Quick tips to photograph butterflies

Translate this post

Butterflies are tiny creatures measured in millimeters and in most cases they are not steady subjects for photography at all with their flying, darting, frisking and fluttering movements etc. Hence, it requires a bit of practice and a lot of patience, few photographic techniques and close observations of their behavioral patterns to capture images of them.

Close wing Basking position of Spindasis vulcanus (Fabricius, 1775) – Common Silverline.
(Anitava Roy CC BY-SA 4.0)

Butterfly photography can be tricky. As you won’t have control over your subjects, if you fumble around too much with your camera, you might scare the butterflies away. If you want to photograph a variety of butterflies, you’ll need to familiarize yourself with how they behave. You can’t just walk up to them and take pictures right away. You have to be stealthy and move at a very slow pace. If you can somehow assure them that you are not a threat, they will stick around to pose for your photographs.

You need to be very careful choosing your photographic gears. Not all equipment is suitable to capture the real beauty of these creatures.

Required gears

  • Point-and-shoot cameras are not much of a help in shooting butterflies. DSLR and mirrorless camera bodies have far more advantages. Any entry level DSLR or mirrorless body can be a good friend for the beginners.
  • Choice of lens is also a matter of concern here. Two types of lens are popularly used in this respect.

Telephoto lens

Telephoto lenses in the focal length range of 55-200 mm, 55-250 mm, 70-300 mm, 75-300 mm, 70-350 mm etc. from different lens makers can be used. The disadvantage of these lenses is that they usually have a small maximum aperture. This reduces viewfinder brightness, making it harder to compose photos in poor lighting conditions. Telephoto lenses never focus as closely as true macro lenses. They are fine for larger butterflies but they don’t focus close enough to photograph blues, coppers or skippers.

Macro lens

Such lenses are specialized for butterfly photography with greater details than telephoto lenses, though they are costlier than the others. If you’re on a budget, you can try using attachments that convert any ordinary glass into a macro lens. The most common ones are reversing rings, extension tubes etc. Shooting through a macro lens needs better practice and expertise too. The required lenses are intermediate macro lenses (90-105 mm) and long macro lenses (150-200 mm) from different lens makers. Macro lenses are greatly helpful in shooting butterfly eggs, larvae and pupae etc. These let you shoot macro photography from far enough without disturbing cautious insects.

Photographic technicalities:

  • Since butterflies are fluttering subjects, lenses with image stabilization properties like VR (Nikon), IS (Canon), OS (Sigma) etc. are more helpful than others.
  • To capture sharp images of fluttering or darting butterflies, a shutter speed of 1/400 and more is advisable. Beginners should better start shooting in S mode or shutter priority mode of the camera. After gathering some experience, they can shift to manual mode.
  • Aperture or f-stop controlling is very important to get a wing to wing and head to anal focused photo of butterflies. This aperture (f) control is more difficult in case of butterflies having a wing span below 40-45 mm. Critical aperture varies in different tele zoom or macro lenses (always consult the manual supplied with the lens). For beginners, it is advisable to retain f-8 or f-9 at the beginning. Later they can go down to f-5.6 or f-4 to get a more blurry background. Shallow aperture (f-4/f-5.6/f-6.3 etc.) is not that problematic in telephoto lenses having better depth of field (DOF), which is lesser in macro lenses. Again, open wing posture requires larger aperture to get all the body parts in full focus. A bit of practice and experimentation can be very helpful.
  • Try to shoot butterflies keeping your camera axis parallel to the posture axis of the butterfly as much as possible.
  • Use of a flash helps in many ways like flash freezing, capturing better color and detailed rendering etc. especially in low light and shadow zones.
  • Keep your focus point on the eyes of the butterfly and position the camera at its eye level during its closed wing posture.
  • Shooting with a single focal point is highly advisable rather than multi-focal points.
  • Camera metering should be either spot metering or center-weighted average metering.
Prepupatory caterpillar of Melanitis leda (Linnaeus, 1758) – Common Evening Brown
(Sarpita Bose CC BY-SA 4.0)

Butterflies are pretty sensitive. Get too close, and they will fly away in a hurry. The wind is also a big consideration when shooting butterflies; even the slightest breeze can prove hugely problematic. It is recommended to look at the weather forecast before you plan your trip to a butterfly zone.

Finally, be patient, very patient!! Never rush to shoot butterflies, rather give them their due time to settle.

The primary challenge of butterfly photography is looking for these elusive insects. So it is a must to do a lot of research before going out. It also helps a lot if you wait for the right season where you can encounter plenty of them in the wild. I hope that all of these tips and thoughts will guide you through your butterfly photography adventure. There are a lot of things to keep in mind while taking pictures of butterflies. Remembering all of them can be a challenge. So, once you get a good grasp of the technicalities, you’ll realize that they’re actually quite fun and easy to shoot.

Can you help us translate this article?

In order for this article to reach as many people as possible we would like your help. Can you translate this article to get the message out?