The Butterfly Effect – Sigma 180mm APO Macro DG

The Butterfly Effect – Sigma 180mm APO Macro DG

This summer Dennis Furnell spent some time photographing wildlife in the foothills of the Pyrenees in the Ariege, a beautiful region in south west France; rocky limestone crags, hillsides covered with trees, valleys full of wild flower meadows; it’s a rich resource for photography.

Many of the craggy hill tops are home to the ruins of Cathar castles dating back to the 13th and 14th centuries – mute evidence of humankind’s inhumanity.  The Cathars, wealthy and influential, incurred the wrath of the powerful Roman Catholic Church led by Pope Gregory IX who, in 1233, proposed a Final Solution to the Cathar Heresy, unleashing the savagery of the Dominican Inquisition.  Within in a few decades the Cathars’ less rigid style of worship had been extinguished and by the 14th century they had either been killed or had fled, leaving their strongholds to fall into ruin.  Eagles and griffon vultures roost in these silent, weathered ruins now and lizards bask in the sunshine that heats the fallen limestone blocks – watchful of the kestrels that hover above on the up-draughts.

For all its scenic beauty the land does not encourage agriculture. The limestone soil is fertile, but thin; the summers hot and dry and the winters harsh.  These days it’s a playground for winter sports enthusiasts, but in summer it is quiet – rural France at its very best.
The capital of the region, Foix, is a typical French market town. Built 2,000 years ago on a strategic river crossing it is still dominated by the imposing castle.  But I was not there to look specifically at architecture though, after 30 years of writing about and photographing the nature of France, it is impossible not to get caught up in the history of our nearest, but oh so different, neighbours.

I was there with my wife and a fellow photographer and his wife to take pictures of butterflies. It’s one of the best places in the whole of southern Europe to find and observe insects that only occasionally (sometimes not at all) make the short sea crossing that separates Britain from the European land mass
Leaving my old 90mm macro lens at home I took Sigma’s 180mm F 3.5 APO Macro DG lens with the recently introduced Sony/Minolta mount. It is solidly made; every inch (or should I say millimetre) a Sigma.  Virtually the same length, and just a few grammes heavier than my Sigma 150 X 500mm Zoom lens, it fits snugly into my camera backpack with the Sony Alpha 700, plus medium and wide angle lenses in the centre compartments, and binoculars and sundries tucked wherever there is space; the whole ensemble just scraping in under the dreaded cabin bag weight limit. I like to know where my kit is stowed and who is throwing it around. I prefer it to be me!

Our trip in late July coincided with some very hot weather with temperatures in the low to mid 30’s, just the right conditions to supercharge cold-blooded insects waiting for hot weather… But I had not had the opportunity to properly familiarise myself with the Sigma 180mm macro before the trip.  It was a bit of a learning curve, but one that the Sigma boffins had turned into a gentle slope with fast, accurate and almost silent auto focus vital in hot conditions, with a working distance and depth of field that makes it possible to approach shy butterflies like the clouded yellow and species of large fritillaries with a degree of certainty; and the opportunity to fill the view-finder and take half a dozen individually framed shots before the insect vanishes in a flash of colour. The auto focus is so effective that, despite being more accustomed to manual focus, I found my self using it most of the time. The detachable tripod mount ring is also invaluable used with a monopod, giving added stability to the lens which weighs more than a kilo, due to the fine collection of superb optical glass.

I grew up in Cornwall where the large blue butterfly, a species extinguished in the UK in the 1970’s, was once common.  I became involved with its reintroduction to the UK, helping to make people aware of the importance of butterflies as indicators of the overall health of the countryside and the myriad wildlife. Even so, the last time I saw a living large blue butterfly in the wild I was only about 10 years old.  I knew large blues were present in the Ariege so was very much looking forward to seeing and photographing at least one.  The valleys that lie at the foothills of the Pyrenees abound with half buried limestone chunks that vie with small bushes and tall grasses and a multitude of flowering plants, enough to bring joy to any botanist’s heart. Most of the meadows are small and sloping. Some slope gently, others are almost vertical with slides of mobile scree; and wherever you turn there are butterflies. Tiny short-tailed blues; medium-sized meadow browns and ringlets; large, showy specimen fritillaries and swallowtails that look as if they’ve been painted by someone with a fine eye for colour and form…

Lovely these butterflies may be, but all seemed intent on landing on the far side of a savage-looking bramble patch. This is where the 180mm lens comes into its own. What once might have been hopelessly out of range snapped into focus, filling a satisfying area of the screen and I was able to indulge in insect voyeurism. Two mating silver-studded blues and a pair of silver-washed fritillaries, a study in amber, black, pale cream and silver, were easily framed. Normally it would take half-an-hour or so to get close enough.
After a day spent looking at brown butterflies, black and yellow butterflies I still had not found the elusive large blue. Would I even recognise one after all these years? We were driving along a narrow country road with rather more hair-pin bends than was reasonable, and talking about butterflies – my snapper friend and I – when we came out onto a small plateau topped by a delightful ruined castle with a red and yellow flag waving from the flagpole. The surrounding deep green valley and step rising hills allowed a peek at a few snow-dappled Pyrenees in the distance. We stopped to get some landscape shots, the best vantage point being a ridge that ran up to the castle. What we thought was a spine of limestone, transformed into a high field thick with flowers and dry grasses and awash with butterflies like animated paper confetti.  I hadn’t been there for more than five minutes, stopping every second or so to capture an image of some species I haven’t got in my library, when I noticed a fast-flying, dark-looking, medium-sized butterfly that I knew instantly was a large blue.  I followed it until it stopped and was treated to a truly wonderful sight as it opened its wings and showed me the deep silvery blue colouring and black spots that are its trade mark.  In the following few days I saw several more large blues and quite a large percentage of the European summer breeding species… And I had the opportunity to photograph them with a lens that made it an even more enjoyable experience.
As a working naturalist, I have often found that the most exciting and unusual events are those captured almost by accident; yet not quite by accident. Perhaps it’s more to do with being in the right place at the right time and letting nature come to you.  So it was when I was waiting for a butterfly to return to a particular patch of fragrant wild marjoram flowers. A small movement in the grass, just a few feet away, drew my eye to a wasp dancing about in front of a large and rather aggressive looking wolf spider. The wasp jumped on the spider and stung it. The spider collapsed and was dragged off by the smaller wasp. I’ve seen spider hunting wasps before, but never had the chance to photograph one attacking its prey. And I owe this to the depth of field and the speed of focus of Sigma’s superb 180mm F3.5 APO Macro DG lens.
Dennis Furnell