Shutterbugs on the prowl

Photographing nature can be challenging but rewarding, and people of all ages are getting into it
Lea Wee Straits Times 14 Jun 13;

They often draw curious stares from strangers as they point their big cameras and long lenses at seemingly nothing on a tree, a flower or a patch of grass.

Their objects of interest - birds, butterflies and insects - may not be obvious to the inexperienced eye. But to nature photographers, these subjects are their passion pursuits, and it is one that more people are getting interested in.

The Nature Photographic Society (Singapore), the oldest such group around, has seen membership grow from a handful in 2000, when it was first set up, to 158 members now.

Its 20-hour nature photography course, held over five Saturdays once a year for about 25 people, has been fully booked since it was introduced for members and the public in 2006. Last year, the society had to do two runs.

Other smaller groups of nature photographers have also sprung up in recent years. ButterflyCircle, a group of about 30, was set up in 2006 by architect Khew Sin Khoon, 54.

Another informal group consists of more than 10 macro photographers who got together around 2009. They shoot mainly spiders and other creatures as small as 1mm.

Then there are the individuals. Some specialise in taking photos of mammals or dragonflies and damselflies, while others focus on intertidal marine life or plants. Each has his own blog to showcase his photos. These groups and individuals not only make photography trips to nature areas here but also overseas.

Mr Dennis Ho, 47, vice-president of Nature Photographic Society (Singapore), said nature photography has become more accessible due to the rise of digital photography and social media.

He said: "In the past, you needed to wait for your film to be developed to find out how a shot went. Now, you take a shot and you can see how it turns out immediately. And when you post it on Facebook, you get feedback on how to improve. You learn very quickly how to take a good photo."

The nature shutterbug appears to have bitten people of both genders and from different age groups and professions.

Jonathan Soong, 14, one of the youngest members of the ButterflyCircle, aims his camera at a butterfly at Gardens by the Bay. -- PHOTO: JOSEPH NAIR FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

For instance, the youngest members of ButterflyCircle are students aged 12 and 14 while the oldest is a retiree and a former fighter pilot, aged 64.

Groups or individuals spend hours in the field studying their pet pursuits, so that they can capture the best shot.

Bird photographers such as Mr Ho usually set off early in the morning to catch their favourite subjects in action in the forest, grassland or garden.

They may park themselves 10 to 20m away from a bird's nest, with their long telephoto lens balanced on top of a tripod, waiting for hours, over a few days or weeks, to capture prized shots such as those of the adult bird feeding its young.

Those who photograph forest mammals such as the lesser mousedeer need even more patience, as these animals are very shy and elusive. They are also becoming less common here, said engineer Chan Kwok Wai, 37, who takes photos of wild animals.

Meanwhile, the challenge for members of ButterflyCircle, who go out every weekend to "chase butterflies" in nature areas, is to find situations when these skittish subjects pause for a few seconds, for instance when feeding on a flower, for them to sneak up and snap a shot.

Those with a passion for dragonflies and damselflies must be prepared to wade through water, as businessman Anthony Quek, 46, did, to get a series of images of two rare damselflies engaged in behaviours such as mating and egg laying.

Shooting even tinier animals such as insects and spiders is backbreaking work for the macro shooters, who may have to contort their bodies to get close to their subjects. But it was all worth it for game studio manager Nicky Bay, 35, whose photo of a ladybird-mimicking spider last year stirred up such interest that it was published on several websites overseas, including that of the Telegraph newspaper in England.

For freelance writer Marcus Ng, 38, joy is visiting seashores when the tide is low to capture photographs of crabs, fish and other intertidal marine life, while for public servant Teo Siyang, 29, happiness is taking photographs of plants.

But it is not just about taking pretty photos. Some photographers have "loftier" aims. Mr Teo for instance, set up a plant identification website,, last year to provide the public an easy way to identify the plants in Singapore and, in the process, better appreciate them. He has taken photos of 111 plant species and hopes eventually to cover the more than 4,000 plant species here.

Dr Cai Yixiong, 48, president of Nature Photographic Society (Singapore), agreed that photography is a good tool for promoting nature appreciation.

A trained zoologist, he said: "When people see our photos, they often cannot believe that the plant or animal can be found in Singapore. They then start to appreciate what we have."

The photographic society and other groups such as ButterflyCircle also meet regularly at the Biodiversity Roundtable of Singapore, initiated by National Parks Board and other parties last year, to exchange ideas on ways to conserve nature in Singapore.

The ButterflyCircle also helps the board conduct surveys on butterflies. The group's founder, Mr Khew, who is the author of two books on butterflies here, said: "It's a natural progression. After taking photos of beautiful butterflies, you would want to find out more about them through research and to protect them through conservation for future generations to enjoy."


Some nature photographers go so close to nesting sites that the adult birds stay away from the nest and their babies' feeding routine gets disrupted. Others remove leaves to get a clearer view of birds and expose them to predators.

These practices are frowned upon by other members of the community. The Nature Photographic Society (Singapore) set up a code of ethics in 2009 for members when they are out in the field. Here is an extract.

Habitat and environment

Do not destroy or damage the environment or habitat where photographic subjects are located.
Stay on existing roads, trails and paths to photograph. Otherwise, keep habitat disturbance to a minimum.
Do not litter in the field. Take nothing but photographs and videos, leave nothing but footprints.

Subject Welfare

Learn the animal's behaviour and know when to back off and not to interfere with its life cycle.
Know your equipment such as the minimum focusing distance. There is no point moving a few centimetres towards a subject when you are using a longer macro lens
Avoid stressing the subject. If it shows stress, move away and use a longer lens.
Do not force a subject into an unnatural environment in order to take a good photo.
Before publicising the presence of a rare subject, evaluate the potential disturbance to it and its environment.

The Nature Society (Singapore) also has a code of ethics for nature lovers and photographers on its website

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