10 Tips for Great Butterfly Photos

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Butterflies are wonderful subjects for photographs, but not always the easiest subject to shoot. You don’t have to wing it anymore, and let good shots be a product of chance. Follow these tips and you’ll come home with some great butterfly photos.

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1. Consider shooting with a telephoto macro lens

To shoot close-ups of butterflies, you’ll want to use a telephoto macros lens. To get great shots, you need to get close to the butterfly, and having a 100mm or longer macro will help. If you don’t have a macro, don’t be discouraged, you can still make great shots with your zoom lens, you’ll just need to shoot more of the environment, but you can make beautiful images that way too.

2. Find a location with flowering plants that attract butterflies

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Specific plants, such as the butterfly bush, are known to attract butterflies. See if you can find a location in a park, zoo, or arboretum that has a flower garden with plants chosen specifically to attract butterflies. The more subjects you have to photograph, the better your chances are at nailing the perfect butterfly shot.

3. Pick a spot and wait for the butterflies to come to you

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Once you’ve found your garden, find an area that seems to have a lot of butterflies around. While photographing butterflies in flight seems like a great idea, it’s pretty difficult, and it will likely leave you frustrated.

Take a minute or two and just observe. Butterflies seem to come back to the same flower over and over again. Just watch, then pick a flower and wait for the butterfly to come to you. I usually choose a flower that is in the shade. Harsh shadows take away from the beauty of the photograph. I also watch the background to make sure that it compliments the butterfly.

4. Use a monopod or a tripodHow-to-shoot-butterflies1

If you use a tripod, don’t lock it in. Leave the head loose, to give you some flexibility. I like using a tripod over a monopod for shooting butterflies. It helps me keep the camera in place and ready, and I can take my eye from the viewfinder as I watch and wait for them to come to my flower. Using a tripod also helps me to frame my photo ahead of time to keep the background very clean.

5. Shoot in manual exposure mode

In a situation like this, I prefer to shoot in manual mode. When I am focused on one particular area, the lighting, and therefore my exposure, isn’t going to change, or at least not very much. I like to shoot at least 1/500th of a second. I prefer to use a wide aperture for a narrow depth of field. But, if you are just starting out, give yourself a break by using an aperture that will give you more depth of field – f/8 would be a great starting point and you can adjust from there.

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6. Focus on the butterfly’s eyes

Some photographers like to focus on the wings, I choose to make sure the eye is as sharp as can be, and if the wings fall off focus a little bit, that’s okay. It’s easier to use a bigger depth of field, like f/8 or f/11, so I encourage you to try that first.

I like to use a smaller f/stop in order to throw the background out of focus. It is much more challenging to shoot that way, but I like the effect it gives. It makes the butterfly really stand out from the background instead of blending in to its surroundings.

7. Shoot the butterfly in profile

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If you are using a larger aperture, and shallow depth of field – shoot the butterfly in profile. That way, you have more of the butterfly in focus. I also love to see how the antennae stands out from the background, and love the details of their legs. Yes, there is beauty in the wings, but there is also an awe in those tiny legs that support the butterfly, as well as its tendril. Look beyond the obvious, to details for outstanding photographs.

8. Shoot tight as well as loose to capture the environment

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Notice the differences between the photographs above and below. It’s the same species of butterfly, in the same field of flowers – but one shot is cropped tighter and one is framed looser, with more space around the butterfly. Both are successful. Take note in the top photograph, how the antennae are framed with the orange flower to make them stand out. If my angle had been such to have the darker green in the background, it may not have been as successful.

Also note that the orange in the wings mimics the orange flowers. Shooting great butterfly shots goes beyond just taking sharp photographs of wings!

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9. Break the profile rule (above)

I love this photograph because it feels like this butterfly is moving forward, into a new place. The head is sharp and the lower wings fall out of focus due to the narrow depth of field, but in this case, it really works because it pulls out attention to the butterfly’s eyes, and into the photograph. It gives the viewer the feel of looking over the shoulder of the butterfly into some new place.

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This photo is successful because it moves beyond recording what the wings look like and creates a mood and sense of movement and anticipation.

10. Have patience and have fun!

Beautiful butterfly photos take time and patience, but they are worth it. If you don’t get it your first time out, keep trying. It’s a great chance to hone your skills and you might get an amazing shot.

Please share your questions and butterfly images below and also remember to post them on the weekly challenge: Butterflies and Bugs happening here.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Vickie Lewis is a National Geographic shooter who is known as a heartfelt photographer who loves telling stories with photographs. She’s been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and has taken over 150 portraits for People Magazine. Vickie loves sharing her passion for photography with others in her writing and workshops. You can sign up for her free Crash Course on photography and follow her on Instagram.

  • Very good article Vickie. When it comes to lens selection, I prefer a 70-300mm zoom over the macro lens. It just gives me freedom to move around in the weeds and flowers as I do all of my photography in the wild.

  • Joel

    Excellent shots! Butterflies are just remarkable!

  • Mandeep Singh

    Lovely shots, sharing one of my click with you all, enjoy 🙂

  • franciwzm

    There is not suggested must important davise in my opinion: shoot upwards or at least not downwards,or you will get distracting background

  • Jennyvmcdade3
  • Vickie Lewis

    Yes, truly beautiful!

  • Vickie Lewis

    Thank you!

  • Vickie Lewis

    Hi Wes, I use a 100mm macro. I agree having a little bit of that telephoto feel is better. 🙂

  • Abhirup Lahiri

    This one is a good post to follow detailing every fundamentals about macro photography(of butterfly), learnt few new things so I appreciate the writer for sharing thought with us.

  • Cheryl Coughlin

    I use to collect butterflies and catch some by hand. You can get close to butterflies. Don’t make fast moves and let them enjoy drinking from the flower. When they are drinking, they are distracted and you can move more. I have some photos of a giant swallowtail. The largest one in North America and I was taking photos outside for about an hour. It was one of my greatest experiences.

  • Diana

    one of my favorite things to capture.

  • Colin Healey

    Thank you for the informative article. I’ve only tried photographing butterflies once – at RHS Wisley Gardens. A few of the results are below.

  • Colin Healey

    Love this one. Very artistic and the lighting of the butterfly is beautiful.

  • Vickie Lewis

    Hi Fanciwzm, actually, that is not necessarily true. If you look at each of these photographs, many are shot at eye level, none upwards, and yet none has a distracting background. To clean up the background, you shoot close and a narrow depth of field, as well as making sure that the bushes in the background are not right next to the butterfly. A longer telephoto helps with that, too.

  • Vickie Lewis

    I love photographing butterflies, too! Thank you for sharing.

  • Vickie Lewis

    Pretty!

  • Butterflies are great to capture, but it’s difficult to do so in places where there’s a lot of people. Gotta pick the right flower!

  • Marc Thibault

    nice tipss thank you…and then about iso..how your ajust that t y.?? itook this one..seem the focus,,not very clear enough..have a nice day bye…!!!!!!!!!

  • Christine Majul

    In the beginning I used a point and shoot and went in very closely and I got a treasure trove of insect shots. DSLR pirices are out of my price range. This was shot with a point and shoot. It was not easy in the beginning but, as time went on, I learned how to anticipate how the bee or insect would land on the flower and take the shot.

  • Elias Daoud

    Yes this is prettiest of all replied comment.
    Nice one

  • Graham Kelly

    Nice article – I bought a macro lens last year and I’m still struggling with it – dof is a nightmare for handheld shots

    http://www.grahamkellyphotography.com

  • My favourite insect, the butterfly 😉 at Butterfly World, Stellenbosch, Cape Town, South Africa
    Image taken with my Nikon D3100, 16-300mm Tamron Lens, f/8 ISO400 1/80

  • Manoj Kumar

    thanks for nice tips

  • Chaitanya

    Nice tips, although most of times butterflies too damn fast to select focus point properly instead I just use centre point and larger f-no so DOF is large and it’s more forgiving in terms of focus. This is my one of favourite photos of Sorel Sapphire from my recent butterfly trip to foothills of himalayas.

  • Awahili Brooks
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