02.18.18: Monarch butterfly

A monarch butterfly feeds on a butterfly bush, Hilliard, Ohio. 


Technical information

Oct. 3, 2016,
12:54 p.m.

40°3’15” N,
83°8'16" W
(Show in Google Maps)

Canon EOS 7D Mark II

Canon EF 100-400 f/4-5.6L (400mm)  


1/1250th second


The typical explanation for how I captured a nature photo starts with “I was hiking through a park when I came across … .”

Simply put, I hike until I find subjects in nature to photograph, stop to get the shot, then continue my photo hike.

But this photo of a monarch butterfly feeding on a butterfly bush doesn’t follow the typical scenario. Instead of me finding a subject to photograph, in this case the subject found me.

I was at home editing photos on my computer when my wife came in to tell me there were a lot of butterflies on the bush beside our deck. I wasn’t sure if “a lot” meant five or a thousand so I had a look. There were more than a dozen butterflies — monarchs, tiger swallowtails, red admirals and a few other varieties — making a late-season feeding visit to the butterfly bush on this October afternoon.

So I grabbed my camera, put on a telephoto zoom and started shooting. The telephoto zoom I was using (a 100 to 400 millimeter) is shorter than the 600 millimeter lens I typically carry when photographing wildlife — and the random butterfly — during my photo hikes, but in this case I didn’t need the extra reach provided by the 600 millimeter lens because I was only a few feet from the subject.

I captured a number of nice photos of the butterflies, but this photo of a monarch is one of my favorites from that shoot. I like how the monarch’s wings are at full extension, with the curve of the butterfly’s wings following the curve of the pod of flowers. Because of my close proximity to the butterfly’s position, the background is reduced to a defocused green blur that focuses the viewer’s attention on the butterfly and flowers.

The monarch butterfly is unique among butterflies. It’s the only butterfly that migrates north and south, coming as far north as Canada each summer before returning to Mexico for the winter. 

But the monarch’s life span is so short — usually no more than two months for butterflies born in early summer — that no one monarch makes the round-trip migration. Female monarchs deposit eggs during the migration, with the offspring completing the journey. 

Each week I will post a photo from my collection with an explanation of how I got the shot. Previous photos of the week are in the archives.