zebra swallowtail on a patch of burnt-orange butterfly weed and the second image is a tiger swallowtail seeking nourishment from one of Missouri’s beloved coneflowers. I’ve heard people mix up the names of these two butterflies and I might have done the same a few times. Although both are striking in appearance, I prefer the colors of the zebra swallowtail, especially the red antennae and the red highlights along the wings. The tiger swallowtail is no slouch in the looks department either, but not quite as stunning as the zebra, in my opinion. Be aware of the black form of the tiger swallowtail as it can cause some confusion as well.


Please enjoy these colorful images from the wetland trail at Shaw Nature Reserve and if you live nearby, I highly recommend you get out there and take a look for yourself. I can give you a firm guarantee that you won’t be disappointed.

Thanks for looking,


Zebra Swallowtail:  Canon 1D Mark IV; Canon 300/4 L IS Lens; 1/640 @ f/5.6; ISO 400; RAW Capture; Feisol CT3301 Tripod with Markins M-10 ballhead; Converted and processed in Canon DPP

Tiger Swallowtail:  Zebra Swallowtail:  Canon 1D Mark IV; Canon 300/4 L IS Lens; 1/200 @ f/4.0; ISO 400; RAW Capture; Feisol CT3301 Tripod with Markins M-10 ballhead; Converted and processed in Canon DPP

Note to Photographers:  You might be surprised that I used a tripod for these images. Once you become skilled with a tripod, it won’t slow you down a bit, even when photographing nervous insects such as butterflies. I find it much easier to frame my shots with the help of a good quality tripod and ballhead.

8 comments on “Swallowtails Along the Wetland Trail (Shaw Nature Reserve)”

  1. Striking color contrasts!
    Just beautiful…..

  2. Gorgeous shots as always Danny. Great discussion on the difficulties in capturing the perfect shot too – I struggle constantly with balancing depth of field and shutter speed when shooting with my macro. I’ve been meaning to get out to Shaw – now sounds like a great time.

    • Thanks Kip and I know you can relate to what I’m saying. Watch for Snowberry Clearwings on the wetland trail at Shaw. They are awesome. Also hummingbird clearwings.

  3. Incredible photograph Danny. I love them both. They would both make a striking conversation pieces, side by side in a 16″ x20″ portraits.


  4. Beautiful captures, Danny. It was great to get out to Shaw today and see some of these for myself today. I will definitely be back to look for more and catch that Hummingbird Moth. 🙂

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