How to photograph butterflies


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How to photograph butterflies - tips and techniques for photographing butterflies, including finding them, suggested camera gear and settings, and the best ways to get near them without scaring them off.

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How to photograph butterflies

  2. 2. HOW TO PHOTOGRAPH BUTTERFLIES 1 Butterflies can make a wonderful subject for photos, with their colorful patterned wings. But taking great photos of these flittish creatures isnt quite so easy. In this e-book we cover some tips on how to photograph butterflies to help you capture these stunning insects. Lens and Camera for Photographing Butterflies When photographing butterflies, you will need a lens that has the ability to focus quite close, as butterflies are relatively small creatures. A dedicated macro lens will work best, though a normal lens with extension tubes or a close-up diopter filter will do the job as well. You should be looking at a lens with a focal length of around 100mm to 300mm. The longer the focal length, the further you can be from the butterfly for a particular shot, and so the less chance you have of disturbing the butterfly. If your camera has an integrated lens and doesnt accept interchangeable lenses, all is not lost. Many compact / bridge / superzoom cameras feature a macro mode that allows the camera to focus closely. If you try this and find the camera still cannot focus close enough to get the butterfly shots you want, you can purchase a close-up diopter filter that will allow the camera to focus closer. Make sure your camera has a filter thread for the diopter to screw into before you purchase one though. For some cameras you will need to purchase an adapter to be able to mount filters on them. Text and layout © Butterfly photos courtesy David Kennard Photography 1
  3. 3. 2 HOW TO PHOTOGRAPH BUTTERFLIESBest Locations for Butterfly PhotographyIf you have a garden with some flowers in it, this can be very good for attracting butterflies. Remember that butterflies not only look for flowers to drinknectar from, but they also look for plants to lay their eggs on.Most species caterpillars are quite particular about what they eat, e.g. Monarch butterfly caterpillars eat Milkweed. So if you are looking to entice aparticular type of butterfly into your garden, then lookup what the foodplant of the caterpillar is.One of the best flowers for attracting butterflies is Buddleia, also known as the butterfly bush. In good years for butterflies, you can often see theflowers of this bush covered in feeding butterflies. If you dont have a garden, flowers in the local park may well prove attractive to butterflies, but probably the best place for wild butterfly photography is wild flower meadows. You tend to see a much larger range of different species of butterfly in wild flower meadows, and there are often large amounts of butterflies, making it easy to find a subject. Other wild places such as sunlit spots in woods can be good as well. You can often find butterflies warming themselves up on a spot of sunlit path that passes through woodland. Finally, there are butterfly houses. These are great for photographing rare and exotic butterflies, and make it very easy to find butterflies for photographing. Unfortunately, Butterfly houses are often hot and steamy, which can cause problems with condensation on your lens.Text and layout © Butterfly photos courtesy David Kennard Photography 2
  4. 4. HOW TO PHOTOGRAPH BUTTERFLIES 3 Another thing to be aware of when photographing at a butterfly house is that the butterflies will often be feeding on pieces of fruit left out for them in specific locations. A butterfly feeding on a piece of grapefruit that has been cut in half with a knife may make for a nice shot, but it wont look natural. Remember also that different species of butterfly hatch or migrate at different times of the year. So a location that doesnt have many butterflies in the Spring may have a lot more butterflies later in the summer, and vice versa. This is also a good reason to try photographing butterflies from the start of Spring to end of Summer, and see how many different species you can collect photos of. Text and layout © Butterfly photos courtesy David Kennard Photography 3
  5. 5. 4 HOW TO PHOTOGRAPH BUTTERFLIESGetting close to the butterflyWhen you see a butterfly you would like to photograph, dont rush over to it quickly. Move slowly towards it, and the nearer you get the slower andsmaller your movements will need to be to avoid scaring it away.Try to approach the butterfly from an angle where your shadow will not fall on the butterfly. There are a number of reasons for this: • The shadow moving on to them may scare them away. • Butterflies also need heat from the sun, so going from direct sunlight to shadow may also make them decide to look for a sunnier spot. • Lastly, if the butterfly is in shadow, there wont be as much light. This means you might have to compromise on some of your camera settings to get a properly exposed photo. Even with the slowest movements, you may still find that the butterfly decides to fly away just as you get it framed up for that perfect shot. One solution is to follow the butterfly and try and get another shot when it lands again. You may need to repeat this process several times until the butterfly finally stops for long enough for you to get a shot, but persistence usually pays off. The alternative solution is to just stay where you are and hope the butterfly comes back. Male butterflies are often territorial, and come back to around the same area. But not always, so if the butterfly doesnt come back after a couple of minutes its probably best to give up on that individual and look for another one. So long as you dont mind waiting, a good way to get close to butterflies is to find a flowering plant that has one or twoText and layout © Butterfly photos courtesy David Kennard Photography 4
  6. 6. HOW TO PHOTOGRAPH BUTTERFLIES 5 butterflies on it already. Try and get close to them, but if they fly away just stay still by the plant. It is very likely that eventually those butterflies, or some others will come to the flowers to feed. Since youre already there, you dont need to move towards them, and should be able to get some good shots without scaring them off. Even in areas with lots of butterflies, you may need to wait 20-30 minutes until your first butterfly arrives at the flower though. Butterflies feeding on flowers are generally easier to photograph than ones resting. They tend to be more engrossed in feeding and less alert to the photographer trying to snap their picture. It can also provide some nice shots of the butterflys long proboscis poking down into the flower to get at the nectar. During the early morning and later in the evening, it is also much easier to get close to butterflies. This is because the cooler temperature means the butterflies are less active, and so less likely to fly away. There are a couple of disadvantages to photographing butterflies in the early morning and evening though. Because the butterflies are not flying around they can be quite hard to find! Often they will spend the night hanging from leaves and grasses, so look carefully at the shrubs and grass near the ground. The other disadvantage is that there is less light, making it more difficult to get a well exposed photo that isnt blurred by camera shake. Text and layout © Butterfly photos courtesy David Kennard Photography 5
  7. 7. 6 HOW TO PHOTOGRAPH BUTTERFLIESCamera Settings for Butterfly PhotographyA fast shutter speed is needed when photographing butterflies. This is to avoid camera shake blurring the photo, and also to avoid subject blur from thebutterfly moving. A shutter speed of 1/250s or faster should work well for most situations.For the aperture, a setting of around f/8 gives enough depth of field to get the butterfly in focus. Though how much of the butterfly is in focus doesdepend on the angle you are photographing it at - see the next section for more details.The ISO setting you want to keep as low as possible to avoid introducing digital noise, or grain. Camera settings are all about a trade-off betweenaperture, shutter speed, and ISO. So you may need to use a higher ISO if your pictures are coming out underexposed when you have the aperture andshutter speed set as you want.Flash is not something that you really need in butterfly photography, but it can be useful. Flash can be used to provide fill light, lightening shadows andrevealing detail on the butterfly. This is particularly useful if photographing the shadow side of a butterfly against the sun. An external flash unit (speedlight) that is placed off camera on a bracket, and angled so as to be pointing down at the butterfly works best. This mimics the direction of sunlight, and so looks more natural. Use a diffuser on the flash to avoid harsh lighting. When there is not enough natural light for a proper exposure flash can also come to the rescue. Be aware though that photos taken with flash as the main light source often end up with dark backgrounds. Avoid using autofocus when photographing butterflies. At close distances most autofocus systems dont work very well, and with active butterflies they will often move about so much that the autofocus system cant keep up with them. Instead use manual focus and slowly move the camera towards your subject and back again in a sort of rocking motion. Then press the shutter just as the butterfly comes into focus. Keeping moving the camera backwards and forwards and taking shots as the butterfly comes into focus.Text and layout © Butterfly photos courtesy David Kennard Photography 6
  8. 8. HOW TO PHOTOGRAPH BUTTERFLIES 7 Although you may think you pressed the shutter just as the butterfly was in perfect focus, often the focus will be off by a bit. This is why it is important to take lots of shots. The more shots you take, the more likely it is that one will be in perfect (or near enough) focus. If you have shots where the focus point is slightly different, and the butterfly hasnt moved between the shots, you may also find that you can focus stack these photos. This is where you take two or more shots focused at different points and then blend them on the computer to increase the depth of field. During the day most butterflies will be too active for a tripod to be any use, and even those that area resting will often be blown about in the wind. So shooting handheld will be best, enabling you to easily move the camera about following the butterfly. If you are photographing a resting butterfly early in the morning or later in the evening however, you may find there is no wind. If so, you can afford yourself the rare advantage of taking time to set up the shot and using a tripod. To get the butterfly and background exposed properly, you will very likely need a slow shutter speed in the dim light of the morning or evening. So a tripod and lack of wind are pretty much essential shooting at this time of day. If there has been dew overnight, you can get some stunning photos of butterflies covered in sparkling dew drops early in the morning. Text and layout © Butterfly photos courtesy David Kennard Photography 7
  9. 9. 8 HOW TO PHOTOGRAPH BUTTERFLIESButterfly Photography TipsDepth of field (the amount of the image in focus) is very shallow when photographing small subjects such as butterflies.If you are trying to get a shot of a butterfly with its wings open, wait until the butterfly has opened its wings as flat as possible. Now you need to angleyour camera so that it is parallel to the plane of the butterfly.This ensures that you get as much of the butterflys wings in focus as possible.For shots of butterflies with their wings open, this is often easiest when the sitting sunningthemselves on the ground. However, when photographing butterflies in this position, you willend up with a photo where most of the ground around the butterfly is in focus as well. Thisdetracts from the main subject of the butterfly.If you can, it is better to take this sort of shot when the butterfly is perched on a blade of grassor on top of a flower. That way the background will be further away from the butterfly. You willend up with a shot where the butterfly is nicely in focus and the background behind is out offocus, drawing the viewers attention where you want it - on the butterfly.Text and layout © Butterfly photos courtesy David Kennard Photography 8
  10. 10. HOW TO PHOTOGRAPH BUTTERFLIES 9 If you are photographing a butterfly with its wings closed, it is also best to position the camera to be parallel to the plane of the butterflys wings. Again, this makes sure as much of the butterfly is in focus as possible. When photographing butterflies it can seem difficult just to get a shot thats in focus. However, dont forget about composition. Due to the symmetrical nature of butterflies, butterfly photos can look great with the butterfly centered. However, dont take all your photos with the butterfly perfectly centred and filling the frame. Try some compositions, remember the rule of thirds, and giving your subject some space to look into. Text and layout © Butterfly photos courtesy David Kennard Photography 9
  11. 11. 10 HOW TO PHOTOGRAPH BUTTERFLIES Dont always just shoot down on the butterfly to get the wings in focus - get down on their level as well, and make sure the eyes are in focus. Dont feel you have to always include the whole butterfly in the shot either. If your lens can focus close enough, try going for some higher magnification shots. When you are in a location with lots of butterflies about, look at the condition of the butterflys wings. A newly emerged butterfly will look much better than an old one with tattered wings.Text and layout © Butterfly photos courtesy David Kennard Photography 10
  12. 12. HOW TO PHOTOGRAPH BUTTERFLIES 11 Butterfly photography can be difficult, but it is also very rewarding. We should be thankful that they are around at the warmer time of the year, making photographing them much more pleasant for us. They are a subject that is easy to find, whether you have a garden or see them on the flowers in the local park. And although not everyone is fond of caterpillars, almost everybody will appreciate a good butterfly photograph. For more photography advice and tips, updated with new tips on a regular basis, make sure you check out Text and layout © Butterfly photos courtesy David Kennard Photography 11