Butterflies make wonderful subjects - but they
are also one of the most difficult as they are often very active
and usually fly off just as you are coming into range. - Prepare
to have your patience stretched to the limit!
My first tip therefore is to try early mornings
and evenings when conditions are cooler and the butterflies are
less active .Although it is much harder to find them at these
If you are lucky you may find a newly-emerged
specimen, an insect resting up (like the common blue above)
or a mating couple (Be careful not to disturb them ).
Just occasionally, you will find a highly tolerant individual
who doesn't seem to mind having it's picture taken at all -
when you get one of these, make the most of it!
To find your butterfly in the first place, search the Wildlife
Trust or Butterfly Conservation websites - they often give details
of sites. Please respect your subject though - many butterflies
are becoming increasingly rare, ensure that you do not harm
them or their habitat as a result of your photography.
For best results you will need to use a macro lens, as they focus
very close and the optics are highly corrected - that is to say
very,very, good. If you are on a budget, good results are still
possible with a "standard" 50mm lens or even a short
telephoto fitted with an extension tube.
Using a digital camera with an APS size sensor i.e. one that
has a magnification factor of 1.6x such as a Canon EOS 10D/20D/350D/400D
etc is advantageous over a film camera or one fitted with a full-frame
sensor, as the same sized image in the viewfinder can be achieved
at a greater working distance, so you are less likely to scare
off your subject.
I generally prefer using a 100mm macro to a 50mm macro for the
same reason, that is greater working distance. Longer focal length
lenses have the added benefit of throwing the background further
out of focus - which is usually more aesthetically pleasing.
My current favourite set-up is a 180mm macro plus 1.4x extender
on the 20D used in conjunction with a monopod. I find this set-up
is great for flighty subjects as it is not too heavy,
offers generous working distance, sharpness is excellent despite
the converter, and the monopod is much less cumbersome than a
tripod. There is a lot more information on using macro lenses
and extenders in my tutorial choosing
and using macro lenses.
If I have a very obliging subject, I still prefer using my Benbo
tripod - but whatever happens, I never use this rig hand-held
as the magnification is too great, and soft shots would be the
guaranteed outcome for sure.
Silver-washed fritillaries mating
Depth of field
Always try to get the camera back in the same plane as the wings
of the butterfly. The easiest subjects to start with are ones
with their wings closed (like the common blue on the orchid image).
You can then use a widish aperture (f5.6) for a soft background
without the wings blurring at the tips.
Ideally, you either want a butterfly to have it's wings wide open
for the upperside or closed for the underside. Annoyingly, a lot
of species like to bask with their wings at an angle of 45 degrees
- which demands huge depth of field (a luxury you don't have in
close-up photography) and doesn't usually look much good anyway.
The only answer is to move on or patiently wait for it to open
up fully. Some species such as the clouded yellow and grayling
never seem to land with their wings open at all !
When working in close-up, the depth of field is minimal and nothing
looks worse than out-of-focus antennae or wingtips. The picture
of the fritillaries mating (above) was taken at an aperture of
f16 in order to keep both sets of antennae sharp. This was only
possible to achieve in full sunshine or in totally still conditions-
otherwise the shutter speed would have dropped too low to avoid
The only other way to get more shutter speed is to increase the
ISO setting, but then you will start to increase noise in the
image. I rarely shoot above ISO 200 to retain maximum quality.
Depth of field extends further behind the subject than it does
in front of it in a ratio of 1/3 in front, 2/3 behind. So don't
focus on the nearest or furthest thing to you , but focus a third
of the way into the image to maximise depth of field. In the fritillary
example above, I focused on the joint between the thorax and the
abdomen on the first butterfly.You can use the depth of field
preview button if you have one on your camera, and if your subject
allows you the time to do that.
Remember, that as the viewfinder image shows you the scene with
the lens set to it's widest aperture, the image that you capture
will not be the same as what you saw in the viewfinder if you
stop your lens down to a smaller aperture. So you will need to
take this into consideration.
Know your subject - some species such as the purple emperor, red
admiral and comma will come to the ground to feed on dung or rotting
fruit. You could try luring an insect down by putting some bait
down over a few days.
Always use a tripod or monopod when using available light as
your light source. It is not essential when using flash as the
only light source as the duration of the flash is extremely brief
- even at small apertures. This is a big benefit and is the reason
many photographers like to use a flash set-up for butterflies.
When using flash as the only light source, the fall-off in light
behind the subject usually creates black backgrounds. If this
is your intention - fine, but if not, you will get best results
if the subject is close to the background - such as when it is
on a large leaf and permits you to get in close. You can use an
additional flashgun to light the background , but this adds more
cost and complexity.
Experiment with backlighting - it can be very attractive if done
Marbled white on scabious
Experiment using fill-in flash to lighten shadows on a dull day
or if the subject is lit partially or totally from behind. On
a modern camera with through the lens flash metering (TTL/ETTL)
getting the exposure about right is quite simple as the camera
calculates everything for you. I suggest exposing for the background
and under-exposing the flash by around 1.5 f-stops for a subtle
effect. You can do this either by setting the flashgun to under-expose
or if your camera has flash exposure compensation - use this.
As a less complicated alternative to fill-in flash, try using
a reflector (e.g. lastolite) this is often simple but effective.
A budget alternative is to screw up some tinfoil, then unfold
it again and stick it to a piece of cardboard with Photo mount.
Make use of the depth-of-field preview button on your camera
if it has one. You can use this to help ensure that you are using
a small enough aperture to get all of your subject into focus.
Use the largest aperture that you can get away with though to
maintain a decent shutter speed (to avoid camera shake) and to
throw the background out of focus.
You may find it easier to switch to manual focus when taking
close-ups as autofocus usually tries to focus on the wrong thing!
If you are taking pictures in good light, and/or your subject
is still, use a low Iso setting on the camera for maximum image
quality. Under the opposite circumstances, don't be afraid to
increase the iso setting. Modern digital slrs are getting extremely
good at producing minimal noise at high iso - It is better to
get a slightly grainy picture than a blurred one due to camera
shake caused by too low a shutter speed.
Watch the exposure when taking a picture of a spot-lit butterfly
against a really dark background such as woodland behind it as
the meter will be fooled into over-exposure. If you are shooting
digital - check the histogram to make sure you have not clipped
the shadows or highlights.
Be fussy and ensure that your subject is a really mint specimen.
Butterflies soon get their scales worn off after a few days after
hatching, and even a great picture of a tatty specimen is pretty
A head-on shot, like the one of the white admiral in the header
at the beginning of this tutorial looks unusual and dramatic,
so worth a try if you fancy trying something different.
Finally, be prepared to have infinite patience (do as I say -
not as I do please) nobody said this was going to be easy!