Tips for Photographing Butterflies

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Butterflies can provide a colorful and fun way to explore the macro world, and the basic techniques are easy to master with a little patience and practice.

Just because butterflies are fast movers, doesn’t mean you have to be! If you watch carefully, you will notice that each species tends to visit the same variety of flower. If you miss a photo opportunity, wait a couple of minutes and the chances are that the butterfly will soon be back again to the same flower, or to a neighboring one. When approaching, avoid unnecessary vibrations and be careful not to cast a shadow over the butterfly.

Butterfly 1

Lens choice

Although a macro lens is an advantage, almost any lens can be used. A wide angle lens will help show context, whilst lenses with a longer focal length will isolate the butterfly from the background and will also ensure that it is not physically disturbed.

Camera settings

As in all macro photography, the background is as important as the subject and using the right aperture can make or break the photo. Use Aperture Priority mode and choose a fairly wide aperture (a small f-number). A good starting point is somewhere between f/3.5 and f/5.6, which will help separate the butterfly from the flowers or branches behind.

Of course, a wide aperture will also reduce depth-of-field, so your final choice will often depend on the position of the butterfly. If its wings are closed for example, and you are parallel to its body a wide aperture will be fine. If not, you may need to try something smaller such as f/8 or f/11.

Sometimes you will be lucky enough to find a butterfly who is feeding and poses beautifully for the camera, but most of the time they are in constant motion. Using a fast shutter speed of 1/800th and upwards will help reduce your quota of blurry photos.

Ideally, your ISO will be set to either 200 or 400, although you may need to increase this depending on available light.

Butterfly 2

Focus

If your butterfly is part of a larger scene, you may get away with autofocus. For close-ups, there is only one way to focus, and that’s manually! Autofocus rarely puts the focus exactly where you want it, and with butterflies you are aiming at their eyes. If they are visible, the eyes are the key to the image and they need to be sharp.

If you are wondering how to manually focus on the microscopic eyes of a tiny, moving creature, don’t worry. Try pre-focusing on a flower so that when the occupant arrives you only have to make minor adjustments. Good focusing can be a bit hit and miss, so take plenty of photos to increase your chances of having a few sharp images.

Butterfly 3

Lighting

As for most photography, avoid the harsh light of the middle of the day. Early morning provides great light and slower moving butterflies, but late afternoon on a sunny day is often the best option. The butterflies are active and the sun is low in the sky.

Once you feel comfortable with the more classical front and side-lighting, have a go at back-lighting. This can be achieved by positioning the butterfly between yourself and the sun. Avoiding lens flare can be a bit tricky, but this type of lighting will really show off the details of the wings and put a beautiful rim of light around the butterfly.

If your back-lit photos are on the dark side, you may need to over-expose slightly. Dial in some exposure compensation until the butterfly is correctly exposed.

Butterfly 4

Composition

Photographing a butterfly from above, will showcase the patterns and colours of its wings. Getting down to eye level however, will give your photos much more impact and intimacy (especially if those eyes are sharp). Vary your perspective, move around, and show the butterfly from angles that are rarely seen.

As well as close-up shots, you may also want to consider the larger picture and show the butterfly in its natural surroundings.

Butterfly 5

Tripod

Whether you use a tripod or not is a personal choice. A tripod will bring you an element of stability and will help with composition and focus. The down side is that it is cumbersome and will severely restrict your movements when photographing these fast moving, and somewhat erratic subjects.

As for finding butterflies, you shouldn’t have to go far. Your garden will probably reveal several passers-by, and others can be found in local parks, fields and woodlands. Butterfly houses also provide great photographic opportunities with nice, even lighting and many species under one roof.

Butterfly 6

With a bit of perseverance you will soon develop your own technique for photographing these little beauties. Be warned though, chasing butterflies can become highly addictive!

Kathy Samuel is a natural light photographer with a passion for the outdoors and the world of macro photography. She is English, but now lives in the southern French Alps where there is no shortage of tiny subjects for her camera. You can visit her at Kathy Samuel Photography.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Kathy Samuel is a natural light photographer with a passion for the outdoors and the world of macro photography. She is English, but now lives in the southern French Alps where there is no shortage of tiny subjects for her camera. You can visit her at Kathy Samuel Photography.

  • This is so cool! I can never get it quite right. Thanks for posting!

    Kat
    http://www.itgirlnextdoor.com

  • Kathy Samuel

    Kat – Thanks for your comment! I found that the only way to get it right more and more often was to practice. You’ll find that you’ll improve pretty quickly.

  • bv

    Love butterfly photography………….

  • Nice article, I find that a tripod is almost pointless when photographing butterflies as you often need to move the camera reasonably briskly in a way that the tripod will not allow. I think maybe a monopod might be a little more practical if you find it very difficult to hand hold.

    I bought a cheapish macro ring flash that I love to use, even during daylight and would recommend it to anyone getting close to their subjects…

  • Kathy Samuel

    Robin – I don’t use a tripod either, but I know other people who swear by them, even when photographing butterflies. As you say, a monopod may well be a good compromise.

    As for the ring flash, I’ve never tried one, but know that they can give excellent results.

  • franck76

    Nice article, i’ll try this summer !!! any tips for bees ?

  • Kathy Samuel

    Franck – I think the majority of the above tips for photographing butterflies can also be applied to bees. Start off with the same camera settings and adjust a little if necessary. Make sure the eyes are in focus and you should be good to go!

  • Leif Bonven

    Another butterfly

  • Heather Maree Owens

    a opportunistic moment with a monarch, alas no macro lens so I free lensed it

  • Trevor Barre

    Excellent advice and lovely photos too, thanks

    Trevor Barre

    http://www.liveeachadventure.com/

  • Laura Champion

    Fairchild Tropical Garden

  • Will P
  • Will P
  • Saptarishi Pandey
  • Kathy Samuel

    Thanks Trevor!

  • Shruthi Bharadwaj
  • Gaurab Roy

    I am posting few pictures of butterflies taken early in the morning with a zoom lens in aperture mode using Canon 55-250 mm in Secunderabad.Comments are welcome.

  • Paddy

    Great advice, thank you

  • Sabbir Hussain Khan

    Sorry To Say But Very Poor article about Butterfly Photography !!!

  • Here is the opportune style, Nokia N8

  • Really, well let’s hear your masterful article then please…

  • Dave Henderson

    A friend asked me to photograph an event in two months involving butterflies. What a surprise to find an article on the subject! Thanks for the tips and great timing.

  • Kathy Samuel

    Thanks Dave and I hope you enjoy your event!

  • Cheryl Garrity

    Kathy,

    Thanks for you article. I have tried butterfly photography with mixed results. I find that a zoom lens works best for me since I can avoid getting too close to the butterflies. I was lucky one lightly overcast day when I was walking with a friend at Price Park on the Blue Ridge Parkway in NC. It was early September and there were wildflowers preferred by bees and butterflies. The bull thistle, ironweed and yellow composites were everywhere. I focused on one butterfly nectering on the bull thistle. It changed positions on the bloom, but seemed to be focused on getting the last bit of available nectar. I made about 10 photographs as it continued to feed and then suddenly it took
    off. I caught it as it lifted, my first ever butterfly in flight. I was shooting in aperture priority at f/10 with an ISO setting of 640. The shutter speed was 1/2000 second. What a thrill for me. Hope you lke the photo.

  • PixByPeter

    Cheryl, Wow. Just Wow! Great capture. Tack sharp insect and plants! Luck favors the prepared. The exposure info is interesting though. On a slightly overcast day the exposure at ISO 640 under the sunny 16 rule would have been around f11 & 1/640, so 1/2000 was almost 2 stops under exposed. Were you shooting raw?in manual mode? and did you do any post processing to get the final image just right? Thanks for any tips you can provide.

  • Cheryl Garrity

    Thanks for the compliment. As I said, I was shooting in aperture priority. And yes, I always shoot in RAW. I always edit. I cropped it greatly too.

    I can’t explain why my camera, in aperture priority, choose 1/2000 of a second. I am certain of the info as it was displayed clearly in the Library Module in Lightroom. I was using my D600 camera with a Nikor 24-120 lens at 120. Oh, and since we were hiking, the camera was handheld. The shutter speed explains the sharpness, that and the editing.

    Overcast may lead you believe it was grey. It was a bright overcast day, warm and just perfect for a hike. I believe in luck. Getting the shot was really serendipity.

    Cheryl

  • PixByPeter

    Sorry, I missed the aperture priority part. Don’t sell yourself short. Someone a lot smarter than me came up with the “luck favors the prepared” line. Really nice capture. You might want to post it to a microstock site. I can definitely see it with a caption underneath as one of those inspirational posters commonly found in workplaces. Happy trails!

  • Kathy Samuel

    Cheryl – Butterflies in flight are notoriously difficult to capture, but you managed to get yours spot-on. Well done!

  • Cheryl Garrity

    Thanks Kathy.
    As I said, it was serendipity. I took a whole series of photographs if this particular butterfly. If you wish, you can see the series at the following address.

    http://www.triadoutdoorphotographers.net/g/108a98f2-6928-4ece-b4ef-4879bfadd200

    You can see some of my other photographs in my blog or gallery at

    http://www.throughcherylseyesphotography.com

    Again, thanks for the article you wrote. I know it will help me in the future.
    Cheryl

  • Karim Muhammad Imtiaz Yazdani

    Some of my collection….

  • Karl Boddenberg

    After many attempts at catching a Butterfly in flight, I got lucky. This one decided to stay around a little longer and circle the plant. Taken with my Digi Camera

  • Diana Vallas

    Yellow Butterfly and Purple Butterfly Bush …..8-8-14, Canon EOS
    Edited with Light Room.

  • Robert Carter

    A nicely informative piece, Kathy . . . thanks.

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