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Monarchs In Motion

This Article Features Photo Zoom

In the mountains of central Mexico, monarch butterflies gather each winter in one of the most dazzling displays of mass movement in the animal world. Many millions of them migrate there from across North America to escape the cold before traveling north again in the spring. Huge colonies cluster together in dark evergreen forests, but on warm days in early spring they begin to test the air, and periodically erupt from the trees and fill the air like confetti. Consider the accumulated effect of millions of butterfly wings fluttering at once: When you close your eyes, it sounds like rain. How do you capture such an extraordinary combination of beauty and vitality?

Initially, I put my camera on a tripod, and aimed it straight up at the sky, but that approach led to physical contortions that made it hard to focus on the ephemeral scene, so I gave up the tripod and lay flat on the ground, using my elbows as improvised tripod legs to hold my lens steady. This gave me a more comfortable perspective as I waited for the right moment. I added a warm polarizer to my lens, which helped saturate the blue sky, creating more contrast with the backlit orange butterflies. It also enabled me to apply the slow shutter speed necessary for the image I was after.

Photographic impressions of subjects in motion aren’t as avant-garde in nature photography now as they were 30 years ago, when I began to experiment with this technique, but most applications involve panning along with a subject. In this case I decided to keep the camera steady and let the butterflies themselves create a moving pattern. The frame that captured the kaleidoscopic action best was exposed at around an eighth of a second. Only a few monarchs are rendered crisply; all others appear as chaotic blurs—visualizations of their own kinetic energy.

Sign up now for Frans Lanting’s expanded photo workshop program for Spring 2010 at his studio in coastal California. Visit for more details.

Frans Lanting has been hailed as one of the great nature photographers of our time. For more than two decades he has documented wildlife and our relationship with nature in environments from the Amazon to Antarctica. He portrays wild creatures as ambassadors for the preservation of complete ecosystems, and his many publications have increased worldwide awareness of endangered ecological treasures in the far corners of the Earth.