Butterfly Photography
... The hunt for flying flowers!

Mastering butterfly photography isn't so difficult. A few tips and some practice time could net you some totally awesome images! (Yes... pun intended.)


Take a few minutes to read this page since photographing butterflies does require a few extra special skills and preparation.

The Boy Scouts said it best... Be prepared! Your photos will show you did your homework!

Butterfly Gardens

CANADA:

Victoria Butterfly Gardens Blue Morpho on Calla Lily

Victoria Butterfly Gardens, Victoria, Vancouver Island

Equipment for Photographing Butterflies

Use a macro lens of 50 - 200 mm. My macro lens is a Nikon 105 mm. (f2.8).

No macro? Use a good quality telephoto lens with an extension tube if you have one. Be warned - not all SLR cameras and lenses work with extension tubes. Before you run out and buy one, check your manual or the internet. .. speaking from expensive experience here!

You absolutely need a tripod for butterfly photography at night or just after sunrise but it will only get in the way if you're photographing butterflies during bright daylight. They're constantly on the move during the day.

And please, no flash! On-camera flash makes ugly flat light and awful shadows. Probably scares the wits out of your butterfly, too!

By the way, if you don't have a macro, many camera shops rent all sorts of photography equipment. A good tip if you plan on buying another lens! Try it out before you buy.

A good lens will set you back a big chunk of money so don't buy one that doesn't give you the results you're looking for! 

Nail Your Exposure

You'll need a fast shutter speed for butterfly photography---> 1/250th or faster. Though, I got some good shots at 1/125th with my lens Vibration Reduction turned on.

The camera companies claim VR gives you the equivalent of using a shutter speed 3 stops faster, but many pro photographers say that's a sales pitch - only count on 2 stops! Besides, can you hold a camera as steady as the pros?

Use an aperture of about F8.0. There are exceptions to this if you're knowledgeable about exposure and you're in your "creative space".

For a refresher on mastering your Exposure, here's the information you need:


The closer you are to a subject... and using a macro, the skinnier the plane of focus. I'll show you...

Butterfly photography -composition - Julia

Here's why you need to pay attention to your aperture! Look at this butterfly's wings... the wing on the left isn't in focus.

wide aperture = narrow plane of focus

My aperture is f/2.8 - bad choice in this case.  The aperture is too wide since  he's moving his wings in and out of the plane of focus. 

This is way too simplistic and there are lots of other factors here, but to help you understand about aperture (f-stop)....

Think of your scene as a loaf of bread with really thin slices...a wide aperture - for example f/2.0 on my macro lens - will let me focus on two slices of the loaf... f/3.2 brings three slices into focus.

The smallest aperture, maybe f/32 on your camera, brings all the slices into sharp focus.

When I snapped the shot, the left wing wasn't on the same plane as the right wing (f/2.0 2 slices of bread) so I should have chosen a deeper depth of field like f/5.6 or f/8.0.

Then my butterfly would be in focus and the background out of focus... and that's what I wanted!

Butterfly photography - composition - blurred wing

Here's the area enlarged. Now you can really see the blurry wing! The butterfly moved it at the same time I pressed the shutter. Movement.... the biggest challenge to butterfly photography!

My exposure might have been fine if butterflies didn't have Attention Deficit Disorder! Since I know it's in their nature to be hyperactive, I'll choose a better aperture next time.

Focus
... let's be clear on the subject

Switching to manual focus might sound like a good idea, but don't... it's a whole lot of work with butterflies.

Setting it to auto isn't your best choice either. Butterflies flit around like drunken sailors so the focus mechanism just keeps on working... and working!

I find it really irritating to listen to the noise while it spins its wheels! And the sound scares away the butterflies!

There's also another, better choice on automatic. Your point and shoot camera may have a focus setting that "follows" a subject (continuous focus). Check your manual for your automatic focus options ("tracking moving subject") because it really simplifies the process.  

My Nikon DSLR has a focus that tracks movement and constantly makes the right adjustments. I use that setting for my butterfly photography during bright daylight when these little critters are most active.

Butterfly photography - Large Tree Nymph torn wing

I wanted all of the butterfly with both of his wings in focus in this shot... that worked out well... both wings are sharp.

But...

The edges of the wings are torn (a common problem) so he's not the best subject for top class butterfly photography. I noticed that in the viewfinder when the macro lens magnified it.

When you're photographing butterflies, try to shoot perfect specimens. Butterflies' wings get awfully mangled during their short life spans.

Something else that could be better? The background... it's not soft and blurred. But, hang on to that thought for a minute.

Butterfly photography - Large Tree Nymph close up head

I didn't want to give up on my friend here because he wasn't flying away and he really is incredibly handsome!

So I tried another picture and kept my fingers crossed that he wouldn't take off... and he didn't.

So my second approach to butterfly photography...

Composition
... there are rules but they're breakable

The goal in butterfly photography is to get both the butterfly and the flower in focus and the background out of focus. Whatever is sharp attracts attention... and you want your viewers' eyes to go straight to the subject!

One approach is to  shoot the whole butterfly in focus with wings spread flat or from the side. All of the viewer's attention goes to the wings and their wild colors and patterns.

Butterfly photography focus both wings flattened

Focus on only one part of the subject, like the head and eyes. When you get eyeball to eyeball with a butterfly, you MUST have absolutely perfect focus or it's trash! I had my tripod with me and since he was being so obliging, I used it! Sweet success.

And the result is stunning! You'd never see all this fabulous detail with just your eye. Even the tiny scales in his wings show up clearly in the original - not so much in this small jpg. He's such a beautiful little creature. Isn't Mother Nature awesome?

And, problem solved. I cut the scruffy wings out of the photo by honing in on the head.

Actually, I fixed two problems... you'll probably guess what that is when you read about backgrounds in a bit.


Now, this is a close-up... a macro lens and a butterfly that was VERY still sipping on the juice of a banana.  He looks like he's in heaven.  I couldn't have gotten such detail and sharpness without a tripod, a still subject and patience.

I focused on his eye... you can see the sharpness falls off further along his wings but that just draws your attention to his body. The wing in the background is blurry, too.  

Check him out in my butterfly photography video at Victoria Butterfly Gardens. Isn't he adorable, like a fuzzy little teddy bear?  (He looks like he's smiling.)


“The caterpillar does all the work, but the butterfly gets all the publicity."

~ George Carlin


Here are more things you can be on the lookout for in your composition...

Lines and Angles, Colour and Repetition


Repetition in this photo:

  • lines in the stems with the lines in the wings
  • circular patterns in the yellow leaves and purple flowers
  • stripes of black and yellow in the butterfly’s body
  • black / yellow stripes in the wings
  • black “veins” in the wings
  • colours - yellows in the foliage and butterfly wings

Looking at the image some more, there's an interesting V-shaped angle here. It meets in the lower left corner of the photo. I drew a line along the outer edge of the butterfly's wings and another line along the phlox stem and you can see a nice angle.

Butterfly photography - swallowtail parallel linesLots of parallel lines.
Butterfly photography - swallowtail angles"V" coming from the corner.

And my last edit for this photo... I cropped the photo just a teensy bit so that the large stem comes out of the corner of the image.


"Happiness is a butterfly, which when pursued,
is always just beyond your grasp, but which,
if you will sit down quietly, may alight upon you."

~Nathaniel Hawthorne

For some help on Composition, start with these pages:

BACKGROUNDS

Keep your backgrounds simple with butterfly photography. Busy backgrounds are confusing... even if they're blurred. When you're looking through the viewfinder, if your eye goes to something in the background, change your angle. Move around and get it out of the scene.

A lot of cameras have a preview button you can press to see what the depth of field will actually look like before you press the shutter. Check your camera manual to see if your camera has one.

Run your eyes around all four sides in the viewfinder. Branches, stems or anything else that stands out, can create really confusing lines. You don't want a dark twig "growing" out of the butterfly's head or from a vein in his wing.

... when it's all good, press the shutter.

Butterfly photography - Juliia distracting wire

What do you think about this background?

What attracts your eye?

I have a problem with the  dark stem across the middle right side.  It looks like it's growing out of the butterfly's wings and my eye goes straight to it!

Otherwise, it's a nice photo so I could "heal" it in Photoshop. It wasn't worth the time and effort. Luckily, I'd taken the shot from a different angle and that image worked out so much better.


"Just living is not enough," said the butterfly,
"one must have sunshine, freedom and a little flower."

~Hans Christian Andersen


CHANGE YOUR VIEW POINT

Take your shots from as many angles as you can get.

Get under your butterfly.... you'll catch a great shot of the body. The patterns and colors on the underside are dramatically different than the top side.

Aim from above, when the butterfly stretches its wings out and the colors will be intense with gorgeous patterns.


You'll get the same colors and patterns of the wing from the side as from below.

When light hits the the wings from different angles, they refract all sorts of different shades and intensities of color.

The same butterfly might look like a whole different creature from one photo to another!

Best Times for Butterfly Photography
... Timing is everything


DAY TIME

Most people like photographing butterflies when there's bright light. Bright enough for a fast shutter speed! A lightly cloudy day is perfect for catching rich colors in butterfly wings, foliage and flowers.

The down side is that butterflies are most active during the day! That means you should be comfortable with manual focus (or your camera's auto "subject tracking mode") You MUST hold your camera steady.

Ah yes... you have to have the patience of Job with these little critters!

Very important also, don't let your shadow fall on the butterfly. Two reasons for that. You may frighten him away and you've darkened the scene and changed your exposure.

Butterflies "spook" easily so move slowly and be quiet. Daytime is when you find out what "chasing butterflies" is all about. Move too fast and you'll frighten them off, move too slowly and they're gone before you can even focus.

NIGHT TIME

... a much different experience. The challenge here is finding them in the dark. They're in the same areas they frequent during the day, anywhere from the ground on upwards into the bushes and trees but you have to have sharp eyes!

In one way, butterfly photography is easy at night... they have low metabolic rates when it's dark. As long as it's dark, they're very still. Once you find them, they're not going to fly away.

Their wings will be closed so you'll be able to get some excellent side shots. No open wings at night, though.

You've absolutely got to use your tripod in the dark! You'll need long exposures... keep checking your histogram and adjust your shutter speed so you capture the most information you possibly can.

If you go out for butterfly photography at night, don't be tempted to touch their wings while they're so still. They're oh so delicate! You'll rub off the small scales and make it hard for them to fly. So look but don't touch!

SUNRISE

... if you're not keen on night photography. Get out before dawn and catch 'em while they're just waking up. They're slow risers! They stretch their wings wide open... just like we stretch when we first get up. They're slow enough so you can use your tripod and the light has a gorgeous "warm" glow. I think it's the best time for butterfly photography!

Night and sunrise aren't options if you're visiting a butterfly garden or butterfly conservatory. They won't be open. You'll only have daylight hours and the butterflies will be active.

Best Places for Butterfly Photography

Butterfly Gardens are the best locations for butterfly photography

if you want to visit their website, here it is.

  • Niagara Parks Butterfly Conservatory, Niagara Falls, ON, Canada
  • Check the internet for migration routes and times of year they're on the move.
  • Plant some butterfly "magnets" in your own garden. Different species are attracted to different plants. Your local botanical or butterfly garden staff would be the ones to talk to about that.
  • But generally, you'll find them hanging around lilac, dogwood, buddleria - the butterfly bush, honeysuckle, lavender... and the early flowers - primrose and polyanthus.
  • Parks and gardens are always a good bet.
  • A wildflower meadow is a great place for good butterfly photography.
  • And you can also try along rivers or streams.

Hope these tips help you out... Happy hunting!




Butterfly Photography


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