I take a lot of butterfly photographs. I’m pretty good at it, if I say so myself. I enjoy it immensely and I like to share my passion. So I put together a list of ten hints to help you become better butterfly photographers and maybe to help you enjoy the butterfly photography a little more. The tips are mainly for wild butterflies—not those in butterfly houses. Here is my list.
1. Camera and settings: Sometimes I think the camera is the least important part of butterfly photography, but it is the thing people ask about the most. Here is what I use. I use a Nikon D5300 camera and a 105 mm AF Nikon micro lens. I usually hand hold the camera, and use 1/250 sec shutter speed, F/16 at ASA 200. I often use the built-in flash as a fill flash. I always have my settings on manual so I have more control. I never use autofocus because I don’t think it works so well in the macro realm, but mostly because I prefer to focus manually.
Truth is, most modern cameras and even cell phones can take pretty good macro photos. Start with the one you have.
2. You have to sneak up on them. The key to getting really good butterfly photos is getting really close to them. This is also the key to enjoying butterfly photography. You stalk the butterflies—find one that has settled down and move really slowly toward it. If you move too fast you will startle it and it will fly away. If you take too long it may fly away anyway. If you are lucky you may be able to get close enough to take a really good shot about ten percent of the time. All the time you are thinking, what’s the best angle? What is behind the butterfly? Is there a blade of grass in front of it? Is it lit from the front or from behind? If it is on a flower, you might have to wait until it moves to just the right angle. Is there a mosquito on your forehead, about to bite, or a gnat flying around your eye? Try not to flinch. If you are crawling, are there sand burs or poison ivy or thistles or stinging nettles or blackberry bushes? Try not to get hurt.
Sometimes you have to chase them until they settle down. The chase might be down a country lane or across a prairie. The footing is usually not good—prairies often have holes that you can fall into. But chasing and stalking butterflies is what you have to do if you want photos of the good ones. And that is the most fun part.
3. Focus by moving closer or farther away. In the long distance world you have to focus the camera by moving the lens. In the macro world, using manual focus, you can pre-focus to a fixed distance and then move closer or farther away from the subject to focus. That trick can make the final moments of a butterfly stalk successful.
4. Leave the dog home. And the cat. Those animals are very interested in what you are doing. If you are stalking a butterfly they will investigate. And probably scare away your subject.
I had this eastern comma in focus, but I needed to get closer. Slowly, I crawled on the ground to get closer. I was right there, and the eye and some of the scales were in focus.
But the cat had to see what I was doing. I didn’t spook the butterfly, but the cat did.
5. Find a bunch of rotten apples. Or find any other type of rotten fruit. Butterflies are attracted to rotting fruits, and may be intoxicated by the alcohol produced by them. They can be approached very easily at this time.
6. Get down in the mud. Butterflies drink fluids from the mud, and often expel water at the same time. It is thought they are concentrating minerals by this, and that most butterflies which do this are males. Butterflies are fun to approach while they are mudding.
Oh, by the way, they are sometimes attracted to other stuff on the ground. Stuff that was left by dogs or cats or birds.
7. It’s all about the eyes. If you want a picture that really grabs your attention, you need to see the eyes. The eyes have to be in focus. If the eyes are the windows to the soul, you get to a butterfly’s soul through its eyes.
Even old, ragged butterflies:
8. Don’t start with monarchs. Lots of people take pictures of monarchs, but monarchs are very difficult. Monarchs hide their eyes. Their eyes are black but they are hidden by white markings. Monarchs hide their souls.
It is next to impossible to get a good photograph of a monarch’s eyes.
9. Learn their habits—host plants, habitats, when they fly. Check sightings and records. Some butterflies are only found in special places—prairies or wetlands that have been minimally damaged by man’s activities. You might find the butterflies in the parking lots or access roads near the special places, but you won’t find them away from those areas.
10. Practice, practice, practice. Develop your own style. If you pick up a guitar and have someone show you how to hold your fingers to make chords, how long will it take you to start making respectable music? It is sort of the same with photography.
But in the end, it is about enjoying what you are doing. Do you have a good time when you take pictures of butterflies? I know I do. I love looking at my pictures, but my enjoyment of my own photography is tainted by the memories I have of how I got the picture. I love a picture that I had fun taking, even if that picture is nothing special.
Here in Iowa we are at the end of the season for wild butterflies. I have enjoyed the season immensely, and can’t wait until it starts again here, or until I am able to travel somewhere else to take photos.