The Art of Butterfly Photography

A Yellow and Black Easter Tiger Swallowtail Butterflies on a Mexican Sunflower
Eastern Tiger Swallowtails

by Ken Whittaker

This graphic by Anna Ferrer is licensed under CC BY-NC

Have you ever admired a beautiful butterfly but would never consider netting, killing and pinning such beautiful creatures to a board to preserve their beauty?  Then this site is for you.  You can still admire and share their beauty without netting and killing them.  Instead, capture them with your camera.

However, be warned, photographing butterflies is not an easy task.  If you have ever tried to photograph a butterfly you already know that they can be elusive, rarely stop and pose for the camera and love bright sunlight, the worst light for photography.  Simply said, they have all of the characteristics that make photographing them very difficult.  But if you’re up for the challenge then continue reading.


Table of Contents


Vanishing Butterflies

Photograph of a vanishing Monarch butterfly
Vanishing Butterfly

Few creatures showcase nature’s beauty and artistry better than the butterfly.  Luckily, as photographers we don’t have to travel to exotic locations to photograph these colorful beauties.  Butterflies can be found in backyards, open fields and local parks. 

Nevertheless, we shouldn’t take these seemingly carefree butterflies that randomly flit from flower to flower in our gardens for granted.  Like many other creatures, butterflies are at risk of extinction in the current global mass extinction event.

While many people are aware of the plight of the Monarch butterfly, they’re not the only butterfly at risk of extinction.  For example, in my home state of Maryland, USA, I’ve never had the opportunity to photograph the Baltimore Checkerspot butterfly, the official state bug, because it is also on the verge of extinction.

While these beautiful creatures make great subjects for our photographs, unless we take action now to help save the butterfly, our digital collections may be all future generations will have of the once abundant butterfly.

Extinction is Forever!


My Digital Butterfly Collection

The advantage of a digital butterfly collection is that you can admire and share their beauty without harming an already threatened species. I my case all of the photos in my butterfly collection were all taken at home in my butterfly garden. The BIG advantage of having a butterfly garden is that while you are helping protect the butterflies’ habitat, you benefit in that you only have to walk out your door to find picture perfect butterflies to photograph.

Click on the desired photograph to view full size.


Getting Started

Your Vision

As photographers, equipment, camera settings, light, composition, color, etc. are all important.  While that’s true, your vision of what makes a great butterfly picture is by far the most important aspect of a great photograph. 

I first approached butterfly photography as if I was trying to net them.  When I saw a butterfly, I would run up and take a picture.  I took hundreds of pictures, but I wasn’t satisfied with my results until I realized that I needed to create the picture, not run round trying to capture an image by chance.

Animation of butterfly catcher trying to catch a butterfly.

While your idea of a great photograph may not be the same as mine, the first step is to ask yourself what is your vision of a great butterfly photograph? 


Grab a Pencil and Paper

If your vision is the most important aspect of a great photograph, then paper and pencil are your most important tools.  First sketch your perfect picture. You don’t have to be an artist (as you see from my sketch below).  While a butterfly will be my subject, the other details are what will make or break a photograph. 

Rough sketch of butterfly on a flower
A sketch of my vision

For example, my vision might be described like this.  My subject will be a minimalist image of a butterfly on a flower.  I would like the flower stem to serve as a slightly curved leading line.  I will use the rule of thirds with lots of negative space in my composition to draw the viewer’s eye to the butterfly.  I want a sideview of the butterfly with its eye in focus and the wings slightly opened with a view of the top and bottom of the wings.  My background will be just a blur of the shapes and colors. 

Photograph of a Spicebush Swallowtail Butterfly on a zinnia flower. The flower with the butterfly is in the lower left third of the photo
Spicebush Swallowtail Butterfly

While my picture didn’t match all the elements of my sketch exactly, and the image was cropped differently than I originally envisioned it, I was happy with the results.


Creating a Butterfly Photo Studio

A successful butterfly photo must be tack sharp.  While a butterfly’s patterns and colors are a big part of their beauty, we can’t forget the eyes.   Arguably, the eyes are one of the most interesting aspects of insect photography.  So, it is important to capture all the butterfly in sharp detail including the eyes. 

Getting tack sharp photos of butterflies is not an easy task.  They are so fast flitting from flower to flower, you only have a few seconds to get a shot. It is almost impossible to compose the picture and get the light right in that split second.  However, I learned my most valuable lessons on capturing tack sharp butterfly photos from watching one of their predator. 

Praying Mantis Method of Butterfly Photography

Have you ever watched a praying mantis hunt butterflies?  Watching them has taught me some valuable lessons on how to improve my butterfly photography.  Praying mantis don’t chase butterflies from flower-to-flower.  So why would we?

Here’s what I’ve learned from praying mantis.

Know Your Subject: Praying mantis understand their prey.  They know where and how butterflies feed and they pick flowers that will most likely to be visited by a butterfly.  In addition, the flowers must fit their need for stealth.  Similarly, it is crucial for us to know our subject and pick a flower that will most likely be visited by butterflies.  The flower must also meet our photographic needs for composition and good light.   

Patience: Once a praying mantis selects a flower, it positions and camouflages itself and just waits for its prey.  I’ve waited hours for a praying mantis to strike its prey.  Likewise, you’re not likely to get a great butterfly photograph chasing a butterfly from flower to flower hoping to get a shot with good composition and light.  By selecting a perfect setting and having the patience to wait for the butterflies to come to you, you’re more likely to get that shot you wanted.

Be Safe & Comfortable: For praying mantis to be able to wait for their prey for hours, they need to feel safe and not become prey themselves.  The same is true for a photographer.  While there isn’t much risk of a butterfly photographer becoming prey, we can become a victim of the sun and heat.  I’ve found that it is important to have plenty of water, shade and a comfortable chair while I’m waiting for that perfect shot.

The praying mantis method of butterfly photography is a case where less is more.  While you will most likely shoot fewer pictures than you would chasing butterflies from flower to flower, the pictures you get will more likely be much better shots.

Get to Know Your Equipment

Butterflies move very quickly. Without an outdoor butterfly studio, you need to know your camera and be able to change the setting on a moment’s notice.  A BIG advantage of a butterfly photo studio is that it is easier to get to know your equipment and what works best for you.  Since the layout of the foreground, subject and background remain constant, it is easier to get to know your equipment and what works best for you.

I have taken countless pictures of my target flower in my studio without a butterfly in sight.  However, when a butterfly does land on my target flower, my main settings like shutter speed, aperture and ISO are already set to give me the results I’m looking for.

Use Your Sharpest Lens

My sharpest lens is my tripod.  Have you ever seen a photographer’s studio that didn’t have a tripod?  I’ve haven’t.  The same should be true in your butterfly studio.  Serious photographers know that their sharpest lens is their tripod.   A tripod is essential for keeping your camera steady for tack sharp pictures, especially when shooting with a macro or telephoto lens.

Since my butterfly studio is located at home, I have a comfy chair, water bottle and tripod under a big umbrella.  Since my good sturdy tripod can be a bit cumbersome to move, I generally leave it outside under the umbrella during butterfly season.  In those case when using my big tripod may not be possible, I will use a monopod with a three footed base.

If you are not happy with the sharpness of your photos, don’t buy another lens. Start using a tripod. For years I shot handheld without a tripod.  However, I notice a remarkable improvement in my pictures when I started consistently using a tripod. 

Lighting

Spicebush Swallowtail butterfly perched on a flower in the author's outdoor butterfly studio.

Outdoor nature photographers don’t have the same flexibility in lighting their subjects as indoor studio photographers.  The natural sunlight light we are given is the only light available unless we use external lights.  That is why most outdoor photographers only shoot during the golden hour.   Unfortunately, I’ve never seen a butterfly during the golden hour. 

Butterflies are ectotherms, which means they must absorb thermal energy from the sun in order to boost their metabolism.  As a result, learning how to make harsh midday sun work for you in butterfly photography is essential in getting the photo you want.  Luckily outdoor photographs using natural lighting do have a few light modifiers at their disposal.

Shade: While butterflies prefer direct sunlight, you can entice them into a shaded area in your studio for short periods of time. When I lay out my butterfly studio, I have flowers that are in the shade part of the day.  As butterflies flit from flower to flower they will often stop at the shaded flower from time to time.

Clouds: Another great light modifier is clouds.  Clouds can produce very soft sunlight.  Partially cloudy or overcast days are often great opportunities to get the lighting you want.

Reflector: A well placed reflector could also be used as a light modifier.  However, using a reflector may not be practical since it would have to be placed in advance. 

Posing and Lighting That Pops

Another photographer once told me if I like a picture, I should analyze the light to see how the photographer set up their shot.   I think the light and the positioning of this black swallowtail butterfly really makes it pop.

So let’s analyze the photograph. 

Soft Light: Since there are no harsh shadows from the natural sunlight, the light was softened by a diffuser.   However, I didn’t use any external light modifiers.  Therefore, the light was either diffused by shade, clouds or by an overcast sky. 

Light Source:  Since the top of the closest wing is almost translucent, the catch light is at the top of the eye and there is a soft shadow directly under the butterfly, the light source was high in the sky, nearly overhead.

Back Drop:  Even though we already determined that the shot was taken in mid-day sun, the background is very dark.  For the background to be dark it would have been shaded from the sun and not very close to the subject. 

Subject Positioning:  With the butterfly’s wings perpendicular to the camera and slightly open, the sun lights up the wing and the areas that would be washed out by the direct sunlight are not in view of the camera.             

While butterflies like the worst light possible for a photographer, if you pay close attention to the available light and the position of your subject you can get some very well lit photographs.


Composition

Work the Subject

Photograph of a painted lady butterfly against a black background. The view is from below the butterfly with its wind open.
Painted Lady Butterfly

Even with a perfect butterfly photograph in mind, it should only be a starting point. You still need to work your subject. A fellow photographer once told me that I hadn’t really considered my subject until I viewed it from all angles.

This was perhaps one of the best photography tips I’d ever received. Some butterflies look better from the top, some from the bottom. I’ve photographed Painted Lady butterflies from all angles, but I like this photo the best.


Be Spontaneous

There is nothing wrong with being spontaneous. Sometimes a great photograph just presents itself to you. For example, I was out photographing a Pearl Crescent butterfly when a Monarch butterfly wing floated down and landed on my shoe. When I looked for the source of the wing, I got this shot. I had to act fast, the Praying Mantis only gave me a chance to shoot three shots before it dropped the monarch and moved on.

Photograph of Praying Mantis eating a Monarh butterfly
Butterfly Brunch

Make it Interesting

We’ve all seen butterflies, so make your photograph more interesting than what we might see every day. Look for scenes that will grab the viewer’s interest. Like in the previous example (Work Your Subject) of the Painted Lady, viewing the butterfly from a different angle or perspective makes it more interesting.

Similarly, repeating patterns that will draw the viewer into the photograph makes the photo more interesting. While I’m not sure how I’d classify the repeating patterns of these two Eastern Tiger Swallowtails, (maybe as a mirror image), I think the repetition makes this image more interesting than a photograph of a single butterfly.

Eastern Tiger Swallowtails

Give Nose Room

Nose room is the space in front of the butterfly in the direction it is facing or moving. A photograph of a butterfly that completely fills the frame gives the feeling that the butterfly is boxed in, with no place to go.

Red Spotted Purple Butterfly

We want our photographs to tell a story. We’re used to seeing butterflies flitting from one flower to the next. If the viewer can see the butterfly has a place to go in the image, like another flower, it tells more of a story about the butterfly.


Show a sense of Scale

In landscape photography it’s a common practice for photographers to add a human to the composition as a reference to show the size and scale of the other objects in the image. Without a person, the image may lack a sense of scale.

The same can be true for butterfly photography. The addition of another object into the image immediately gives the viewer a point of reference and a sense of the size of the butterfly.

Photograph of tiny Gray Hairstreak butterfly on a butterfly weed.
Eastern Tailed Blue Butterfly

For example, I like the Eastern Tailed Blue butterfly on the butterfly weed in the above photo, but I am familiar with this tiny butterfly and flower.  However, if the viewer is not familiar with the butterfly and flower, they may have no idea of their size.  With the addition of the bee in the photo below, the viewer has a reference to give them a sense of how tiny this beautiful little butterfly with only a one-inch wingspan really is.

Photograph of tiny Gray Hairstreak butterfly and bee on a butterfly weed.
Eastern Tailed Blue Butterfly with bee as a reference of size

Experiment with Depth of Field

Photograph of a Black Swallowtail on a zinnia flower facing another zinnia flower (out of focus but recognizable) in the background.
Black Swallowtail Butterfly

As illustrated by my earlier examples, I tended to prefer a minimalist look in my butterfly photos. I don’t want a busy or distracting background. If I don’t like the background, I will try to blur the details of the background using a shallow depth of field. With a shallow depth of field, the background gets a bokeh effect making it little more than a backdrop of color. If the background is dark or in the shade, it will make a dramatic, almost black backdrop.

However, if I feel that the background adds to the image, I will increase the depth of field. As the depth of field increases, the background transforms from a backdrop of color into more recognizable objects. Many times, as the depth of field increases, the background may take on a painterly effect, adding to the beauty of the image.

The decision is yours on how much of the background you want in focus. So, experiment with depth of field to get the shot you want.


Use Color

Photograph of a yellow Eastern Tiger Swallowtail butterfly in a garden of yellow zinnia flowers
Eastern Tiger Swallowtail
Photograph of a yellow Eastern Tiger Swallowtail butterfly Color Pallet with the five colors highlighted on the photo
Eastern Tiger Swallowtail butterfly color pallet
Photograph of a yellow Eastern Tiger Swallowtail butterfly Color Pallet with the five colors highlighted on a color wheel.
Eastern Tiger Swallowtail Butterfly Color Wheel

I’m not an expert in color. In fact, I’m just learning about color pallets myself. In the photo above the color of the butterfly, flowers and background are analogous, meaning that they are similar and are beside each other on the color wheel. An analogous pallet gives the viewer a feeling of harmony.

On the other hand, the photo below has more of a complementary color pallet that offers stronger contrast between the butterfly and the flowers that tends to draw the viewers eye into the photo. A complementary pallet gives the viewer a vibrant and uplifting look.

Great Spangled Fritillary Butterfly a mostly brown, amber and white color butterfly on violet flowers with a green background.
Great Spangled Fritillary
Photograph of a Red Spotted Purple Butterfly Color Pallet with the five colors highlighted on the photo
Great Spangled Fritillary Color Pallet
Photograph of a Red Spotted Purple Butterfly Color Pallet with the five colors highlighted on a coor wheel.
Great Spangled Fritillary Colors on a Collor Wheel

Do the two photos have a different feel? Does your eye move around one photo more than the other? Is one photo more pleasing? You decide what colors work the best for you and try to incorporate them into your photos. A great free tool that I used to illustrate today’s post and to help me understand and analyze color in my photos is Adobe Color.


Finding Butterflies to Photograph

Where do you find butterflies to photograph? While butterflies can be found in backyards, open fields and local parks, they can get tattered and torn early on in their short lifetime, as illustrated by the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (dark) pictured above.

Butterfly House: One of the best places I’ve found to learn about butterflies and to photograph butterflies is at a butterfly house. I’m very fortunate to have Ladew Topiary Gardens near to my home with its wonderful Butterfly House. While I do use the butterfly house to practice photographing butterflies, I don’t use any of the photographs for my digital butterfly collection. The screened enclosure gives the photos a gray colorcast which I’m sure could be corrected with a white balance adjustment. But more importantly, I can’t compose the shots the way I’d like in the butterfly house.

Butterfly Garden: I find the best place to photograph butterflies is in my own butterfly garden. With a butterfly garden I have the luxury of watching the whole life cycle of the butterflies I photograph, from an egg to a caterpillar to the final glorious butterfly. This gives me the opportunity to photograph many of my subjects before they have a scratch on them.

However, don’t be discouraged if you don’t have a local butterfly house or your own butterfly garden. Check out backyards, open fields and local parks and snap away. When you see your digital butterfly collection developing, you will be glad you did.


Camera Settings

You’re smarter than a camera

This Photo by Unknown Author is licensed under CC BY-SA

So, forget automatic mode! While cameras are getting smarter with each new edition, you are still smarter than your camera. Whether you’re shooting with a mobile phone or a top-of-the-line digital camera, you can’t rely on the automatic or program mode, because the camera simply doesn’t know how you envision your photograph.

Making matters worse, a common complaint I hear from new photographers is that, although they’ve purchased an expensive camera, their photos aren’t any better or have even gotten worse. This is true because automatic mode isn’t any better in an expensive camera than its less expensive counterpart. However, the less expensive camera often performs functions like sharpening automatically when shooting in a jpg format. Whereas a more expensive camera generally leaves sharpening and other functions for the photographer in post process when shooting in a RAW format.

The bottom line: An expensive camera will not make you a better photographer any more than an expensive car will make you a better driver. If you want better butterfly photos, you need to understand and set the critical camera settings yourself.

Outdoor Photography Magazine Cover from Nov 2021

Outdoor Photographer magazine published an excellent article titled SAFE-D-WINS in the Oct/Nov 2021, 8 Volume 37 issue.

The acronym SAFE-D-WINS serves as a good reminder of camera settings an outdoor photographer should consider to avoid common photography mistakes. 

I highly recommend reading this article. Unfortunately, The June/July issue was the final issue of Outdoor Photographer, according to Editor-in-Chief Dan Havlik’s Facebook post.

 Using the SAFE-D-WINS acronym as a guide for the critical camera setting that should be considered when photographing butterflies as follows:

  • SShutter Speed
  • AAperture
  • FFocus
  • EExposure
  • DDrive Mode
  • WWhite Balance
  • IISO
  • NSNumber of Shots

However, while this list is a good guide of critical settings, as your photographic stills improve there will be other camera settings you will also want to consider.

Disclaimer

Let me start with a disclaimer first. My intent is not to advocate a specific product or brand. Most of the photo gear I own and use are Canon products. Some of the terms I use here may be Canon specific. However, there are many photographic manufacturers that offer similar products. Check your camera’s manual to find these features for your brand of camera.


Focus is Critical

Whether you’re shooting with a mobile phone or a top-of-the-line digital camera, you can’t rely on the camera to know where the subject is in your scene or your desired focus point on the subject. 

In this example, I used the rule of thirds with the butterfly in the bottom left intersection of the thirds.  I want the butterfly to be tack sharp, so I use a limited auto focus area.  Unfortunately, most cameras default to the center of the screen when using a limited focus area.  However, I want that portion of the picture to be blurred and the butterfly in the bottom left of the scene to be in sharp focus.

Default Auto Focus Point

I could focus on the butterfly, push the shutter button halfway to lock the focus, compose the picture, then take the shot. However, I find with the telephoto and macro lenses and shallow depth of field that I generally use in my butterfly photography, the slightest deviation in the focal plane can result in an out of focus picture. A better solution is to change the auto focus point.  That way I can compose the shoot in the camera with moving the camera to take the shot.

Desired Auto Focus Point

Even if you shoot in auto mode, you need to know how to select the correct auto focus point, the camera can’t do that for you.  So, if you never pick up the camera manual for anything else, learn how to select the auto focus points.  Your butterfly photography will noticeably improve.


Auto Focus

In photography many aspects of a photograph are a matter of personal taste and style. However, the one thing that I think all photographers will agree on is that it is critical for the subject to be in focus. Since butterflies are always moving, it is very difficult to keep them in focus while composing a shot. Even when they appear to be sitting still, basking or nectaring on a flower, the butterfly is always moving. The proper method of focusing is critical. I use auto focus (AF) when I’m shooting butterflies.

Pearl Cresent Butterfly on a butterfly weed flower.
Pearl Crescent Butterfly

Most cameras have similar AF options. For example, Canon has the following:

  • One-Shot is best for still subjects. When you press the shutter button halfway, the camera will focus only once and locks the focus. Since butterflies are always moving, this is not suitable for photographing butterflies.
  • AI Servo is best for moving subjects. When you press the shutter button halfway, the camera will keep focusing on the subject continuously.
  • AI Focus switches from One-Shot to AI servo automatically if the subject starts moving.

For consistent sharp focus, continuous focus (AI Servo) produces the best results for subjects that are moving. So, if you only learn how to change one setting on your camera, learn how to set your camera to continuous focus when photographing butterflies and other wildlife.

Post Processing

Creating a Butterfly Triptych

Triptych collection of three photographs of a Red Admiral Butterfly titled "Love Language of Butterflies". 1st photo titled "Wallflower" is the butterfly trying to camouflage itself. 2nd photo titled "Hi There!" is the butterfly with its wings open while nectaring on a flower. 3rd photo titled "I'm Available" is the butterfly with wings spread basking on a flower.
Butterfly Triptych

I generally get a lot of opportunities to photograph butterflies here in Maryland, USA, however, there just aren’t any butterflies in the winter.  Nevertheless, even without a big travel budget to travel to warmer locations where butterflies are available, it doesn’t mean I can’t work on my butterfly photographs to make some stunning new images. 

In addition to working on improving my photographic skills in the winter, I also spend time sorting through my pictures to see what else I can do with them.  One of my favorite activities is to make butterfly triptychs.  A triptych is a set of three associated photographs meant to be displayed and appreciated together.

Over the past few years, I have gone from selecting three photos out of my butterfly collection to make into a triptych like The Love Language of Butterflies above to intentionally shooting a sequence of photographs to make into a triptych.  If you don’t have butterflies to shoot, try creating a triptych with the photos you already have.


Come Back Again Soon

Also check out my photos on Instagram

Ken Whittaker


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