Butterflies are one of nature’s most beautiful creations. They are colorful, bright, gentle, everything that sums up Mother Nature. Harbingers of new life they are instrumental in pollination of flowers. People have long been fascinated by them, catching them and collecting them for their personal collection. Thanks to photography we now have a new way to capture them, one that wouldn’t lead to their death and yet we can enjoy their beauty for years to come.
To capture the image of a beautiful butterfly has remained one of the all-time favorite topics of photographers. There are so many different varieties and if you dedicate your life to photographing and cataloguing them you would have your hands full for sure. To capture them, however, you will need to follow certain best practices, so to say – certain rules of photography, tricks and tools that will ensure that you make better images than the average click.
Equipment-wise you don’t need to go overboard. Photographing butterflies is most definitely a part of macro photography avenue so all tools you need are directly related with this genre of photography. If all you have is just a Point & Shoot don’t feel disappointed, your camera probably already has a built-in macro mode that’s good enough to make a start.
If you are a DSLR user, don’t worry if you don’t have an expensive macro lens. You could use a few extension tubes which are way cheaper but will do the job just as fine. Reverse lens technique is also a very useful way to make use of standard kit lenses and recondition them for macro photography.
A tripod is useful but not always necessary. The thing is ordinary tripods with a pan-tilt head will not do. You need something that comes with a ball-head for maximum flexibility. Those can be expensive. If you don’t have good money to invest don’t spend it on cheaper make-do products. Simply shoot hand-held.
Follow the classic rule-of-thirds as your basic composition guideline. If you have used the grid lines on your camera before this should be easy to follow. The grid lines are available on cheaper Point & Shoot cameras as well so there shouldn’t be any issues in using it.
Background should be contrasting to the color of the butterfly. If the butterfly is blue then ideally a lighter colored background would be better. If it is yellow with black then something lighter in the background looks better off. Mind it, this is not always in your control and at times you will have to do the best with what you have in front of you. At all times though ensure that the butterfly is sitting on a flower as that is the best moment when it is absolutely still and you can hope to make good images.
Butterflies are best attracted to bright colorful flowers. So, ideally gardens are perfect for photographing them. Having said that bushes, fields with a lot of wildflowers, damp marshes are also known to attract butterflies.
Soft light is ideal for photographing butterflies as well as for flowers. Soft light tends to wrap the flowers and the butterflies in a cocoon of light which is perfect for making soft close-up images.
Manual vs auto-focusing
I am a big fan of manual focusing and just wait for an opportunity to use it. If the conditions are right I would switch to manual focusing over auto-focusing without thinking. But not everyone is comfortable enough to use it. So, use whatever you feel like as long as you can shoot great images with it.
Aperture should be slightly on the smaller side. Begin with something like f/5.6 and take it from there. At wide open apertures you will have a trying time locking focus precisely where you want and the shallow depth of field will be a headache. You will also have problems in bringing much of the butterfly in focus. You could also try using the technique of focus stacking. Using focus stacking to shoot butterflies in their natural habitat is difficult but not impossible.
Shutter speed should be fast enough to freeze the insect. You don’t want a blurred out image with the beautiful and colorful patterns on its wings barely recognizable.