Fine-art photographer Tom D Jones discusses the process behind his graphic image of a butterfly, a shot taken from his series u2018Papillonu2019

Photo Insight with Tom D Jones – Butterfly

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Tom D Jones has won many international accolades, including the Hasselblad Masters Award 2012. This biennial award is given in recognition of a photographer’s contribution to the art of photography and is judged on creativity, art and craftsmanship. Tom D Jones is the first Belgian Hasselblad Master and joins such illustrious names as Anton Corbijn, Albert Watson and Howard Shatz. His work is characterised by clean compositions, light and depth, reflecting mainly infinite serenity and simplicity.

Fine-art photographer Tom D Jones discusses the process behind his graphic image of a butterfly, a shot taken from his series ‘Papillon’

This image was taken very close to where I live in Knokke, in north-east Belgium. There used to be a butterfly garden near my home and it was a place that I had planned to shoot for a long time. One day, news reached me that the garden was about to close. I think the reason the closure was planned was because they wanted to build some houses on the site. That information made me jump to attention and realise that I was now facing a pretty strict deadline if I wanted to get some good butterfly images. It also forced me to go into the butterfly garden with a clear idea of what I wanted to do with this project. I didn’t have time to mess around and experiment.

This project was inspired, in part, by fellow photographer Tim Flach. He has created some extraordinary projects in the past – horses, monkeys and dogs among them – but the images that particularly caught my attention were his shots of bats. His style of photography is impressive. I was particularly taken with his method of shooting his subjects outside their natural environment because he shoots them in a studio setting.

It took around eight months to make my series, which is called ‘Papillon’. I didn’t shoot every day, but I visited the garden pretty frequently. I made a little studio environment in the garden that I could easily put together and deconstruct. You can see a picture here of my simple set-up. I explained my plans to the experts at the butterfly garden and I was allowed to do things you wouldn’t normally be able to do, such as cut the flowers. Once a butterfly landed on a flower, I could cut the flower and then rearrange it so that the image worked better on a compositional level. Obviously I had to move slowly so the butterfly didn’t get spooked and fly away.

The butterfly you see here was already in position when I shot it. I didn’t have to arrange it or wait for it to move. The black background was a simple board that was placed in the shot to make the butterfly’s colours stand out in the scene.

Most of the images for the series were made using natural light, as the butterfly garden is like one big softbox. The light is very diffused, which is why there is a nice gentle light in the images. I sometimes used a mirror – you can see it in the behind-the-scenes shot – to bounce light back into the scene. On other occasions I used a little light placed just in front of me, depending on what I needed for each individual butterfly. There are also images in the series that required flash. That was necessary when I was shooting later in the year and the natural light would start to fade quite early in the day.

I shot the images for ‘Papillon’ on a Hasselblad H3DII with a 120mm macro 
lens. The shots are super-sharp and really reveal the extraordinary detail of these beautiful creatures. You don’t appreciate how stunning these insects are until you get right up close to them. I always shoot using Hasselblad cameras because I tend to print my images quite large. The prints can be as big as 1 metre x 1 metre, and each image is limited to five prints. To make such large images I need a high-resolution camera, and the Hasselblad really is incredible.

People who go to my website will notice that I am referred to as a Hasselblad Master. Every two years, Hasselblad runs a competition that is divided into individual genres (landscape, architecture, and so on). Hasselblad then selects 10 or 11 masters for each category. A title like Hasselblad Master opens a lot of doors. There are many photographers in the world and you need to stand out, particularly if you want to sell your work.

It was important for me to show these butterflies in a very graphic way because that’s my way of working. I like strong, clean and tight compositions. Whether I am shooting butterflies or landscapes, the feelings I want to evoke are the same. I like the serenity that a beautiful image can impart, so that’s what I try to create. This is the common theme uniting all my projects.

I call myself a fine-art photographer because I’m not restricted to shooting one genre. I work with landscapes and, as you can see here, a bit of wildlife. In the future, you’ll also see that I’m branching out into other subjects. My wife and I run a portrait studio, although she’s the photographer for that part of things. I manage the digital workflow and printing behind the scenes. I used to do that a lot, but I got a little bored of it. It made me feel a little like an IT person. That’s why I started to shoot more work such as this. I’m glad I did because ‘Papillon’ is a series that I’m incredibly proud of.

Tom’s studio environment set up in the butterfly house for his Papillon series

To see more of Tom’s work, visit www.tomdjones.com

Tom D Jones was talking to Oliver Atwell