How to Photograph Butterflies
These simple tips from photographer Mark Paulson will help you capture beautiful images of one of Mother Nature’s most majestic winged creatures.
Images by Mark Paulson
Courtesy of Tamron
Welcome to the 2014 Butterfly Experience at the Minnesota Landscape Museum’s Meyer-Deats Conservatory. We hope you enjoy this engaging interactive exhibit, a hands-on learning opportunity in a lush habitat housing 600 to 1,000 live native butterflies.
Minnesota photographer Mark Paulson offers the following tips to help you capture eye-catching images of these beautiful winged creatures — both here at the arboretum and in your own backyard.
Tip 1. Select a lens with a longer focal length and macro functionality so you can non-intrusively take pictures of the butterflies.
The Tamron 70-300mm Di telephoto zoom lens (model A16) is fantastic for butterfly photos for two reasons: The longer focal length allows photographers to capture a variety of perspectives, as well as maintain a “safe” distance from the butterflies so they’re not disturbed into flight. They’re skittish creatures whose survival response kicks in if they detect motion or sudden shadows. The 70-300 also offers macro functionality at the longer telephoto settings (between 180mm and 300mm). Tiny subjects come into clear focus at close range, and the 1:2 maximum magnification allows for close-up detail with nice compression.
Tamron’s SP 70-300mm Di VC USD (model A005) features VC image stabilization to for sharp handheld images even at telephoto. Tamron’s VC gives you up to four extra stops of shutter speed to work with for excellent results under low light settings.
Tip 2. Head out in the early morning for slow-moving butterflies, later on for more activity.
When to take pictures of butterflies often depends on what type of image you want and how experienced and comfortable you are taking pictures of them. If you’re looking for more of them (and more of a chance to get them in motion), butterflies tend to be more active as it gets sunnier. Once their bodies have heated up as the morning progresses, you’ll see them flitting around and feeding in abundance.
The caveat to all that activity is exactly that: They’re moving around more and can be harder to photograph when it’s bright and sunny. Try taking pictures in the early morning or early evening. You may have to look more closely to find them and it may be more challenging lighting-wise, but you’ll be able to get closer because they’re not moving around as much. In the early morning, you might even be able to get a great image of a butterfly with dew on its wings (another reason it’s hard for them to move around).
Tip 3. Photograph quickly — butterflies don’t stay in one place long.
Figuring out where a butterfly is going to fly or land is part anticipation, part luck, and part patience. The butterfly might only be on a branch or flower for a second or two before taking off again. Your best bet is to photograph while a butterfly is feeding. In this case, it will likely stick around on one spot for 30 seconds to a minute, which is a long time. You can get a lot of shots during that stretch.
To photograph a butterfly in flight, set your camera to Shutter Priority at a shutter speed of 1/250th of a second or faster to avoid camera shake and blur from subject movement and wait, with your camera pre-focused on a flower (a butterfly will likely land on it eventually if you’re taking pictures during their active time). Or watch a particular butterfly as it hops from flower to flower and try to click the shutter button right as it takes off. Shoot in continuous/burst mode to get as many pictures as you can.
Tip 4. Use a shallow depth-of-field to isolate the butterfly.
Most of the time you’ll want to isolate the butterfly on a flower or branch by softening the background, especially if there are brightly colored flowers or other cluttered backgrounds that would detract from the butterfly’s beauty.
You can achieve this with a shallow depth-of-field. Put your camera in Aperture Priority mode to control depth-of-field; your camera will select the shutter speed for the best exposure. Pick a smaller F-stop number (wider aperture) like F/4 to nicely blur the background and focus on the details of the butterfly’s wings.
Tip 5. Vary your perspective.
People often tend to photograph down on insects or other wildlife. While you might be limited as to how low you can get down if you’re using a tripod (the tripod may not be able to get down that low), try to capture butterflies at eye level or even shoot up at them from below for a more creative composition.
Not only does photographing at eye level add depth and allow you to see things from the butterfly’s perspective, but it also helps you take a sharper picture: By putting the butterfly on the same visual plane as the sensor and focusing on its eyes, all of the butterfly will be in sharp focus.
Tip 6. Experiment with different types of lighting.
Because you can’t control the light you’ll find in the arboretum, become comfortable photographing butterflies in all different lighting scenarios. Front-lighting (putting the sun behind you) and back-lighting (putting the butterfly between you and the sun) often results in appealing images that highlight the butterfly’s colors and wing details. If you’re front-lighting, be careful you or your camera doesn’t cast a shadow on the butterfly — it will probably get spooked and fly away. Side-lighting (or edge-lighting) is effective if you’d like to highlight the wings’ texture or edges.
If you’re shooting in direct midday sunlight, top-lighting shining directly down on the butterfly may cause harsh shadows and contrasts. Use the pop-up flash on your camera for fill to soften these shadows.
Tip 7. Zoom in for detail shots, zoom out for a more environmental portrait.
Use the versatility of your zoom lens to tell the complete story about your subjects with different types of images. Zooming in allows you to fill the frame with the butterfly’s amazing colors and wing details. It also shows off a bit of the butterfly’s personality — when you come in so close, it’s almost like the butterfly’s sitting for a portrait. Zooming out captures the butterfly against the backdrop of its natural surroundings, which is a compelling way to include the environment it’s interacting in every day.
Tip 8. Use a tripod when possible and focus on the butterfly’s eyes to keep your images tack-sharp.
If the butterfly isn’t in focus, the rest of the image doesn’t matter. Use a tripod or monopod if you can to minimize camera shake as you’re photographing your flighty subjects.
You might not be able or have time to set up a tripod in certain places in the arboretum. Whether you’re shooting on a tripod or handheld, pick a focal point (usually the butterfly’s eye or head) to keep the butterfly sharp. If you get adventurous, try shooting in manual focus, but autofocus is probably your best bet when photographing butterflies. They move so quickly that you may not have time to fiddle around for a manual-focus shot.
Tip 9. Have fun taking pictures while respecting other arboretum visitors.
Take notice of the arboretum’s instructions that tell you where you can go to take photos. Don’t trample into flowerbeds in your quest for the perfect butterfly image or hog up space with your tripod on a pathway so no one else can get a good view. Respect the arboretum’s rules and the other visitors so everyone can have a great time and capture beautiful butterfly photos.