They start out as a hungry slow-moving blob and through the process of metamorphosis, they transform themselves into a winged insect exhibiting a wonderful array of contrasting colors. Some species migrate thousands of miles for the winter, and many species have remarkable features like eyespots that help protect them from predators.
Naturally, you’ve probably wanted to photograph these amazing little creatures, so here are some tips on how to do it:
1 – Use a fast shutter speed
Butterflies spend most of their time flying or collecting nectar from wildflowers. And, as you probably know, these wildflowers are very fragile. Even on a seemingly “calm” day, they can be seen bouncing through the air. The butterfly itself never stands still either! To battle this constant movement and help freeze the action, it’s important to use a fast shutter, by increasing the ISO on your camera (400 works well).
2 – Take lots of photos
When you’re photographing butterflies, three things are constantly moving: the butterfly, whatever it’s perched on, and your camera. To ensure you get a shot when all three are perfectly still, take lots of shots.
3 – Enable continuous shooting and shoot in JPEG mode
To help you with #2 above, enable continuous shooting and shoot in JPEG instead of RAW. With JPEG, you can shoot a lot more photos in a burst than with RAW.
For example, on my Canon XTi, I can shoot only 10 RAW photos before my camera has to pause for a few seconds and write these shots to the memory card. In JPEG mode, however, I can shoot 27 shots in a row before that pause.
4 – Keep your camera parallel to the butterfly’s body
You only get one plane of complete sharpness, so you always want to put as much of your subject in this plane as possible. With butterflies, you’ll want its body and wings tack sharp, so make sure your camera’s sensor is parallel to them.
5 – Shoot some test shots to determine the perfect exposure
Since you’ll be shooting in JPEG mode, it’s critical you get a correct exposure. To do this, take some test shots of the flower you’re likely to spot butterflies on, and correct the exposure using your camera’s histogram.
6 – Shoot when the butterfly is frontlit by the sun
To highlight the butterfly’s contrast and help you get a sharp photo, photograph them when they’re frontlit by the sun. Remember: always keep an eye on the sun.
7 – Use a tripod, but keep the head loose
Since you’ll need a longer lens to photograph butterflies, it’s important to keep your camera steady. You can use a tripod for this, but keep the head loose, so you can quickly point the camera in a new direction when the butterfly moves. A ballhead works great in these situations.
Be patient, and have fun!
Sometimes photographing butterflies can be frustrating: either you’re waiting for a butterfly to land on a flower right in front of you, or the wind picks up right before you start pressing that shutter button. So, most importantly, remember to be patient and have fun! Enjoy watching these amazing creatures, and if you happen to capture a nice photo of them, great!
If you enjoyed this article, and would like to read more, please signup for free updates by email or RSS.
About the Author: Steve Berardi is a naturalist, photographer, computer scientist, and founder of PhotoNaturalist. You can usually find him hiking in the San Gabriel Mountains or the Mojave Desert, both located in the beautiful state of California.