How to Photograph Butterflies – Nature Photography Tips

How to Photograph Butterflies – Nature Photography Tips

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In this post we will consider how to photograph butterflies. The principles used here also apply to many other species so are useful for nature photography in general. This genre can be incredibly rewarding and fun. But it can also be extremely frustrating and difficult at times. To give yourself the best chance of getting some good butterfly pictures, follow these guidelines:

1. How to photograph butterflies – Get to know your subject

If you want to photograph butterflies successfully, or any other species for that matter, it is essential that you get to know them first. This means looking at where they live, when they are active and what they eat. If you don’t know this it can be hard enough trying to find them never mind getting pictures of them. Do some research to find out when the species is active and what habitat they prefer. This will help you to locate them more easily. Use local knowledge to find good locations to give you a better chance of spotting them. Find out what they like to feed on. Which plants do they prefer? Do they choose one particular plant to lay eggs on? If you can find their favourite plants then you are a long way towards finding the butterfly you are after. A great place to start your research if you live in the UK is the UK Butterflies website.

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2. How to photograph butterflies – watch & learn, don’t rush!

Many insects including butterflies have areas that they like to patrol. They will often fly around a similar route and land in similar places. Watch out for places where they stop for longer. This will be a good spot to get close to for some better pictures. Take a little time to observe their behaviour. Avoid the temptation to run after one if you can. Your movement will most likely keep it moving and you are unlikely to get much chance of a shot. On the other hand, you may find that butterflies land right next to you if you are still and in a good spot next to their favourite food. Once you are close, avoid sudden movements or you may frighten them off. I find that keeping the camera to your eye and moving slowly and smoothly towards them gives you a better chance.

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3. How to photograph butterflies – think about your camera settings

Some butterflies can be quite well camouflaged. So, to see them clearly it is often a good idea to blur the background so that they stand out. To do this, shoot with a long (telephoto) lens and use a wide aperture (e.g. f/2.8). Macro lenses can be useful if you are able to get really close and photograph details. Try to make it obvious in your image that the butterfly is the subject. To do so, get them as large as possible in the frame and position yourself carefully. Avoid distracting lines from other plants going through the image as they will take impact away.

If you want to photograph butterflies at rest then you should be able to do so with a relatively slow shutter speed (e.g. 1/200th of a second). Make sure the speed is fast enough to stop any movement of your hands from blurring your image. If necessary, raise the ISO slightly to give you a faster speed. If you want to photograph butterflies in flight then you will need much faster shutter speeds. For more information on this difficult technique, see my article on photographing insects in flight.

Insects in flight - painted lady butterfly

It is important to be patient. Good results come with time and experience. Don’t expect to get a fantastic shot in just a few moments. It may happen, but normally it takes a while. Try to enjoy the experience of seeing the butterflies and see a good shot as a bonus. If you start to get impatient then you will most likely move more erratically and frighten them. Remain calm and take your time.

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© Joe Lenton, August 2016


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