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Pascal Maitre: capturing the monarch butterfly

"The most difficult story I've ever done!" Canon Ambassador Pascal Maitre talks about his eye-opening feature for Le Figaro Magazine documenting the incredible mass migration of monarch butterflies.
A view looking up into a canopy of trees, with hundreds of black-and-orange butterflies flying around.

Documentary photographer Pascal Maitre drew on his wealth of experience to capture this stunning image of migrating monarch butterflies for France's Le Figaro Magazine. "Logically, when you're in the sun, you will shoot at ISO100 or 200, but if I wanted to freeze the butterflies flying, I had to find a technical solution which was not logical," he explains. "I used ISO5000 so I could have the aperture at f/18 and the shutter speed at 1/1000 sec." Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens. © Pascal Maître/Fondation Yves Rocher

Every year, millions of monarch butterflies make a journey like no other, migrating 4,000km from Canada to Mexico to escape the harsh North America winter. It was only in 1976 that scientists recognised this remarkable natural phenomenon, but today the butterflies are under threat, their habitats destroyed by illegal logging and intensive agriculture. "It's incredible," says Canon Ambassador Pascal Maitre, who spent a week in January 2019 photographing the creatures. "The butterflies normally live for five weeks, but as the summer ends they produce a new generation that can live for eight months, so they can travel all the way to Mexico and back."

Pascal's shoot began life as a commission for the Yves Rocher Foundation, which runs reforestation programmes and butterfly sanctuaries in Michoacán, Mexico, where the butterflies land. "It wasn't a typical corporate story. They wanted me to show not just what they do but the benefits of what they do," says Pascal of the project, which was intended for exhibition at Festival Photo La Gacilly in Brittany, France, but this was postponed twice because of Covid-19 restrictions. Before departing for the shoot, Pascal mentioned the commission to Le Figaro Magazine, who sent a writer along for a few days of his trip. The feature was finally published in the magazine in June 2021. This was partly a consequence of the exhibition delay, but it's also common in magazine publishing. "It often happens that there's a long time between shooting and publication," says Pascal. "With National Geographic, for example, it can be one or two years."
A black-and-orange monarch butterfly is shown in close-up, filling the frame, the tips of its wings blurred slightly by movement.

Pascal took many shots before he achieved the effect he was after in this close-up of a monarch butterfly. "I wanted something focused but at the same time showing the butterfly's wings moving," he explains. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with a Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM lens at 1/125 sec, f/29 and ISO1000. © Pascal Maître/Fondation Yves Rocher

Pascal approached the project with a reportage eye. "Normally I do stories for news magazines," he explains. "Sometimes I do nature stories, but not as a nature specialist." This affected the type of images he was looking for – not just beautiful shots of the butterflies, but images that conveyed a sense of their imperilled situation and their wider cultural significance. The butterflies start arriving in Michoacán in early November, coinciding with Mexico's Day of the Dead holiday, and the belief that they bring the spirits of the deceased with them lies behind the many butterfly murals that can be seen on the walls of a local cemetery.

Ahead of the trip, Pascal was in touch with scientists working at the sanctuaries and did his own research, reading magazine articles, watching documentaries and studying older images. This groundwork had its drawbacks, though, because these older sources left him with an outdated impression of the area. "I had this idea beforehand that I would shoot the butterflies in the trees using a macro lens, but in 30 years, of course, the trees have grown and are now 10-15 metres high, so I had to use a telephoto lens," explains Pascal. "You can do a lot of research but the reality can be different, even the opposite of what you've read."
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A woman in a thick coat holds a butterfly net half full of black-and-orange butterflies, and is reaching in with one hand.

In this image, WWF employee Viana Scarlett Sanchez Arias collects live monarch butterflies in order to study them and check the condition of their health, before releasing them back into the wild. Pascal found speaking to experts such as Viana increased his understanding of the butterflies' behaviour. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 39mm, 1/800 sec, f/11 and ISO3200. © Pascal Maître/Fondation Yves Rocher

Black-and-orange butterflies hover above packed dry earth, casting shadows on the ground.

Here the butterflies hover just above the ground. As well as their shadows, Pascal incorporated into his composition the lines of shadow from the rope barriers at the sanctuary that stop visitors getting too close to the creatures. Taken on a Canon EOS R with a Canon RF 100-500mm F4.5-7.1 L IS USM lens at 300mm, 1/4000 sec, f/5 and ISO800 © Pascal Maître/Fondation Yves Rocher

Unique challenges

To get to Michoacán entailed a flight from France, where Pascal is based, into Mexico City, then driving 250km and trekking for two hours in the mountains. As usual, Pascal worked alone, with no photography assistants, just a local driver, who also acted as a guide. "That's why I like photography – you can do it on your own," he says. He focused on three sanctuaries – one larger one, open to the public, and two smaller ones where scientists work. "It depended on the sun or the wind how many butterflies would move at the same time. When you do a story, it's always like this. Some days there is good light, some days there isn't. You have to work and work and never be satisfied because maybe on the last day, you'll get the best picture."

Despite his vast experience, Pascal found that the project posed unique challenges. "This is the most difficult story I've ever done in terms of photography," he says. "The butterflies are small and they move so fast. With video that would be easy but with still photography it's a real challenge to freeze the action and keep the focus. You can't use a strobe because this disturbs the butterflies and they lose their way."

His solution was to "shoot blind", focusing about two or three metres away and at times setting his aperture as narrow as f/22 to ensure an extensive depth of field, removing the need to find individual focal points within a mass of fluttering butterflies. Simultaneously, he cranked up his shutter speed as far as 1/4000 sec when needed, to freeze the movement of the butterflies, while pushing sensitivity as high as ISO5000 to maintain exposure. He took "thousands and thousands and thousands of pictures", which made for a laborious edit but ultimately paid off handsomely.
The entrance to a Mexican cemetery is painted bright blue, with large orange butterflies painted either side of the archway. A cleaner in a blue apron walks across the middle.

The butterfly shots may have been tricky to get, but Pascal was completely at home photographing other aspects of the story, such as this image showing the butterfly decorations at a Michoacán cemetery. "This was more classical work, not challenging technically," Pascal explains. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark II (now succeeded by the Canon EOS-1D X Mark III) with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 70mm, 1/125 sec, f/22 and ISO3200. © Pascal Maître/Fondation Yves Rocher

In Pascal's kitbag for the trip were three cameras. "I used the Canon EOS R when I was shooting at night. Because of its low-light capabilities, you can really push your ISO. I used it on a tripod very low to the ground and I could see what I was photographing on the vari-angle screen at the back."

He also packed a Canon EOS-1D X Mark II (now succeeded by the EOS-1D X Mark III) "for when I needed to photograph the butterflies in flight, because it takes great high-speed action shots. And a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV, which produces big files with high image quality, which you need when you're exhibiting prints."

The versatility afforded by a combination of Canon's EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM, RF 28-70mm F2L USM and RF 100-500mm F4.5-7.1 L IS USM lenses, as well as the Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM super-telephoto lens, let Pascal shift between compositional scales, homing in on the beauty of individual butterflies up close or panning out to reveal the incredible sight of hundreds of thousands moving together as one.
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Hundreds of butterflies are clustered on a tree trunk, asleep. Their wings are folded shut, showing the black and white patterning on their undersides.

One of Pascal's favourite images from the shoot. "This shows the butterflies before they wake up. For me, it's like a painting," he says. With its 30.3MP sensor and ability to capture rich detail even in low light, the Canon EOS R was the ideal tool for the job. Taken on a Canon EOS R with a Canon RF 100-500mm F4.5-7.1 L IS USM lens at 400mm, 1/125 sec, f/6.3 and ISO 3200. © Pascal Maître/Fondation Yves Rocher

Lasting memories

Although this wasn't technically a wildlife commission, understanding butterfly patterns of behaviour served Pascal well. He would make sure he was in the right spot at the right time, observing how the butterflies would congregate and travel around, flying en-masse to a river during the day in search of water or bedding in for the night in the treetops as darkness fell.

One of the images that stayed with him was the way the butterflies look in the early hours. "People tend to show the butterflies' orange wings but the back of their wings is black. This is something you only see at night. This is what's difficult in reportage, convincing your driver to wake up at 2:30 in the morning when the first light is coming so you can see what's happening. But I think that's what makes this different from other stories you see about these butterflies."

Even when you're an experienced photography veteran like Pascal, each assignment teaches you something new. This one was a lesson in pushing the technical possibilities of his kit. He compares his role as a photojournalist piecing together a story to that of a detective on an investigation. "When I shoot, I'm very free, I will try anything. You have a problem and you have to find a solution, technical or editorial. This is our job."

But, he adds, bearing witness to this breathtaking spectacle had a lasting impact on him, personally as well as professionally. "Each day, I was excited. To shoot this wasn't easy but to see it was incredible – really magic."

Autorius Rachel Segal Hamilton


Pascal Maitre's kitbag

The key kit that the pros use to take their photographs

Pascal Maitre's kitbag containing Canon cameras and lenses.

Cameras

Canon EOS-1D X Mark III

The EOS-1D X Mark III is the ultimate creative toolkit, with superb low-light performance, deep learning AF and 5.5K RAW video. "It takes great high-speed action shots," says Pascal.

Canon EOS R

With a full-frame 30.3MP sensor, great ISO performance and Dual Pixel CMOS AF, the EOS R will take your storytelling further. "Because of its low-light capabilities, you can really push your ISO," says Pascal.

Canon EOS 5D Mark IV

Designed to perform in every situation, the EOS 5D Mark IV is beautifully engineered and a thoroughly accomplished all-rounder. Pascal says: "It produces big files with high image quality, which you need when you're exhibiting prints."

Lenses

Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM

This versatile lens gives great results in portrait work and handheld movie-making, thanks to its ability to achieve a shallow depth of field with beautiful bokeh, along with built-in Hybrid Image Stabilization.

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