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How to photograph butterflies

I love to photograph butterflies. I am sure you might have tried to photograph butterflies atleast once. They are vibrant, exhibit diverse colors and patterns, which makes them a good subjects to photograph. But most butterflies are restless that makes it difficult to photograph them. In this article I am sharing some tips, I use, to  photograph butterflies.

a yellow butterfly on a violet flower

Taken with a 18-55mm kit lens

Tips to Photograph Butterflies Equipment required You don’t need any expensive equipment to photograph butterflies. All you need to know is how to use the equipment you already have. If you have a :- Point and shoot camera: Zoom in to frame the butterflies. If your camera has 10X zoom, use the maximum zoom. This will not only help you to get a beautiful blurred background, but also helps you in getting a good working distance. i.e. if you don’t zoom in, you would have to get close to them for filling the frame which will scare them off. Another tip for getting good results from a point and shoot camera is to enable the macro mode for shooting. This is because, in macro mode, the camera selects the widest aperture possible (which is usually f2.8 or f3.5 in most cameras)that gives you a shallow depth of field in the photograph. DSLR: Although telephoto zoom lenses and macro lenses give you good results, you shouldn’t get worried even if you don’t have them. You can get better results even with a 18-55mm kit lens. Here are some tips to get good results from a kitlens:- When you use a 18-55mm kit lens, use the widest aperture (usually f5.6) and maintain the closest focusing distance on 55mm focal length (It’s not advisable to use a focal length lower than 55 mm since it brings unwanted elements in the frame). In this way, you can achieve a shallow depth of field in your photograph (blurred background). However, a macro lens  gives very sharp results and good working distances. If you are using a telephoto lens, use a minimum of 100 or 200mm focal length.

Low key image of a yellow butterfly

Try low key images

Camera settings Use aperture priority mode: Use the aperture priority mode in your camera to have proper control on the depth of field. In aperture priority mode, you can select your desired aperture, and the camera selects the shutter speed for a proper exposure. Since butterflies move constantly, using the manual mode is tedious as you have to change the shutter speed every time it moves to a new lighting situation. A wide aperture (small f-number) will give you a shallow depth of field.  Select an appropriate aperture for the focal length you use to achieve good sharpness. NOTE: When you set the aperture, make sure the shutterspeed camera selects is high enough to freeze the motion of the butterfly and reduce blur. If the camera selects a slow shutter speed, boost the ISO or use a small f-number. Read

Silverline butterfly among flowers

Use nearby flowers as background elements

Butterfly feeding on flowers

Use a shallow depth of field and make use of the foreground elements

Focus and focus mode

  • Using auto focus is recommended to photograph butterflies: Since butterflies are restless, manual focusing would be difficult since you have to focus whenever the butterflies move.
  • Always focus on the butterflies’ eyes.
  • While framing, keep the camera parallel to the wings of the butterfly to ensure complete focus of the butterfly.
  • Choose the right focus mode: If you are shooting in a windy environment, choose continuous  focus mode in your camera. Choose One shot focus mode if the subject is not moving.
  • Pre-focus: Pre-focusing helps in photographing restless butterflies.  Butterflies hover around a flower for sometime before it lands. Switch to manual focus and focus the area where you think the butterfly lands. Once you prefocus, be ready to take the shot as soon as the butterfly comes into focus.

Set to burst/continuous shooting  mode: Use burst/continuous mode in your camera to take several photographs in quick succession. This will avoid getting blurry images. Read: 14 tips to avoid blurry photos
Butterfly hanging on a flower
  Know your subject

  • Although this might seem unimportant, knowing how different species of butterflies behave will give you good results. I am not saying that you should know the scientific name of various butterflies, but you should know their behavior: Some butterflies fly low and are not restless. They spend some time on flowers and other vegetation. This will give you enough time to take their photographs and will get you a little bit closer to them. One of the examples of this kind is the Common crow (shown in the picture below) However, some butterflies are too restless and they hardly spend few seconds at one place (Eg. Lime butterfly)
  • Approach them very slowly, avoid sudden movements.
  •  Since butterflies like sunlight, they are mostly seen during sunny days. When you approach them, avoid casting your shadow on them, which will scare them away.

 

Lighting

  • Always check the light before taking the shot. If the light is harsh, the colors would be washed out. So, wait until they move to  a shade.
  • Avoid harsh back lighting since your subject will become dark due to high dynamic range. However, backlighting is good if you want to take a photograph of a butterfly in silhouette. A soft backlight can highlight the wings of the butterflies.
  • Flash: Using full flash is not advisable since it makes your image look ‘flat’. Instead, use fill flash, in high dynamic range scene, to even out the exposure. Always diffuse the flash light for good results.
  • Common indian crow butterfly

    Butterflies like Common Crow fly low, and it is easy to photograph them.

  • The best light, I like, to photograph butterflies is front lighting. It reveals the details and brings out colors of the butterflies. However, it doesn’t mean that other lighting conditions (backlighting, sidelighting) are bad; backligting highlights butterflies’ wings. Always experiment with different lighting conditions, and select the best.

 

Swarm of butterflies

Use flash creatively: In this shot I under exposed the background and used fill flash on these butterflies.

Composition and framing A good composition can make your images stand out. Here are some tips:

  • Always choose a non-distracting background: Background is as important as the foreground or the subject. Make sure there are no distracting elements in the background when you photograph butterflies
  • Use flowers as foreground as well as background element: Butterflies hover around flowers. So you can compose the image in such a way that the flowers form the background and foreground elements. This will give you colored bokeh.
  • Low key and high key image: Another way to emphasize the subject is to make a low key or high key image.  Choose a background which is complementary to the subject.
  • Shoot at eye level: Shooting at eye level adds depth to the image.
  • Change your perspective: Try to take several shots of the same butterfly from different angles.
  • Simplify: Take some minimalistic shots too. You don’t have to get close to the butterflies all the time.

 

Butterfly top shot

Change your perspective

Experiment, experiment and experiment You may not get good results at first. But through constant practice and experimentation with the above tips, you can make beautiful butterfly photographs.

Vidhu S

Vidhu S

Editor/co-founder at Shutterstoppers
Vidhu is an enthusiastic photographer from Kerala, India. His desire to share his knowledge and experience on photography was the motivation for creating Shutterstoppers. His dream is to provide a platform for people all around the world to exchange ideas and information on everything related to photography. In addition to photography, he also has a keen interest in traveling, philately and science.
Vidhu S
Vidhu S
Displaying 6 Comments
Have Your Say
  1. Kumar SS says:

    Nice post! Beautiful butterflies too!!

  2. Theepa says:

    Excellent article! You have covered almost all the points /tips required for shooting the butterfully. Very useful!

  3. chris says:

    fabulous work! thank you for the tips.

  4. sukalyan says:

    nice photography impregnated with lucid explanation….of great help for dslr beginners like me..

  5. akhil ks says:

    awesome articles.. very useful and simple. keep up.. where are you in kerala? I’m from ekm

  6. Very good Web-site, Carry on the great work. With thanks! http://bit.ly/2f0xJ92

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