Butterfly Photography: A Beginner's Guide

Are you aspiring to take your butterfly photography up a notch?

If you've ever been in awe of their stunningly colorful wings, you're in luck! Capturing the vibrant beauty of these flying creatures can be a tricky but rewarding pastime.

In this article, I'll introduce you to the basics of butterfly photography and provide tips so you can become an expert photographer in no time. Read on to learn how to capture these beautiful insects in all their glory!

small copper butterfly on leafSmall Copper - taken with 100-400 mm lens at f22

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Equipment for Butterfly Photography

When photographing butterflies, the type of camera you use will significantly impact the quality of your photos.

If the camera does not allow you to change lenses, you must ensure it has a macro option. However, most photographers prefer a DSLR or mirrorless camera/lens combination.

I have had excellent results with my older Canon 7D Mark II but I prefer my current Canon R5 mirrorless camera. This allows focus peaking in manual focus mode, which helps by highlighting the sharply focused edges in a conspicuous color.

Ultimately, it depends on your budget and preference.

What Lens and Accessories Will You Need?

Macro lens

A macro lens is typically considered essential for capturing detailed images of butterflies. However, you can also get decent shots from further away with a long lens, such as the one at the top of this page.

A macro lens has a 1:1 magnification ratio, meaning the subject is projected onto the sensor at life-size.

They are specifically designed to provide a flat and even focus across the entire image with no distortion, which is crucial when photographing small and intricate subjects like butterflies.

Extension tubes

Designed to fit between your camera and lens, these tubes effectively increase the distance between the lens and the sensor. This extension allows you to focus closer on your subject, resulting in a larger image on the sensor.

Extension tubes are a cost-effective alternative to purchasing a dedicated macro lens and can be used with any lens you already own.

However, they can make it more difficult to focus because they reduce the amount of light that reaches the camera's sensor.

Tripod

A tripod is a helpful accessory when taking close-up shots of butterflies. It provides stability and prevents camera shake, which can cause blurry images.

It also allows you to take your time and compose your shot carefully, ensuring you get the best possible result.

While using a tripod is highly recommended for butterfly photography, there are some benefits to hand-holding your camera and lens. Hand holding allows for more flexibility in movement and positioning, allowing you to quickly adjust to the butterfly's movements. This can be especially useful when trying to capture butterflies in flight.

Tips for Butterfly Photography

Once you have the equipment, it's time to take some stunning butterfly photos! Let’s look at how your camera settings will affect your results.

Aperture

When photographing butterflies up close, it is vital to use a narrow aperture (higher f-stop number) to ensure the wings are in focus. We know this as depth of field.

A good starting point would be at least f/8 or higher, but you may need to adjust depending on the lighting and distance from your subject. Experiment with different settings to find what works best for you and your equipment.

marbled white head in focusMarbled White - an aperture of f6.3 allowed the head and legs to stand out from the rest of the butterfly

Shutter speed

Butterflies are fast. To avoid blurred pictures, use a fast shutter speed of at least 1/500th of a second, or more if you can get away with it.

Getting out nice and early in the morning, before they are active, can allow you to use slower shutter speeds.

Learn more about Shutter Priority Mode.

ISO

When photographing butterflies, you will want to use a low ISO setting (such as 100 or 200) to ensure your photos are not too grainy or noisy.

However, you may need to increase your ISO for brighter exposure in low-light situations. Just be aware that higher ISO settings can cause more noise and less detail in your butterfly photos. So, finding the right balance between getting bright enough exposure and maintaining good image quality is important.

How to Compose Your Images

Positioning your camera parallel to the butterfly will ensure the wings are sharp throughout. Working at such close range can prove challenging, as a slight movement of the wings will render them out of focus.

The tongue is in focus in the photo below, but the furthest antennae could be sharper. The depth of focus from front to back was only millimeters, even with a small aperture of f16.

red admiral with curled up tongueRed Admiral butterfly - f16 was enough to capture the insect in focus but blur the background

Alternatively, consider changing to a different lens to include more of the surrounding plant environment, which will help set the scene in your photos and provide a natural backdrop.

silver washed fritillary from further awaySilver washed fritillary - f8 using a longer lens from further away

Editing Your Butterfly Photos

Congratulations on capturing some stunning butterfly photos! Now it's time to take your images to the next level by editing them. Editing can enhance your photos' colors, details, and overall quality.

Don't worry if you're new to editing; this article will provide some essential tips and techniques to get you started. With a little of practice and experimentation, you'll be able to transform your butterfly photos into true works of art. So, let's dive in and explore the world of butterfly photo editing!

RAW vs JPEG

Shooting in RAW format allows for greater flexibility when editing butterfly photographs.

Raw files are much larger and contain all of the original data from the camera sensor, so they can be edited extensively without losing quality or color accuracy. This means you have much more control over how your images look after post-processing with tools such as Adobe Lightroom or Photoshop.

Additionally, shooting in RAW allows you to adjust the colors in your photo if you accidentally used the wrong white balance setting when taking it.

Keep in mind you will need more space on your hard disc due to the size of the RAW files. 

The camera pre-processes JPEG photos, leaving you with fewer pixels to play with when editing.

How to Edit Your Butterfly Photos

If you want to learn some post-production techniques for your photos, here are some tips to get you started.

Be ruthless when deleting unwanted images. Only spend hours on the computer if it results in something you're happy with! Get rid of badly out-of-focus shots first, then those that missed the opportunity altogether. Only keep the ones that you absolutely love!

silver washed fritillary with blurred wingsI would normally delete this shot as the depth of field was not quite enough to get the tips of the forewings in focus at f 7.1 due to the upward curve

Check around the photo's edges to see if you have cut off wing tips or antennae. There is nothing much you can do with those, so delete them.

Another issue can occur when you accidentally capture part of another butterfly in the frame. This happens more often than you think as you try to get the right angle on your main subject. Removing all or part of a butterfly that does not belong in the photo may be worthwhile if you like the main creature enough. But if you have better shots, why waste your time?

Next, adjust brightness levels and contrast to highlight the details and colors in your butterfly photography.

Sharpen your images and finally crop if desired.

Special Techniques for Enhancing Butterfly Photos

A touch of vibrance will help bring out the bright colors of these fascinating little critters.

Turning up the saturation can be over-enthusiastic, so try a modest amount first to get an idea of how the image will look before you overdo it with the editing!

Butterflies are colorful, but that doesn't mean you must force every rainbow color into every image! Depending on your circumstances, slightly tone down the palette to avoid a digital rainbow effect.

Butterfly wall artAntoinette Sawyer turned the background of these butterfly photos black and white.

You could even remove the color from the background of your finished photo if you want to direct the viewers' attention toward the butterfly, as my friend did with hers in the image above.

Think about what you want to do with the photos. Will you share them on social media; print, frame, and hang them on the wall; or print them onto fabric and make into pillows, for example?

Experiment to see what works best for you and your subject.

Pillows featuring butterfliesButterflies feature in the wall art and pillows in Antoinette's lounge

Final Thoughts for Beginner Butterfly Photographers

Doing some research, such as reading this page, can pay dividends.

Discovering where and when to look for butterflies makes the difference between success and failure.

It can be tempting to head out to your local park and try to catch one on the wing. Unless you know what you're doing, you will be disappointed!

Instead, spend a little time identifying the best place to go based on the time of year.

Read and watch the weather forecast before you set off so you know what type of weather to expect. That way, you can tweak your plans based on any adverse conditions!

Most of all - HAVE FUN!