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Tim has been interested in photography for many years. He holds a Bachelor's degree in Biology and a Master's in Environmental Science. Writing nature articles allows him to combine his interest in photography and nature into one medium.

Photographing Butterflies in Massachusetts during February

This entry is part 1 of 2 in the series Magic Wings Butterfly Conservatory

The sign at the Magic Wings Conservatory and Gardens


You’re joking right?  (At least that’s what my friends said.) Nope, I’m not joking. The reason I can take photos of butterflies in the Northeast during winter is because the Magic Wings facility is located inside a climate controlled greenhouse type structure.  I’m not sure exactly what the humidity level and temperature is inside Magic Wings, but I’m guessing it was at least 80% humidity and 85 degrees fareinheit.  I lived for most of my life in the southern United States and it reminded me of summer in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

The Magic Wings Facility

The front of the Magic Wings Conservatory and Gardens

 

Inside the Conservatory

When I entered the conservatory, I wasn’t quite prepared for what awaited.  Sure, I knew there would be lots of butterflies, but I wasn’t expecting the hordes that awaited.  There were butterflies of all shapes and sizes, some bigger than my hand, some as small as my pinky finger.  It was a butterfly fairyland – they were chasing each other, dive bombing visitors, resting on leaves, hanging on to visitors hair and clothes, and just basically having a great time. It was a hoot to just sit on one of the many benches in the conservatory and watch the butterflies flit about.

Scarlet Swallowtail

A Scarlet Swallowtail (Papilio rumanzovia) and a red flower

 

According to an informational chart that I purchased (which was very reasonable at only $1.00), Magic Gardens has butterflies from North, Central, and South America and Asia.  The chart lists a total of fifty different butterfly species.  I’m not sure I saw all fifty on the day I went, but I did see a lot of different varieties.  Some were really easy to photograph and seemed to pose for me on leaves and plants, but others were almost hyperactive and almost impossible to catch in a quiet moment.  It became a safari after a while – I had to  catch those elusive little Heliconius ismenius. But alas, they eluded me to the end.

The conservatory has a couple of rules and policies that are very important to photographers.  First, flash photography was allowed when I went, but check ahead of time in case they change that policy.  Second, tripods and monopods are not allowed during regular hours.  You can arrange for special times to use tripods – check with Magic Wings for the details.

A Cydno on a Plant

A Cydno (Heliconius cydno) perches on top of a plant stalk

 

Photography Tips

I did learn quite a bit about photographing inside a facility such as Magic Wings and butterfly photography in general.  Here’s some of what I learned:

Rice Paper Butterfly and Red Flower

 

  • Be patient and take the shots that you have when you have them. Some varieties of butterflies seemed really hyper when I first entered and I couldn’t get a shot.  But, over time, they seemed to settle down and the previously quiet ones became more hyper.
  • Take some form of flash. Magic Wings does allow flash and it really helps to get great shots.  I had a Bower ring flash and this was the first time I used it (a ring flash review will be coming soon).  The ring flash worked great, but the butterflies seemed a little washed out if I was too close.  Experiment with whatever flash you bring to get the best results.
  • Check your LCD screen frequently. As the day wore on, I made minor corrections to what I was doing by checking my LCD screen.  The greenhouse at Magic Wings has several benches, so have a seat, look through your photos on the LCD, and be critical of what you see.  I wish I had been more vigilant about keeping the butterflies’ eyes in focus.
A Glass Wing Butterfly

A Glass Wing (Greta oto) Butterfly on a leaf

 

  • Focus on the eyes of the butterflies. I can’t stress this point enough.  I thought I was focusing on the eyes in each case, but many times, I was slightly off and was actually on their neck, or antennae, or some other locations.  When you get back and look at the photos, you will like the photos where you see the butterflies’ eyes much better.
  • Bring as little as possible in the conservatory. I only brought in my camera, macro lens, flash, and extra batteries and was very happy I didn’t bring more, since it made it easier to maneuver around the other visitors.
  • If you have a macro lens, bring it. A telephoto lens might have been an interesting choice at times when a particular butterfly was up high, but the macro lens allowed me to get up close and personal.  I was using a Tokina 100 mm macro lens mounted on my Canon T1i.
The Underside of a Blue Morpho

The Underside of the Wings of a Blue Morpho (Morpho peleides)

 

  • Try taking photos of the animals in the glass exhibit cases. I took several shots through the glass and they came out great.  Be aware of where the glare will be and your shots will be fine.  I found if I shot at an angle to the glass, the glare would not be a factor.
  • When you enter the greenhouse, be prepared to stay for awhile. If you go in and out of the greenhouse, you may have to deal with condensation all over again.
A Morpho peleides butterfly

A Blue Morpho (Morpho peleides) butterfly on a leaf

 

Other Services and Animals at Magic Wings

Magic Wings has more than just butterfiles, they also have lizards, birds, frogs, and insects.  Some of the animals, such as small birds, are free to wander about in the greenhouse area.  While others are located in exhibit cases in the greenhouse and in the exhibit room.  The exhibit room has the live animal displays and has several large mounted butterfly displays.  Also, Magic Wings has a relatively large gift shop, a large coat room, a restaurant, and two large areas to eat.

A frog in one of the exhibits - shot through glass

A frog sits on plants inside one of the glass exhibits

 

Conclusion

I had a great time at Magic Wings and even though none of my shots will be featured in National Geographic, it was a great environment to learn butterfly photography.  There were quite a few other visitors when I went, but I didn’t feel that was an issue and actually added to the experience.  Everyone was very nice and helpful and I regret not asking more questions while I was there.  If you would like to get away from the crowds, the conservatory offers a program for photographers in the early morning, which allows you to use tripods and monopods.  Check with Magic Wings for more information.  I highly recommend a trip to Magic Wings, especially if you’re looking for a break from the dreariness of winter.

Bird at Magic Wings

One of several birds at Magic Wings


Click here for more photographs from my trip to Magic Wings Butterfly Conservatory and Gardens.

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