Butterfly photography tips

David Chapman / 15 April 2020

In spring fields, hedgerows and gardens come alive with butterflies. Wildlife expert and photographer David Chapman looks at how to get the best photos of butterflies, whatever your camera.



In spring we start to see the emergence of a wider range of insects. Probably the most notable will be the butterflies such as peacock and small tortoiseshell which are waking from their hibernation but by the end of March we also see orange-tips, holly blues and brimstones.

After a long dark winter all of these creatures provide a splash of colour and offer us hope for the coming seasons. It is natural that we should want to capture their beauty on camera, but that can be a challenge. Here are some tips and advice.

Choosing the camera for photographing insects

Don’t be bamboozled into thinking you need the latest, most expensive camera on the market to capture insects. In fact the most expensive type of camera, the DSLR, is the most difficult to use for close-ups. We professionals use them because they enable us to blur the background better and the result, if we get it, can be better quality. Probably the easiest type of camera to use for insect photography is the ‘bridge’ camera which often has a powerful zoom and can focus very close to the subject. Compacts and even phone cameras can also be good because they are easily manoeuvred into position.

Technical considerations of your equipment

Most bridge and compact cameras make life very simple for us. For close up photography they have a ‘macro’ setting which is usually represented by a flower symbol. Just select this option and get shooting. If you are using a phone just remember to touch the screen where you want the camera to focus. Also bear in mind that there are a range of options for taking the photo, you don’t have to press the button on the screen you can use the volume button on the headphones as one alternative.

For DSLR users the technical side of photography is far more important. To begin with you will need a dedicated macro lens. I use a 100mm macro lens. I also use a tripod whenever I can and it is essential that the tripod can be used down to ground level. I tend to use aperture priority mode and select an aperture of between f4 and f8, selecting an ISO which allows me to have a reasonably fast shutter speed (no slower than 1/125th of a second for apparently still subjects with camera on tripod but much faster, at least 1/500th of a second, for hand held shots if the subject is likely to move).

Most cameras have image stabilisation built into them, so check this is switched on. This is a very useful feature when using a camera at arm’s length for example.


Field craft

What you do with the camera is more important than which camera you do it with! Field craft is critically important.

Watch your subject to learn what it does. Rather than chasing an orange-tip butterfly from one garlic mustard flower to the next and disturbing it each time you get close try getting ahead of the game, anticipate where it really likes to be and wait for it to arrive. This way you can remain still and be much less intimidating to the butterfly.

Your aim should usually be to get your camera square-on to the back of the butterfly, if its wings are open, or square to the side of it if its wings are closed. This way you can show the whole of the subject sharp. As you move your camera be aware of how the butterfly will see you. Do not cast your shade on the subject, move slowly, stretch your arms out rather than walking closer and do not disturb the vegetation on which the butterfly is resting.

Marbled white butterfly
To photograph this marbled white butterfly I waited until it became slightly less active in the evening, this photo illustrates that it isn’t always necessary to fill the frame with the butterfly but that the surrounding vegetation and quality of light are more important in creating a pleasing image.

Composition

Filling the frame with the subject demands that you are very close and that is very difficult. I would also argue that a photograph completely dominated by a butterfly is aesthetically less pleasing than one in which it is shown within its habitat. If the butterfly is on an attractive flower then use that to help compose a pleasing image. Set the flower and butterfly off to one side of the photo and have it pointing into the picture.

Also consider the background. It is important to avoid distracting details occurring immediately behind the butterfly. Distractions such as bramble stems or very bright grass stems should be avoided. So change your camera angle slightly and see how the background can be altered, if the ideal shot cannot be created then wait until the butterfly moves to the next flower and try again.

Backgrounds are often better if the camera is held at the height of the butterfly. So don’t stand up and look down at the subject, it might be necessary to lie down and get the camera low. This way the vegetation behind the butterfly might be further away and therefore a little more out of focus in the photos.

We know that butterflies are most active when it is warm and sunny so this is the easiest time to find them but it isn’t necessarily the best time to photograph them. A couple of years ago I was watching a group of orange-tip butterflies laying eggs on a cluster of cuckoo flowers until well into the evening. As it darkened they became inactive and settled down to roost on the surrounding grasses and flowers. It was too dark to photograph them at that time but I decided to re-visit them at first light. They were still there, the light was better but they were too cold to move and this gave me plenty of time to compose and take photos.

There are other species which offer similar opportunities through the summer months including common and silver-studded blue butterflies which go to roost on grasses. Marbled whites tend to be best early in the morning when they climb grass stems to warm in the sun. Visit any butterfly-rich meadow early in the morning and you have a chance of finding one of them covered in dew, unable to fly. This provides an opportunity to capture a beautiful image in wonderful light, but make sure to choose a calm morning when the grasses are likely to be motionless.

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.