Caligo, the Owl Butterfly

An owl butterfly (Caligo sp.) rests among the Papyrus, slowly flexing her wings.

Midway through my recent Ecuador trip an ant photographer’s nightmare came to pass.

My trusty MP-E 1-5x macro, the lens responsible for 95% of my images since 2003, died. The electronics failed with the iris stuck full open, rendering it incapable of providing any depth of field. It became a doorstop, essentially, and there was no easy way to replace such a rare and specialized lens while traveling through a country too small to host a single Canon dealer.

I can’t describe the frustration. Three weeks left on an ant photography expedition, in a forest with the richest ant fauna in the world, and I was impotent. Without the means to photograph insects less than a centimeter in length- which is most ants (gasp!)- it was like I was stuck in an ice cream store without a spoon. I had passable back-ups for all my other gear. I had multiple flash units. I had two camera backs. I even had two wide-angle lenses. But the one piece of irreplaceble gear- the $900 one- was the one that gave out.

What does this have to do with owl butterflies?

Well, I could still photograph larger insects. So butterflies it was. I ordinarily feel like a sellout shooting such obvious, gaudy insects. I mean, they are practically birds. But what choice did I have?

Caligo larvae at the Misahuallí Mariposario in Ecuador feed on a banana leaf.
Close in with a caterpillar
Caligo pupae are convincing mimics of dead leaves.

15 thoughts on “Caligo, the Owl Butterfly”

  1. 1. Ice cream store with no spoon? I would eat that S with my bare hands!
    2. Why didn’t you fly to Miami, buy the lens, and fly back? Takes one day. You lose some cash, but you aren’t in Ecuador every day, either.
    3. So there’s no happy ending? You DIDN’T photograph ants for three weeks? ALL your ant pics came from the first half of your trip? Wow.

    1. The happy ending is that I was forced, kicking and screaming, to experiment with techniques and new styles of composition. I ended up with some nice shots I wouldn’t otherwise have attempted, and the exercise made me a better photographer, in my opinion.

      Fortunately, some of the ants on my to-do list are plenty big enough for the 100mm macro + extension tube: Eciton, Paraponera, Gigantiops.

      This isn’t to say I didn’t try to replace the lens. I won’t go into the comedy of errors involved in FedExing an MP-E from the states, but suffice it to say that the attempt didn’t work and I’m never using that company again. Zero for two now in trying to FedEx things to Latin America.

      Flying to Miami is a nice fantasy, but I simply don’t have the cash on hand for that. I’m not even sure I’ve got enough to replace the MP-E lens.

    1. Ha! That’s great. I don’t have a kit lens, but I did do some creative work with a reverse-mounted, fully stopped-down 35mm stacked on the remains of the MP-E. That’s an upcoming post.

  2. Ouch, so sorry to hear that Alex:(. What a terrible timing. Even a full set of extension tubes (68mm) on the 100mm macro will get us to 2:1 only. Throw in a 1.4X TC, it’s still only around 2.4:1. The MPE is just irreplaceable!

    My MT24EX broke and I have been shooting with just natural light for more than 2 months. But at least I am still shooting.

    1. My first MT-24EX lasted 4 years without a problem. After the first breakdown I had it repaired and it went for another 3. My second lasted 8 months- what a lemon! I’m now 3 months into the third.

      I’m starting to think there’s a lot to Chris Wirth’s abandonment of the MT-24EX, anyway. I’m using a 420EX and my old 550EX more and more.

      1. What kind of failure did the MT-24EX experience? The plastic around the hot shoe connection of the control unit has broken a few times on mine, but I keep super gluing it back. Leaning over like it does combined with the jostling it gets while I’m hiking explains it, so I try not to bounce it around too much.

  3. Yikes. ‘Nightmare’ barely begins to describe that scenario…

    Considering all of the exposure to high humidity and dusty conditions these lenses endure, a more weather-sealed version would be welcomed in the future.

  4. I don’t *need* my MPE for tiger beetles, but it sure is nice to have. Still, I’ve got backup units of nothing (and no funding to obtain any, either) and shudder to think about the prospect of something failing on me during one of my trips.

    Removing the front element from a zoom wide-angle still won’t get as close as a 100mm with full extension set, and the DOF is terrible.

  5. Alex, I did notice that you indicated your ant pics were taken using the 12mm extension tube. I was thinking about asking you about it since you normally shoot with the 100mm macro or the MP-E. I have both of these lenses and was wondering why you switched to using the extension tube. Now that I know the real reason, do you prefer to use the MP-E or the extension tube? I like the MP-E but I generally only use it from 1x to 3x.

  6. Pingback: Acrobat ants and a change of style – MYRMECOS - Insect Photography - Insect Pictures

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  8. Great Post Amazing Owl Butterfly!! 😀
    thought you might like my machinima film the butterfly’s tale~

    Bright Blessings
    elf ~

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