This article was updated in October 2023 with contributions from four expert photographers: Steve Berardi, Vickie Lewis, Kathy Samuel, and Jaymes Dempsey.
Butterflies are gorgeous insects, but if you’ve ever tried to capture a butterfly on camera, you’ll know that it can be quite a challenge. Not only are butterflies unpredictable, but they’re both very small and surprisingly fast – so without certain tricks and techniques, you’re liable to come home with memory cards full of failures.
But don’t worry! In this guide, I delve into the world of butterfly photography and reveal the secrets that will help you create stunning images. From selecting the right gear to employing creative approaches, I equip you with the tools and knowledge you need to become a butterfly photo master, no matter your prior experience.
So if you’re ready to start capturing tack-sharp shots that showcase the world’s most beautiful insects, let’s get started!
1. Use a macro or telephoto lens for the best results
Getting those captivating close-up shots of butterflies requires the right lens in your arsenal. You want to let your gear do the heavy lifting, so here’s what you need to know:
To capture intricate details and fill the frame with your fluttering subject, opt for a telephoto or long macro lens. These lenses have the reach and magnification power to get you up close and personal with the butterflies.
If you have access to it, a telephoto lens in the range of 200-500mm can do a good job. However, pay attention to the lens’s minimum focusing distance when making your selection. Some telephoto lenses excel at zooming in from a distance but struggle to focus on objects up close. Given the small size of butterflies, this is an essential factor to consider.
For exceptional results, a dedicated telephoto macro lens, such as a 150mm or 180mm lens, is hard to beat. These lenses are known for their outstanding sharpness. However, even with a 180mm lens, you’ll still need to exercise patience and get fairly close to the butterflies to fill the frame effectively.
2. Use a tripod, but keep the head loose
Butterflies are known for their quick movements, flitting from one flower to another with agility. This means that you often won’t have the luxury of time to set up your equipment and lock your tripod in place. However, using a tripod can still offer stability, minimizing the risk of camera shake and resulting in sharper images.
My suggestion? Bring a tripod along, but keep the head loose. This way, you can swiftly move your camera to follow the butterflies while still enjoying the benefits of added stability. It will also save your arms from fatigue while you wait for your subject to strike the perfect pose.
If a tripod feels too cumbersome or restrictive for your shooting style, consider a solid alternative: a monopod. Unlike tripods, monopods have just one leg, making them easy to maneuver and adjust as you track butterflies in motion. They are also lighter and more convenient to pack, which is a definite plus when you’re out in the field.
Finally, some butterfly photographers prefer the freedom and flexibility of shooting handheld. If you opt for this approach, make sure your lens or camera has image stabilization to help counteract camera shake and work on your handholding technique. Remember to keep those elbows tucked in and consider bending your knees or even kneeling on the ground for added support!
3. Find a location with the right plants
Finding the right location is essential for successful butterfly photography. Not just any garden will do. You’ll want to look for spots with flowering plants that are specifically known to attract these beautiful insects. The butterfly bush is a popular choice. You might even find a location in a park, zoo, or arboretum that has a designated flower garden for this very purpose.
When you’re in a space that attracts butterflies, you’re basically setting yourself up in a target-rich environment. The more butterflies there are, the more opportunities you’ll have to get that perfect shot. And believe me, in butterfly photography, you can never have too many subjects to choose from!
4. Wait for colder weather
When you’re out and about, ready to capture stunning butterfly photos, timing is everything. One secret to success lies in taking advantage of colder weather conditions. Butterflies tend to take it easy when it’s chilly outside. They become less inclined to flutter about (even if they spot an enthusiastic photographer wielding a big lens!).
So to maximize your chances of getting those perfect shots, it’s best to schedule your butterfly photography outings for days when the weather turns cold. Alternatively, you can aim for early morning sessions, as discussed later on in this article. Just after sunrise, you’ll find the butterflies in a more relaxed state, and it’ll give you ample opportunity to capture their delicate beauty.
Of course, don’t forget to bundle up appropriately! Just as the butterflies may feel the chill, you don’t want to freeze in pursuit of that perfect shot.
5. Position your camera so it’s parallel to the butterfly’s wings
When capturing stunning butterfly shots, getting the focus just right is crucial. Whether you choose to get up close or use a long lens, I often recommend positioning your camera so its sensor is parallel to the butterfly’s wings.
Why is this important? Well, when you’re shooting butterflies, depth of field becomes extremely limited, even with a narrow aperture setting. To keep the entire butterfly sharp – from wingtip to wingtip – it’s essential to ensure that your camera’s sensor is perfectly aligned with the wings of your subject. In other words, aim to photograph the butterfly in profile, especially for those ultra-close shots.
By positioning yourself correctly and aligning the sensor with the butterfly’s wings, you increase the chances of capturing the entire butterfly in focus, wings and all. This technique will enhance the overall sharpness and detail of your photographs, and the results will speak for themselves.
However, if you’re unable to capture a shot with the butterfly perfectly in profile, don’t worry too much! Do what you can to increase the depth of field, and even if you can’t get the wings completely sharp, at least make sure that the butterfly’s body remains in focus.
6. Wait until the butterfly is frontlit by the sun
Capturing stunning butterfly photographs requires paying attention to the lighting conditions. While you can experiment with different lighting directions, my experience has shown that the best results come when the butterfly is frontlit by the sun. Here’s why:
When the sun is positioned behind you, casting its warm rays over your shoulder, it creates beautiful illumination on the butterfly. This lighting setup brings out the intricate details and vibrant colors of the butterfly’s wings, making your photos shine (no pun intended!).
While you may be tempted to shoot in backlight or sidelight, they can present challenges. Backlighting often leads to flare effects and makes it difficult to capture the butterfly’s features clearly. Sidelighting, on the other hand, can create shadows that obscure the butterfly’s delicate patterns.
To maximize your chances of getting that perfect frontlit shot, choose a good position in advance. Observe the butterfly and anticipate its movements. Wait patiently until it moves to a position where the sun is shining directly on it. Remember, butterflies won’t pose on command, so a little patience goes a long way.
By the way, you might be wondering about the ideal time for butterfly photography. Most photographers prefer the golden hours, which occur early in the morning or late in the afternoon. During this time, the sunlight has a warm, golden quality that adds a magical touch to your images. However, even on cloudy days, you can still capture stunning butterfly photos. Just keep in mind that the light might be more limited, making it a bit challenging to achieve sharp shots.
7. Capture both narrow and wide compositions
Many people instinctively zoom in to capture the intricate details of a butterfly’s wings. That’s a great approach, but don’t forget the beauty of a wider shot. Consider this butterfly image, which uses a close-focusing approach:
Then look at this next shot of the same butterfly, which features slightly wider framing:
The second shot tells more of a story; after all, it shows the butterfly in the context of its vibrant environment.
Each of these composition types offers something different. The close-up emphasizes delicate beauty, while the wider composition shows the butterfly as part of a larger world. It shares the beauty of the flowers and foliage that surround it. Both types of shots can be compelling in their own way.
The choice between narrow and wide compositions isn’t an either-or decision. By taking both, you’ll tell a more complete story of your fluttery subject. And who knows? When you look back at your photos, you might find that you like the wider shots just as much as the close-ups, if not more.
8. Try different angles and frames
Most people shoot butterflies from above. Sure, this showcases the vibrant patterns and colors of their wings, but it’s also a very human perspective. For a more compelling image, get down to eye level with your butterfly subject.
There’s just something incredibly intimate about locking eyes with a butterfly. It helps convey that a butterfly isn’t just a colorful set of wings; it’s a living, breathing creature with a unique personality.
Don’t be afraid to get creative, either. You’re not stuck with only one angle or composition! Once you’ve captured an initial shot, if the butterfly is sticking around, try out less common vantage points.
Finally, use the butterfly’s natural environment to frame your composition. A butterfly perched on a uniquely shaped flower can add an extra layer of intrigue. Or imagine a butterfly with its wings fully expanded, framed by a loop of a twisting vine or a colorful leaf. That’s a photo people will remember!
9. Use a fast shutter speed
When it comes to photographing butterflies, there are three things that are almost always in motion: your camera, the butterfly itself, and the flower it’s perched on. To capture a sharp and clear shot – which is definitely the goal! – using a fast shutter speed is crucial.
The ideal shutter speed will depend on factors such as your lens focal length, the distance to the butterfly, and whether the butterfly is in motion. However, as a general guideline, aim to keep your shutter speed above 1/250s, or even faster if possible.
If you’re shooting in Manual mode, you have the freedom to dial in your desired shutter speed. Pair it with a somewhat narrow aperture setting like f/8, and then adjust the ISO until you achieve a well-exposed shot. Personally, I often shoot at ISO 400 to maintain a balanced exposure while keeping my images sharp.
By using a fast shutter speed, you freeze the motion of the butterfly, ensuring that every intricate detail is captured without any blurriness. This way, you can showcase the delicate patterns on the wings and the beauty of these enchanting creatures.
10. Use your camera’s continuous shooting mode
Butterflies, with their quick and unpredictable movements, can present a real challenge for even the most experienced photographers. To increase your chances of capturing fleeting and dynamic moments, I highly recommend activating the continuous shooting mode on your camera.
This setting allows you to use the “spray and pray” approach, where you hold down the shutter button to capture a burst of rapid-fire shots, thus increasing the likelihood of capturing that perfect moment in focus.
To make the most of continuous shooting mode, start by ensuring that your camera has a relatively fast continuous shooting rate (preferably above 6 frames per second). Then make sure the continuous shooting mode is active and be ready to take advantage of any butterfly activity.
Before the butterflies arrive, focus on a flower or a specific area where they frequently land. This way, when you spot a butterfly approaching, you can simply hold down the shutter button and let the camera photograph away. While it’s impossible to guarantee perfect results, the approach certainly increases your chances of capturing that split-second moment when the butterfly is perfectly positioned or in mid-flight.
When reviewing your shots at home, keep in mind that continuous shooting will generate a large number of images, including quite a few that are out of focus or less than ideal. But don’t be discouraged! Remember that even professional photographers sift through numerous frames to find the gems. Take your time to carefully examine the series of shots. Select the ones that work and discard the rest!
11. When working up close, use manual focus
A butterfly’s delicate features deserve to be showcased, and while autofocus might be convenient, it’s not always accurate -especially if you’re looking for a close-up shot where every detail counts. That’s where manual focus comes into play.
You might wonder: how do you focus manually on a creature as small and mobile as a butterfly? Don’t worry; I have a trick for you. Pre-focus your camera on a flower, ideally one that butterflies frequent. When a butterfly lands there, you’ll only need to make small adjustments to get your shot.
Of course, such a method isn’t foolproof. But it does give you a head start in capturing a sharp, detailed image. Even then, don’t settle for just one or two shots. Take multiple photos to increase your chances of getting that perfect frame!
12. Wait patiently for the butterflies
Sometimes, those beautiful butterflies can be a bit skittish. Approaching them directly may startle them and send them fluttering away. But don’t worry, there’s a strategy I like to use, and it’s all about waiting patiently and letting the butterflies come to you.
Find a patch of flowers where these graceful creatures frequently land. Position yourself comfortably, and then settle in for some waiting time. (Yes, patience is key in butterfly photography!)
You’ll notice that while butterflies may be wary of your approach, they often feel more at ease landing on flowers right next to you if you’re already sitting there. So, be prepared to wait. It may take 15 to 20 minutes or even longer for a butterfly to make an appearance.
While you’re waiting, take the opportunity to fine-tune your camera settings and prefocus on the area where the butterflies are likely to land. But remember, avoid any sudden movements. The goal is to blend into their surroundings and make the butterflies forget about your presence so they can go about their delicate business undisturbed.
13. Be mindful of casting shadows on butterflies
When capturing stunning butterfly photographs, it’s crucial to be conscious of shadows. Butterflies, like most critters, respond to sudden changes in the light – so if you cast a shadow over them, they’re likely to flutter away. This is especially important to remember when shooting on sunny mornings and afternoons, as the low angle of the sun can easily create long shadows.
To minimize the risk of casting a shadow on your subject, try positioning yourself at a lower angle. By getting down closer to the ground, you can reduce the chances of your own shadow obstructing the butterfly’s delicate presence. Not only does this technique decrease the likelihood of disturbing the butterfly, but it also grants you a more intimate perspective, and the resulting photos will immerse the viewer in the tiny world of these beautiful creatures.
14. Shoot in the morning for the best butterfly photos
If you want to capture breathtaking butterfly photos, the morning is your secret weapon. Why? Well, as I explained above, when the air is cool and crisp, butterflies tend to be more relaxed and less active. This means they’re more likely to stay perched on plants and flowers, giving you the opportunity to get up close and personal.
But it’s not just about the butterflies being more cooperative. Shooting in the morning also gives you some of the most enchanting light nature has to offer. The golden hour casts warm, gentle rays on your subjects, creating a magical glow that adds a touch of ethereal beauty to your shots.
So set your alarm early and head out to your favorite butterfly spot at the crack of dawn. You’ll be rewarded with tranquil butterflies, ready to pose for your lens amidst the soft morning light.
15. Watch for distracting backgrounds
When you’re out there photographing butterflies, it’s easy to get caught up in the beauty of these delicate creatures and forget about the surroundings, particularly the background. Unfortunately, however, a cluttered or distracting background can diminish the impact of even the best photos. So to make your butterfly images truly stand out, you need to pay attention to what’s happening behind your subject.
Imagine: You’ve found a perfect butterfly perched gracefully on a flower, ready for its close-up. You frame your shot, adjust the settings, and click the shutter button. But wait! In the background, there’s a mess of branches, people walking by, or other objects that steal attention away from the butterfly.
To avoid this, take a moment to evaluate the background before pressing the shutter. Look for a clean and uncluttered space that will emphasize the butterfly, not distract from it. To achieve the best results, position yourself in a way that allows for ample space between the butterfly’s perch and the area behind it.
Another trick is to use a wider aperture setting (smaller f-number) to create a shallow depth of field. That way, the background blurs into a soft wash of colors and shapes, focusing the viewer’s attention on the sharp and vibrant butterfly in the foreground.
Remember, the background plays a crucial role in the overall impact of your butterfly photos. A clean, smooth, and complementary background will make your subject pop and captivate viewers – so always check behind your subject before shooting!
16. Try the shooting-through approach
If you’re looking to add a touch of creativity and uniqueness to your butterfly photography, the shooting-through approach is a fun technique to experiment with. Here’s how you can get started:
First, find a suitable perch where you anticipate a butterfly will land. Look around for interesting vegetation, preferably flowers, that you can use as a foreground element.
Position yourself in such a way that the foreground element is situated between your lens and the butterfly perch. The closer the foreground element is to your lens, the better the effect. Dial in a wide aperture to create a soft blur in the foreground while manually focusing on the butterfly perch.
When the butterfly lands on the perch, seize the moment and snap a few shots. It may take some patience and persistence, but you’ll end up with shots featuring a sharp butterfly surrounded by a soft blur. In my experience, this technique can create a dreamy and ethereal atmosphere that complements the beauty of the butterfly in a unique way.
Remember to experiment with different compositions and angles to ensure you get the most captivating results. With dedication and a creative mindset, this simple approach will help you produce breathtaking photographs that stand out from the crowd.
17. Have fun!
Butterfly photography is a rewarding journey. No, it’s not always easy to get the perfect shot, but that’s where the fun lies. Trying, failing, and trying again until you capture that perfect moment – it’s all part of the fun.
The process will require patience. Butterflies are unpredictable and won’t always land where you want them to. They flutter about, teasing your lens with fleeting moments of beauty. But stick with it. Each time you venture out, you’re also perfecting your photography skills. Even if you don’t capture that perfect butterfly photo on your first try, consider it a practice run. And hey, you’re outside, breathing fresh air, surrounded by nature’s beauty. What’s not to love?
Butterfly photography tips: final words
And that’s a wrap on our journey into the captivating world of butterfly photography! We’ve covered everything, from gear and settings tips to advice on chasing the perfect light and exploring creative techniques.
So grab your camera and venture into the wild. As you embark on your butterfly photography adventures, be patient, be persistent, and most importantly, enjoy yourself!
Now over to you:
Which of these tips do you plan to use first? Do you have any tips for photographing butterflies you’d like to share? Let us know in the comments below!