The Butterflies of Penang Were Terrific; Was I?

In my last post, “Aligning Toward a Better You,” I wrote that significant personal change occurs only when we have a clear target and make consistent efforts in that direction over an extended period of time. To be a better cook, you need to cook several times a week, regularly challenging yourself with new recipes and techniques. Whipping up the same three favorites when you get tired of takeout isn’t going to help. And neither is an expanding library of cookbooks.

One of my own ongoing goals is to keep improving my photography. While traveling in Penang, Malaysia, earlier this month I realized that a fun test of my progress would be to compare the photos I took at a butterfly conservatory there to those I took at one in Goa, India, about two years ago. This post appealed to me for another reason: everyone loves butterflies, and in this post I share two different sets of photos from two different countries, taken two years apart, so readers can judge for themselves.

My favorite post from my trip to India two years ago was “Waiting for Butterflies,” about my visit to the Butterfly Conservatory of Goa. It included an essay about how the day started badly but ended well, and what I learned about how to make the most of challenging circumstances. The essay was followed by a set of photos from the Conservatory.

After the trip to India I had additional opportunities to photograph butterflies at the Bronx Zoo in New York; the Medellin Botanical Garden in Colombia; a butterfly farm in Chiang Mai, Thailand; and the Buddhist Museum in Kaohsiung, Taiwan. I’ve shared photos from all but the final location. Then, earlier this month, almost two years after the Goa trip, I traveled to Penang, Malaysia, for a week. The high point of that trip was a visit to Entopia, the island’s large butterfly conservatory.

Early in the Goa butterfly post I noted that butterflies are really difficult to photograph well:

To start, they’re small and flutter around from flower to leaf to branch, without staying in one place for very long. (In Thailand, a man who hops from woman to woman without settling down is known as a “butterfly man.”)

And, for a good photograph, you need to have the camera focus on the tiny subject and blur what’s in front and back of it. Finally, you need to be close enough to capture the butterfly’s intricate beauty without scaring it away.

Shortly after visiting Penang Entopia earlier this month it occurred to me that one really good way to measure my progress with photography would be to assess how much progress I’ve made with this particularly difficult subject in the two years between Goa and Penang.

In comparing the photos from these two conservatories, it’s important to note the vast difference in quality of the facilities—Goa’s Conservatory was like a bumbling junior high soccer player who shows up to matches stoned and never washes his uniform, and Penang’s Entopia was like a confident World Cup MVP who dates super models and stars in Italian underwear ads in the off season. As I wrote in the Goa post, I’m glad I made the trip because I like butterflies, and more importantly that excursion taught me a lot about how to make the best of difficult circumstances, but turning that day into a 3,000-word essay and a set of butterfly photos is one of my own odd quirks as a human being. If you find yourself in Goa, I can’t recommend a visit. Truth be told, the Goa conservatory was small, poorly maintained, and had a relatively small number of butterflies.

Penang’s Entopia, on the other hand, is a world-class facility and is regularly featured on lists of the world’s best nature conservatories. Over 15,000 butterflies from 60 different species flutter inside a huge diaphanous dome, which lets in just the right amount of soft sunlight, flattering both the butterflies and the immaculately maintained flower gardens.

Given that Penang Entopia is vastly superior in size and quality to the Goa Conservatory, it’s natural that my collection of photos from that visit is much larger, and of course I don’t get any credit for that. I’ve included 24 photos in the Penang set below, and I probably could have included double that without watering down the quality. (I took about 1,200 photos that day, so the photos below are roughly the top 2%. There were of course lots of bad photos from both Goa and Penang—as I noted above, taking good butterfly photos is really, really hard.)

While it’s meaningless to compare the number of photos or diversity of butterflies, it’s entirely fair to consider the average quality of each image and assess whether or not I’ve made significant progress with my photography in the two years between the trips. As I’ve noted in other posts, I think we improve mainly by practicing the skill we want to improve. According to my photo management and editing application (Photos for Mac), I took about 70,000 photos between Goa and Penang. Beyond taking lots and lots of photos, I often critique my shots soon after taking them: What’s good about this image? How could it be better?

I think readers are the best judge of quality, so here are the two sets of photos. The first is the starting point in my saga of photographing these lovely but challenging subjects, while the second from just two weeks ago represents my current level. Am I getting better? It’s a question I’m constantly asking myself.

The Penang Photos (at Entopia by Penang Butterfly Farm), January 2019

The Goa Photos (from Butterfly Conservatory Of Goa), February 2017




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