"You must be shapeless, formless, like water. When you pour water in a cup, it becomes the cup. When you pour water in a bottle, it becomes the bottle. When you pour water in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Water can drip and it can crash.
Become like water my friend."
This ONE SHOT entry is all about adaptability. If you've ever worked with forest light, you probably know how incredibly challenging it can be trying to capture subjects while generally compensating for both the darkest darks and the lightest lights. For me, normally I love to craft my images with a spectrum of deep darks and bright lights, and I don't mean just pumping contrast, but using my camera's customized color profiles to define the base of my style. If you don't know what I'm talking about, be sure to take the time to go into your camera's settings and look for wording similar to "Color Profile", but I digress.
Camera Settings and Technique
Nikon D500, 400mm, 1/320th sec, f/9, ISO 400, WB 5,650k
In this case, I could not use my usual color profile selection because of the already intense, high-contrast setting in front of me. I instead used the setting called "Flat", which significantly evens out the light of an image, making shadows brighter and light darker. And this typically gives off a "cinematic" feel. Since I had to use a lower shutter speed compared to the 1/2,500th+ second I usually use for moving wildlife, I made sure to keep my camera and lens steady with a tripod and smooth gimbal head. It would have been great to get close shots with a wide angle lens, but in this case, it would have been illegal, not to mention disturbing to the butterflies if I had more or less chased them down. After all, what kind of person would I be if I thought my images are more important than the health of the wildlife I want to showcase and protect?
The very first thing I'm thinking about besides a good view of the Monarchs in a thick forest setting is the background. I want a dark background with the best negative space I can manage and minimized distracting blue sky. In this case, bright blue sky is the ultimate killer of the image I'm going for compositionally. Since the sky is brighter than the subjects, especially considering the significantly dappled, mixed forest light, the viewers' eyes will naturally gravitate towards the bright and high-contrast areas of the image, taking away from the image's true purpose. I also wanted the biggest clusters I could find and with an odd number of columns. An odd number of subjects in imagery always look better to our eyes than even numbers. Next, however long it might take, wait for the changing light to fall pleasingly onto your subjects, this could take a while. If you have even more time (or luck), try to also let the shadows of the background be as dark as possible while minimizing light in order to make your subjects stand out.
*It would have been disappointing to capture these magnificent columns of butterflies without having at least some of them with their wings spread open, which also gives off the best impressions of orange colors, which is part of the reason why the Monarchs are so infamous.