I once heard butterflies referred to as “flying flowers.” I don’t know who coined that description, but it’s accurate. The delicate little bugs are as beautiful and colorful as flowers, and they can fly. My first experience attempting to photograph a butterfly was funny enough to be on America’s Funniest Videos.
I was in Florida at Natural Bridge State Park, when I spotted a beautiful black butterfly with blue highlights resting atop a flowering weed. I approached it hurriedly and tried to set up as close as I could to make the photo. The heat was awful! Just as I was almost ready, the little bug departed to another flower several feet away. This scene repeated itself over and over, so many times that I became exhausted. At some point, I just photographed as fast as I could and stopped trying to catch a good angle, etc. With my tongue hanging out, I dragged my camera and tripod back to my car.
What are some helpful hints you can use when you’re seeking out butterflies for your photography?
First, patience and approaching butterflies slowly is key. They may even come to you if you wait long enough near the flowers on which they are feeding.
Know your camera’s limits. I once read the following suggestion: cut out a life-sized photo of a butterfly from a magazine, take it outside, and place it on a flower. Use your camera to determine just how close you can get to the cutout with the lens you have and still keep the butterfly in focus, and remember or note the settings. The fewer details you have to worry about with your camera in the field, the better off you are.
Finding your settings in a test situation will be easy, because a paper butterfly stays put. A real butterfly is likely to fly just as you prepare to press the shutter button. One way to help keep a butterfly in place longer is to make sure your shadow doesn’t pass across the butterfly’s body. In other words, don’t stand between the light source and the butterfly. Butterflies see a shadow as a potential predator and take off. Sudden movements can also startle some butterflies, so move with smooth and deliberate motion.
Second, while a tripod is best for many kinds of subjects, it may not be as good as a monopod when you’re photographing butterflies. Because of their habit of changing positions often, you may not have time to set up a tripod before they’re gone. A monopod can hasten the process. However, if you seek out your subjects in the early morning before the dew has burned off, you may have a better chance with a tripod than you would later. In the morning, butterflies tend to stay put until their wings dry out, which gives you more time to work. They’re also less active.
Third, search out butterfly conservation websites to help you locate the best locations for these beautiful creatures. The sites should also give you the best times of year to find them. In addition, you can go to a bookstore for a colorful book on butterflies, so you’ll be able to identify the ones you eventually see and photograph.
Fourth, if you use a flash as your light source, be aware that the fall-off of light behind the subject will be drastic, causing a very dark background. Sometimes this effect is exactly what you want. And other times you are going to want the surrounding vegetation to be part of your image. I most often use natural light. Experiment with backlighting as well as light hitting your subject from the front. Set your camera to get the most depth of field that’s practical for the situation. When you’re that close, the wingspread of a large butterfly can be enormous, and you may find part of one wing out of focus while the other is in complete focus. Sometimes you can get away with this, but quite often this leads to a very distracting photo.
Finally, some photographers prefer setting their cameras to manual focus to using auto focus, because they say that AF often focuses on the wrong thing. This is sometimes true but has not been a big problem for me. I imagine the circumstances vary from camera to camera. So, if you have a setting for manual focus on your camera, you may wish to try making pictures both ways to see which works best for you. Just to be sure you get a good image, it’s advisable to take several as you approach from a distance. If each shot is closer than the previous one, you’ll create a good image–if the butterfly doesn’t fly first. If it flies, don’t be discouraged. Butterflies often light on a nearby flower.
The best tool you can take with you on a butterfly shoot is a pack full of patience. You’ll need it. The following are a couple sites to get you started. Look for more by entering the word “butterflies” in a search engine.
by Willis T. Bird