I've always loved photographing butterflies, or at least trying to photograph them. July and August are great months for seeing butterflies in Florida, and with all the rain we've had, flowers are blooming in abundance, and there's plenty of water around, both things that draw butterflies.
Like birds, or anything that moves pretty quickly, photographing butterflies can be tricky - but also a lot of fun, and the results can be very rewarding. Butterflies present some additional challenges besides movement, including the way light reflects off their wings, their colors against various backgrounds, and their small size.
This 'ible provides some basic tips and tricks for capturing some nice butterfly images. So grab a long lens, set your camera for a high resolution, grab some sunscreen and go butterfly hunting!
Step 1: Find Good Butterfly Habitat, Sit, Stay
Not all flowers are created equal for butterflies. Wild flowers tend to draw more butterflies than ornamentals like impatiens or petunias. Butterflies like things like porterweed, pentas, coneflowers, and lantana. You don't have to know the names of these flowers, or even necessarily what they look like - you just need to find where the butterflies are and park yourself for a while. A good place to practice is a neighborhood butterfly garden, a botanical garden, or nature preserve.
Getting good butterfly photos involves a good deal of patience - and that's part of the reward. Find your spot, sit and stay and you'll be rewarded, if not with good photos, with a wonderful show!
Step 2: Wings Open: Find Rhythm and Focus
Butterflies are usually at their loveliest when their wings are spread wide. That of, course, can be a challenge to photograph when butterflies are flying, and sometimes even when they're feeding, since some flit and most feed with their wings closed. However, if you watch patiently, you can find a bit of rhythm in the wing beat of butterflies, especially if one settles among a nice bank of flowers for a while.
I always use the 250mm zoom lens on my Canon T2i when photographing butterflies. It softens out the background nicely and when the light is bright, I shoot at a high shutter speed and have a decent chance of capturing the image I like.
Butterflies with more solid, bright colors, like Julias and the Gulf Fritallary, can pop nicely against diffused green backgrounds. Zebrawings and the big black and white swallowtail butterflies can sometimes get lost against a woody background. Just experiment a bit to see what works best in the environment you're in. With time, you'll begin to see those patterns and opportunities emerge for you.
Try to focus on antennas, head, or upper torso of the butterfly, rather than the wings, so that way, even if the wings are moving and not in sharp focus, having the head or torso sharp makes your image a success.
Step 3: Wings Closed: Find Clear Backdrop and Contrast
It can be easier to photograph a butterfly with its wings closed, usually, than open, but you have to have the right vantage point for a meaningful shot. That means you need:
- Uncluttered background
With a long lens, take the time to see past the butterfly you're trying to shoot. Is there anything distracting in the background? Move around a bit - with the long lens, sometimes just aiming in a slightly different direction will do the trick - until your butterfly stands out clearly. It'll take a few tries - even with practice, sometimes (often) by the time you find the clear shot you want, your butterfly decides to move on and you have to start all over again. No biggie - practice makes perfect, and does make you faster.
Again, focus on the eye or antenna. The first of shots is not actually a butterfly, but rather a moth. They're fair game too, even .when not particularly colorful, especially if the flower they're resting on is. With a butterfly the size of a swallowtail, you can also focus on the full torso, making for a nice image, even if the wings are moving.
Step 4: Bonus Shot: Capturing Feeding
Getting a shot of a butterfly or moth feeding is a bonus shot! It's really pretty hard to see the feeding process without the visual assist of binoculars or a big lens, but when you're taking a lot of shots with a long lens, you're bound to get lucky, especially if you keep your focus on the head and antennae. Because if you do that, you're bound to get a proboscis in focus, too - that's the butterfly's feeding tube, its nectar straw.
These shots are fun, because you get a nice visual of what all the flower fuss is about.
Step 5: Multiple Butterflies: Focus on One
While getting photographic images of one butterfly can be challenging, getting multiple butterflies in a single frame - multiples the challenge! Sometimes, like with the black and yellow butterflies, they cooperate and perch nicely and steadily. Other times, as with the orange butterflies, who were also in a frenzy of mating that day, there's a lot of movement going on and you have to experiment with the right approach.
When you've got a bunch of butterflies at hand, focus on one that's perched on a flower, and wait. When others come into view, start shooting. I really like the one of the butterfly trio. If it was just the two blurred butterflies, it might still be an interesting photo, but with the one perched on the white flowers below them, it gives context to their animation.
Step 6: Some Resources for Butterfly Watching
Once you start watching butterflies, you see them everywhere, and you begin to get some sense of the range of their shapes, colors and sizes. I always liked butterflies, but it wasn't until I started taking photos of them that I became more aware of the variety of them.
Some good resources for identifying different kinds of butterflies include:
- Discover Life Butterfly ID Guide
- Butterflies and Moths of North America
- eNature Butterfly Field Guide
- Gardens with Wings
And if you want to bring butterflies to your yard, instead of going out to find them elsewhere, here are some planting resources:
- Butterfly Gardening
- North American Butterfly Association - How to Start a Butterfly Garden
- Butterfly Gardening - The Butterfly Website
Have fun! And share back some of your butterfly images here! Love to see them.
You can find more butterfly photography at my Fine Art America Gallery.