Plan to be Lucky

"Shoot first, ask questions later" seems to sum up the approach of a large number of photographers. Each believing that the "big names" just happen to come across better subjects more often that the rest of us. While it's fair to say that a healthy dose of serendipity goes a long way I'm afraid reality is in fact much less exciting. As one successful photographer replied to the usual "how jammy can one guy be?" kind of attitude, "The more I plan the luckier I get".

The Value Of Research

Painted Lady.
A painted lady butterfly caught in the warm light of sunrise.
It isn't difficult to be overawed by the sheer number of topics available to the nature photographer. This is one of the endearing attributes of nature photography; yet at the same time one of its banes. I mean, where do you start? Like most people I began by photographing whatever came along, and there is a lot of fun to be had in that method, but it wasn't long before I began to realise that my photography was much more productive when I had some sort of plan in mind. And to do that, I needed to know what would be about and when.

One of the subjects I always enjoy photographing is butterflies. They are so delicate, colourful and fleeting, as well as technically challenging. Using butterflies as an example I'm going to share with you how I first went about finding out what would be available to me throughout the year. Don't panic if butterflies don't interest you. It's the general method that you will find useful; just replace butterflies with birds, orchids, fungi or whatever takes your fancy.

Setting Limits

There is no point in me trying to know about every species of butterfly on the planet. Then again, there is little point in only knowing about the ones that just happen to flutter by. Somewhere in between is the happy medium that suits my needs. The first decision to be made is how far I was willing to travel to photograph butterflies on an everyday basis. This type of photography can mean some very early starts so I set this to one hour of driving. That may not seem much but if I can travel 45 miles in that time I will have an area of over 6,300 square miles to cover. Variety is the spice of photography so every species that can be found in my target area was included.

Getting Down To Work

A peacock butterfly basking on the ground.
The next step is to find the source material. Field guides are excellent for this (but they must have distribution maps). The more the merrier (I'll explain why shortly), so if you don't own any try borrowing some from a library or friends. Conservation society newsletters can help but it's local nature organisations (such as The Wildlife Trusts) that you will find more useful. Most will provide details of what can be seen within reserves under their management, often with a fanfare approach to any local rarities.

Because butterflies are climate sensitive, and their ranges can vary from year to year, there will be differences in where individual field guides show that particular species can be found. Always choose the most favourable reports, that way you won't miss out. For the same reason species that are on the edge of their range should also be included, as a series of warm years can mean significant extension of ranges. Some species are extending their range on a more long-term basis. Many folk think that this is in itself a valid indicator of global warming.

Small tortoiseshell.
A small tortoiseshell butterfly feeding on privet blossom.
Now it's time to do the groundwork. Look through each guide and note any species shown to be in your area. This will give you a list of names. For some folk it could be quite long, for others it will be much shorter as there is a general lessening of bio-diversity the further one travels from the equator, both globally and nationally.

Using your list go through the guides and whatever else you have available again. This time it's important to note what months of the year each species is on the wing, and the type of habitat in which it can be found. Doing this can be time consuming - it's best to set some time aside so that you won't be rushed. Take several sessions over it if you wish. Remember, this is valuable information you're pulling together that will serve you for years to come.

Organise Your Data

Once all of these wonderful facts and figures are collected, you need to get them into some sort of readable order. It needs to be in a way that suits you; after all you are the one who will be using it. At times like this my technical background breaks through and I tend to go for a spreadsheet type of layout. A sheet laid out with columns for Name, Months On The Wing and Habitat suited me fine and isn't too demanding when done on a computer. This is also a good way of storing the data as it can be easily updated as you discover more interesting facts.

Another benefit of doing this is that you really get to know your subject. It's always nice to have useful information handed out on a plate, but I know from experience that I learn a lot more by actually working things through for myself.

Below is a sample of my initial spreadsheet, just so that you can see what I mean about a clear layout. Since then I've found it useful to add more species and details of specific locations.

Butterfly Spreadsheet.
Butterfly Spreadsheet.

Go Do It

The only thing that remains to be done is to use what you've got. Notes and dates are very nice to have but like a good book they are wasted sitting on a shelf. By looking several months ahead you can have plenty of time to be prepared, both mentally (confident of finding your subject) and physically (know where to go and what photographic equipment to take). Now when someone exclaims that you were lucky to get the shot, you can confidently tell them how remarkable it is that the more you plan the luckier you get.