Butterfly Photography: A Beginner's Guide

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

If you've ever found yourself 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 butterfly photographer in no time. Read on to learn how to capture these beautiful insects in all their glory!

common blue butterflyCommon Blue butterfly (male)

Quick links

            a) What time of year

            b) What time of day


Equipment for Butterfly Photography

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

You will need a camera/lens combination that can focus closely enough on the small subjects you intend to photograph.

The two main factors to consider when choosing your camera are sensor size and megapixels. In general, you'll find that most DSLRs with larger sensors will have better image quality than simple point-and-shoot cameras. However, some professional photographers swear by the capabilities of high-end mirrorless cameras for this purpose. They tend to be smaller and lighter, therefore you are more likely to carry them with you on your nature walks.

Ultimately, it depends on your budget and personal preference. 

What Lens and Accessories Will You Need?

Macro lens

A macro lens is normally considered essential for capturing detailed images of butterflies although you can also get decent shots from further away with a long lens such as the one below.

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

Macro lenses are specifically designed for close-up photography, allowing you to capture images of tiny objects at a greater magnification than a standard lens. They also have higher resolution and contrast than regular lenses.

The main issue with getting this close is the narrow depth of field available.

In macro photography, depth of field can be very shallow due to the close proximity of your camera lens to your subject. This makes it difficult for both near and far elements within a photo to remain in focus at once.

To increase depth of field when shooting macros you need either a smaller aperture (higher f/number) or to use focus stacking techniques with multiple images taken at different distances which are then layered in specialized photo software. 


Extension tubes

Extension tubes are a more economical method of increasing the magnification of a normal lens, allowing you to get closer to your subject.

Extension tubes are hollow cylinders that fit between a lens and the camera body. They move the lens farther away from the imaging sensor, allowing you to get closer to your subject. 

The drawback is that they allow less light to reach the camera's sensor which can result in dark photos.


Tripod

A tripod will help keep your camera steady when shooting close-up shots in low light conditions, ensuring sharp photos every time.

Some people love them when doing butterfly photography while others prefer to be able to work hand held giving them more freedom of movement should the insect move.


Flash diffuser/reflector

Using a flash diffuser or reflector can help reduce harsh shadows.

Flash diffusers soften the harsh light from a flash when taking photos. They help spread out and even the intensity of the light, which can create softer shadows and reduce hot spots in your images.

Diffusers come in many shapes and sizes, including umbrellas, soft boxes, domes, or panels that attach directly to your camera's built-in flash unit.

Using them will give you more natural-looking lighting for wildlife photography or any other type of image where you want less contrast between highlights and shadows.

A reflector is a device used to redirect light from one source onto another. In macro photography, it can be used to brighten up shadows and even out the lighting in an image when shooting close-up subjects. Reflectors come in different sizes and colors for various applications such as silver (for maximum reflection), gold (warm glow) or white/translucent diffusers (to soften harshness).


Finding Butterflies to Photograph

Where to Find Butterflies

Butterfly species are found in habitats that provide the food types they rely on to survive.

If you are looking to photograph a specific species of butterfly, you need to know what habitats they require to succeed. You can find this information online or in a guidebook.

For example, here in the UK, you can only find Swallowtail butterflies at certain nature reserves in Norfolk and Suffolk, where the Fenland landscape provides suitable vegetation for them to feed on.

purple emperor side viewPurple Emperor - photographed side on at f11 to keep the wings sharp and the background blurred

The Purple Emperor butterfly, is again only to be found at certain sites. We are lucky enough to live close to one of these, Fermyn Woods in Northamptonshire. 

Woodland species such as the Speckled Wood butterfly are more widespread, but the dappled light under the trees may present lighting issues when photographing them. Keeping to the edges of the wood may give you a better chance of great photos.

Many adult butterflies feed on a variety of flower nectar which is readily available in urban settings.

It is best to pick a spot with plenty of natural foliage for food and shelter. However, you can encourage pollinators to visit your garden by providing flowering plants year-round. This can be as simple as planting a few annual wildflowers in a pot on your patio, providing a welcome food source for your winged friends!

When To Find Butterflies

What time of year are butterflies most active?

small skipper butterfly on clover flowerAn aperture of f 13 kept this Small Skipper Butterfly and the flower in focus

When planning to photograph these delicate creatures, it's essential to consider the life cycle of the particular species you are trying to document. 

Some species have two broods per year; others have only one. These times depend on local weather conditions and the blooming patterns of plants in the area. Summer is, of course, the peak season for butterflies but you will also find certain species in spring and others late into the autumn.

Some, like the Purple Emperor, are only on the wing for a few short weeks, while others, like the Brimstone, can be seen almost every month of the year here in England.

Keep a note of when you come across the species you're trying to document, as this will help you plan future photo shoots.

What is the best time of day to photograph butterflies?

As these insects need to warm up in the sun before taking flight, you are likely to have more success if you are up bright and early in the morning. They will be less active and happy to pose, allowing you to take beautiful, clear photos that show their stunning colors.

peacock butterfly on fencePeacock butterfly - f8 was a compromise between keeping the whole butterfly in focus while blurring the background

Later in the day, the insects will be less accommodating, flying off as soon as your shadow falls across their resting place.

Certain species are constantly on the move, rarely settling, making butterfly photography more challenging. The Orange Tip comes to mind here.

Tips for Butterfly Photography

When using a macro lens for beautiful butterfly photography, it is best to use manual focus to ensure the sharpest image possible. Rather than constantly adjusting the focus ring, moving backwards and forwards can prove easier.

Some mirrorless cameras have focus peaking, where colored highlights appear on the part of your scene that is most sharply focused. Often there are several colors to choose from, so you can pick the one that shows up best against the subject you are photographing.

Your Camera Settings

When photographing butterflies and other insects, you will often want to choose an aperture that will give you enough depth of field so that both the wings and body are sharp while maintaining a pleasing background blur (f-11 to f-16).

A small aperture is best for macro butterfly photography because it allows more of the subject to be in focus. A large aperture (smaller f-number) gives a shallow depth of field, meaning only part of the image will be sharp and clear.

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

This can work well with close-up shots where you want to isolate one element from its background (as with the photo above), but when capturing smaller subjects that require greater detail throughout the entire frame, using a small aperture (larger f-number) will help ensure everything important remains in focus.

Butterflies can move suddenly, and to avoid blurred pictures when this happens, it's best to shoot using a fast shutter speed of at least 1/500th of a second, or more if you can get away with it.

How to Compose Shots

Fill your frame with the wing spread of a beautiful blue morpho, taking full advantage of its iridescent coloring. Or zoom in on the eyespot of the Peacock so you can see the scales in detail. Experiment with different framing options to create the most visually interesting compositions.

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 part or all of them out of focus.

In the photo below you can spot the tongue is in focus, but the furthest antennae is not quite sharp. The depth of focus from front to back was only millimetres, 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, you could 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

Post-Processing Your Butterfly Photos

When no butterflies are around, you can divert your attention to post-processing the photos you have already taken.

Shooting in RAW is more suitable than JPEG because it 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 that they can be edited extensively without any loss of 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 gives you access to features like white balance adjustment, which are unavailable when shooting in JPEG format.

How to Edit Your Butterfly Photos

If you are interested in learning some post-production techniques for your photos, here are some tips to get you started.

Be ruthless when deleting unwanted images. There's no point spending hours on the computer if it's not going to result 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 bring out the details and colors in your butterfly photography. Finally, crop the image to eliminate any other distractions around the edges.

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 a little over-enthusiastic, so try a subtle layer first to get an idea of how the image will look before you start overdoing it with the editing!

Butterflies are colorful, but that doesn't mean that you have to force every color of the rainbow into every single shot! Depending on your circumstances, you may want to tone down the palette a little 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 towards the butterfly as my friend did with hers in the photo above.

Think about what you want to do with the photos. Will they just be shared on social media; printed, framed and hung on the wall; or printed onto fabric then made into pillows, for example?

Have fun experimenting to see what works best for you and your subject matter!

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

Final Thoughts for Beginner Butterfly Photographers

Taking the time to do a little 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. But 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!


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