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Photographing Butterflies in the wild 

Wildlife and nature photography hints and tips



Photographing Butterflies in the wild 

Common blue resting on fragrant orchid spike

Common blue resting on fragrant orchid spike


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 times.
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.

Equipment

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

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 subject movement.

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.


More tips

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 well :

 
Marbled white on scabious

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 worthless.

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!