A “Flying Flower”: That’s what many nature lovers, including myself, call a butterfly. Surely a butterfly is one of nature’s marvels. It begins life as a crawling sack of goo, and magically transforms itself into one of the most beautiful, colorful, virtually weightless and graceful life forms on the planet.
I’ve been photographing butterflies, like the tailed jay that opens this article, for more than 20 years. In this article, I’ll share with you some of my favorite butterfly photographs along with some tips that will help you get great shots during the upcoming butterfly season. You can also use these tips for flower and other types of close-up nature photography. What’s more, you’ll learn the names of the butterflies and moths I showcase in
Macro Lenses vs. Close-Up Settings
Most zoom lenses have a “close-up” setting. When choosing this setting, you can get close to small subjects, but not as close as you can with true macro lenses, such as a 60mm or 100mm macro lens, which provide 1:1 (life-size) magnification. For this photograph of a newly hatched, orange barred sulphur butterfly, I used a 100mm macro lens, which let me almost fill the frame with the subject.
The advantage of a 100mm macro lens over a 60mm macro lens is that you can work farther away from skittish butterflies. The disadvantage is that camera shake is exaggerated, which can affect image sharpness when taking natural light images.
For larger-than-life images, you can use specialty lenses, such as the Canon 65mm Macro lens I used for these super-close-ups of the barred sulphur butterfly, pictured as it was hatching.
At the other end of the lens spectrum, you can use telephoto zoom lenses for close-up shots of butterflies. I set my Canon 100–400mm IS lens at 400mm for this photograph of a tiger swallowtail.
For more of an environmental shot, you can use wide-angle lenses. I used my 15mm lens for this shot of a silk moth.
I’m including this super-boring photo in this article for a good reason: a good method for attracting butterflies is to plant, in your yard, a butterfly bush (available with different color flowers) or other flowering plant that butterflies or their caterpillars feed on. I took the preceding photograph of a tiger swallowtail on this exact bush.
Another option for photographing butterflies, like this birdwing
butterfly above, is to visit butterfly centers, such as Butterfly World in Coconut Creek, Florida. These nature centers give photographers access to colorful subjects from all over the world.
In macro photography, aperture is critical. Even at f/22, depth of field can be shallow. Check out the shallow depth of field in this photograph of a large tree nymph butterfly that I photographed with my 100mm macro lens set at f/22. Note that, as you move in closer, your depth of field decreases: For greater depth of field, move back a bit and crop afterward in Photoshop or Lightroom.
Because depth of field is critical, focus also becomes critical. Make sure your focus point is on the animal’s eye. An easy way to do that is to select the single focus point setting on your camera. Then, compose your shot with the focus point directly on the butterfly’s eye.
Shutter speed is also important in close-up photography. Usually, we want to freeze the action of a fast-moving butterfly; but adding a bit of blur to an image adds a sense of motion to the photograph. Here I used a shutter speed of 1/50 of a second to capture the fluttering of wings of the Isabella’s heliconian butterfly here.
In addition to watching your aperture and shutter speed, you need to pay careful attention to your ISO setting. When photographing in natural light, choose an ISO high enough to get a sharp hand-held shot with good depth of field. For this natural-light photo of a piano key butterfly posing with her newly laid eggs, my ISO was 200. I used my 50mm lens set at f/7.1 at 1/60 of a second.
When photographing with a ring light, which I’ll cover in a moment, you can shoot at a low ISO, even in low light, because the light from the ring light overpowers the natural light. It fires at about 1/10,000 of a second.
If I had my choice, I’d only take soft and pleasing natural-light photographs, like this image of Isabella’s heliconian butterflies mating. That’s not always possible, as when the light level is too low for a natural-light photo at the aperture/shutter speed combination I need to get the desired shot. As an example, for a very low-light shot of a butterfly in the rain forest, with an aperture of f/22 (for good depth of field) and a shutter speed of 1/250 of a second (to stop action and to prevent camera shake), I might need an ISO of 16,000 or higher.
Sure, boosting the ISO may get me the shot, but shooting at very high ISO settings results in lots of digital luminance and color noise (to a point) in the image, especially in the shadow and out-of-focus areas. We can reduce noise in Photoshop and Lightroom, but that may result in a loss of apparent image sharpness, which is critical in close-up photography.
Of course, using a tripod might be an option for shooting at a lower ISO—if the butterfly isn’t moving, which is rare, and if using a tripod is allowed in a butterfly center, which is also rare.
That’s where a ring light, which I always have with me for close-ups, comes in.
Yes! Finally! It’s time to talk about a ring light. Above is a recent photo of me with my ring light…and a red-eyed tree frog that hopped on my face after I took his photo.
A ring light fits over a macro lens and, via a coil cord, plugs into your camera’s hot shoe. If it’s a top-of-the-line ring with two adjustable flash tubes, it can produce shadowless ratio and even top, side, and bottom lighting because you can individually control the output of the two tubes in the ring light. Before buying a ring light, check the filter diameter of your lens. You may need to get a step-up or step-down ring to attach the ring light to your macro lens.
As an aside from my butterfly photographs, here’s a shot of the same red-eyed tree frog taken with my ring light (top right). The even lighting really shows off the details of this delightful rainforest dweller.
This photograph of a tiger swallowtail butterfly (bottom right) was photographed with my Canon Macro Ring Lite MR-14EX. As you can see, there are no shadows in the photograph.
Behavior and Learning
Learning about butterfly behavior makes butterfly photography more fun. Actually, the same goes for all of your photography. These two clipper
butterflies are mating—a process that goes on for several hours—so there was no rush in getting the shot.
As a side note, this is one of the very first pictures I took of a butterfly. It inspired me to go on a yearlong quest to photograph butterflies, which resulted in my coffee table book, Flying Flowers (currently out
Here’s another example of the importance of learning about the subjects we photograph. Birds like to eat butterflies and moths, like this atlas moth (bottom next page); however, birds don’t like snakes. Look at the top of the moth’s wings, and then look down the edge of the wings. Can you see how the pattern mimics a snake’s head and body on the outside of each wing? It’s kind of cool how this animal, which never eats after it’s born (it lives off its body fat), has developed a unique way to protect itself from predators.
Gesture is important in butterfly photography, just as it is in wildlife and people photography. For example in bird photography, here’s one tip: wings up or wings down. Well, that gesture tip works for butterfly photography, too, as illustrated by this photograph of a banded orange heliconian butterfly above.
Choosing a background in butterfly photography is a bit difficult, but as in all our photography, the background can make or break a photograph. I always check the background before I shoot, looking for details and color. For me, it’s the background in this photograph of the postman butterfly that makes this shot a winner.
Most of the photographs in this article have one thing in common: I was lucky to see these flying flowers posing and in action against nice backgrounds. My luck was greatly increased because I patiently waited, and waited, and waited for the shot. So patience is another thing you’ll need to get good butterfly photographs. This photograph of a blue morpho below is a rare shot, because these butterflies are usually at rest with their wings closed.
Below is the same blue morpho photographed with its wings closed. To predators, those spots look like big eyes, which is a deterrent for hungry birds.
I’d like to leave you with one of my favorite butterfly pictures, taken in Michoacán, Mexico, an overwintering destination for monarch butterflies (bottom). Millions of butterflies migrate to this location from the United States each year. If you like flying flowers, this is butterfly heaven. I visited this remote area of Mexico many years ago when the habitat for butterflies was good. In recent years, extreme weather and forest degradation has threatened visiting butterfly populations. Many organizations are working together to improve the local habitat, so flying flowers can find welcoming forests for their winter vacations.
This article originally published in Issue 51 of Lightroom Magazine.