Described as the ‘tarts of the insect world’ butterflies dress up like no other insect. However, the naked eye is blind to much of their beauty, something that was revealed by our photography team during the making of The Secret World of Butterflies.

Under 50–100 times magnification, the close-up images look like a hot mess of sequins, neon needlepoint or a gold-threaded tapestry. Each one is different.

Our chief macro photographer – Ruby Moore – who shot the photos for the anatomical display in the exhibition discovered the images she captured, although beautiful, also reveals some dirty-truths about butterflies.

“Once you start to photograph them at this scale you realise they are particularly dirty things. One butterfly had pollen smothered all over its face and often they are covered in old scales and dust.”

To spruce them up and ensure they were dust-free, Ruby designed a brush that had been stripped back to one bristle. Before the shoot, she would delicately remove anything that had become caught on their scales.

“Up close, they are very armoured creatures, like an armadillo. On the wings, there are veins that pop up and you can see all of the scales buckling.”

For Ruby this was a completely new territory as she wasn’t a trained photographer. Instead, she was recruited for her body-part identification skills.

Typically Ruby spends her days identifying and cataloging entomological specimens, so she was well equipped to hunt out the eyes, feet, palps and proboscis in a sea of scales.

During the stint, she also found out how delightfully different each one was.

 “Each wing is unique, you can photograph a male and female butterfly on the topside and underside and they could be four different species.”

 

Ruby Moore places a specimen under the microscope, so it can be photographed for the anatomical display.

 

Over two weeks, she took 14 pictures of a monarch butterfly that was sourced by the Museum's entomology curator, John Early. To create each image, Ruby snapped 30–200 images at various focus points and then amalgamated them using image stacking software. 

She says a fresh specimen was required because the butterflies in the collection weren’t in a proper state to have their glamour shots taken.

“There was a sense of urgency about it because after a few days the eyes collapse. If that happened, we would have to have sent John on another mission to source another fresh specimen.”

When you photograph them at this scale you realise they are particularly dirty things. Often they are covered in old scales and dust

While Ruby was undertaking this painstaking work, photographer Richard Ng and his colleagues worked their way through Ray Shannon’s incredible 13,000 strong collection so they could be viewed online.

For the hero shots, Richard lit them from above and below to reveal the full spectrum of colour, then he used his 100mm macro-lens to get closer. At this range, the dirt and grime doesn’t show, just the mind-boggling array of colours, he says. 

“It’s amazing to think that during the chrysalis stage they're a piece of mush, and then they come out as this beautiful thing complete with gold wings.”

 

One of the pieces in the anatomical display is a 360° video piece that allows visitors to see a monarch at all angles. To create this photogrammetry piece, Richard placed the monarch on lazy susan and fired off 20-30 shots at various positions. 

 

A time-lapse he created shows how he captured each and every angle. “In the video, I was moving frenetically and the butterfly wasn’t moving at all. I felt like a DJ doing it.”

With the help of the digital agency Satellite, the 1800 photos were stitched together to create the 360° piece that is on display in the exhibition.

One of the aims of the piece is to show something that is commonplace – like a monarch – in a different light. For Richard and Ruby it showed them much, much more. 

"I hope it surprises people. Even those who know a lot of about butterflies, like our curator John Early, the fact that he reeled back and went ‘wow’ was incredible to see,” says Ruby. 

Butterfly Gallery