Photographing a Butterfly Conservatory – Black and White, What Can’t It Do?

My wife and I usually spend some time somewhere in the warm sunny south over the course of our too long winters in Ontario Canada.  Not so this year.  We were however looking for some respite in late February so we booked a short overnight stay in Niagara Falls.  One of the less sensational attractions there is the Butterfly Conservatory.  The Conservatory claims to feature over 2,000 vibrantly coloured butterflies fluttering freely throughout winding pathways.  We’d been there last over 15 years ago, not long after it first opened.  I remember it being hot, humid and very green.  Not the sunny south, but for an hour or so it would provide the perfect antidote to our winter doldrums. And another photographic opportunity!

It was the night before our departure.  What camera to pack?  Light weight was good. Portable and quick to operate.  Alright, my Nikon FA. I chose two lenses. A Micro-Nikkor 55mm F3.5 and a Micro-Nikkor 105mm.  They’re both superb lenses. Now some colour film.  It was butterflies I was hunting after all. Full of beautiful, vibrant, living colour!  I have at least 20 rolls of film in my refrigerator and another 30 or so stored in the freezer. None of them apparently colour! I realized then that I’d given my last roll to my daughter some time ago.

After experimenting with colour films a couple of years back I decided I should stick to black and white. It’s much easier to work with. I develop my own negatives and make my own wet prints. Colour adds a level of complexity to photography that I’ve yet been able to fully command. Thus, I rarely shoot colour. But it was butterflies! I needed colour film didn’t I?

Mildly disappointed, I packed a couple of rolls of Ilford HP5+and off we went. The thing about the Butterfly Conservatory is that there’s plenty of natural diffused light.  I managed good exposures pushing the HP5 two stops to just 1600 ISO. Hand held. No flash required. These gentle creatures are very approachable even though I had to get the Nikon 55mm Micro within a few centimetres of them. I shot about 30 frames or so that morning.  Two days later I developed the film in HC 110, Dilution B for 11 minutes and scanned the film.  These few photographs are straight from the negatives.  No post production.

To my eye, the black and white images are impressive. The detail, the contrast, the textures, are all captured on the film beautifully. I’m happy I went ahead and shot in black and white. It can do things that colour can’t. It’s always simple, always effective, no matter the situation. Anything colour can do, black and white can do – differently.

Before the still deep snow in our yard melts away and my thoughts turn to the golf course, my wife and I will revisit the Butterfly Conservatory – this time with a roll or two of Kodak Portra! For now I’ll enjoy these black and white beauties.

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4 thoughts on “Photographing a Butterfly Conservatory – Black and White, What Can’t It Do?”

    1. Lovely blackandwhite pics !
      Well done with macro lenses and Ilford HP5 !
      Maybe more beautiful than butterflies in colour.

  1. Markus Larjomaa

    No post production? And yet, here I am, looking at not your negatives but digital images on my mobile screen… I mean, your butterfly pictures are wonderful, but I find these ”no editing whatsoever” phrases pretty silly. To get from negatives to a web page requires at least 1) scanning (either a dedicated scanner or digital camera) 2) inverting negatives to positives 3) cropping, and I think it’s smart to at least 4) adjust contrast / black and white points a bit. And that’s as far as I ever go – if I digitise my photos at all. I love working extensively in the darkroom, but utterly hate doing the “same” work in Lightroom/Photoshop/[your image editor]. Processing is when you soup your film in developer, stop bath, fixer, HCA and wetting agent and hang it to dry. Oh, and cutting the film into strips of 5-6 frames and putting them in negative sleeves :). Everything after that is, in fact, post-processing. How far you take it on the computer is another thing, but there is no such thing as uploading film photographs onto internet without post-processing. Ugh!

    Funny, you rarely hear music makers announce on an online forum “Listen to this new song of mine! Straight from the microphone input, no editing or mixing!”…

  2. I shoot B&W almost exclusively – MF, 35mm and digital. However, I found your B&W images of the butterflies, despite the excellence of the taking, somewhat sombre and overwhelming. Full marks for the initiative, though.

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