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Photographing the Monarch Butterfly Migration in Mexico

It’s getting to be that time of year.  The new year is off and kicking, the weather is chilly, and monarch butterflies have made their way to their winter home deep in the mountains of Mexico.

If you are planning an adventure to witness this amazing migration, your trip isn’t far away now!  To help you make the most of your adventure, and the photographs you take to immortalize it, we’ve come up with this helpful guide to photographing the monarchs in Mexico.

1) Get THE shot

Photographing and documenting the enormity of these butterfly colonies is not as easy as you might think.  Lighting can cast strong shadows, branches may be in your way, and you may simply be too overwhelmed at first to get your favorite photo.  However, if you go with an outfitter that provides you with at least two full days (three is even better), you will observe a variety of conditions and no doubt find “the shot”.  This quintessential shot is different things to different people, so be sure to look around, be familiar with your camera gear, and bring plenty of extra memory.  It may be monarchs flying in the air, close to the ground, or something totally different.  And you may not even realize that you got THE shot of the trip until you’re back home reviewing your photos.  Snap, snap, snap away!

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2) Diversify your shots  

The first moments of viewing the massive colonies within the pine and fir forests are overwhelming.  It’s easy to focus mainly on the clusters of 10s of thousands of butterflies, ignoring the many other photographic opportunities around you.  What about that lone butterfly on the fir branch, or single butterfly sipping nectar from the blooming goldenrod?  Keep an eye out for a variety of photos, as there is so much to photograph beyond the hoards of orange and black monarchs.

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3) Become familiar with fast shutter speeds  

Take some time and read our shutter speed section to understand how to program your camera to take fast shots.  If you are trying to freeze motion, such as with frenetic butterflies soaring through the air, you’ll need to shoot at high shutter speeds.

monarch butterfly, photo tour, mexico, el rosario

4) Be patient with the lighting

While blue skies can provide a wonderful color to your photo, along with nice strong light for contrasts and other colors, don’t fret when the clouds go over.  Clouds produce nice soft and diffuse lighting for minimizing shadows, allowing evenly lit and evocative photos.

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5)  Try different angles

You will somewhat be limited by what the monarchs are doing on the particular day you’re there, for they move around a lot during the season.  However, no matter where they are and what they’re doing, be sure to try different angles on the same scene.  Try photographing monarchs up close, from above, from ground level…everything.

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6) Tell the story

No doubt monarchs steal the show, but there are a multitude of fascinating scenes in and around the monarch biosphere reserves.  From a local artist weaving beautiful pine needle baskets to interesting street signs and murals, be sure to think about the storytelling aspect of your photography.  Your end-of-trip album/portfolio will thank you for it!

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But most importantly, enjoy the adventure!  It’s truly a privilege to witness such a stunning natural phenomenon.  It will surely leave you with a lifetime of memories and impressions, along with thousands of photos.

Go forward and give it a shot,



All images Copyright 2007-2016 Court Whelan