Shoot beautiful butterfly photos

We’re currently in full-on Spring/Summer mode and from now on we’re in butterfly season. I love photographing butterflies as they’re such an easily accessible and beautiful subject.

I know everyone on Foto-Buzz is a nature-lover, so before I get onto the photography bit, I just wanted to remind everyone that butterflies are under threat. In the last Butterfly Conservation report I read, there was a 26% increase in the number of species threatened with extinction, meaning half of the UK’s butterfly species are now listed as threatened or near threatened. There are many reasons for the decline, including habitat loss, climate change, pesticide use, and invasive species. Of course, butterflies are hugely important within the ecosystem, with adult butterflies acting as pollinators, and caterpillars providing an essential part of the food chain – especially for many species of birds.

Anything we can do, as individuals, to help and encourage butterflies is a good thing in my opinion. Imagine a summer when you hardly saw a butterfly? It doesn’t even bear thinking about.

Now to the photography. While a wonderful and still relatively plentiful subject, to do them justice there are a few things to consider. I know a lot of really hardcore butterfly photographers like to get up early (pre-dawn) and go and find them asleep. I’ve even heard of people gently moving them to better positions while still snoozing and while this might get some awesome images it’s not for me! I can’t help thinking that moving them isn’t really fair game!

I prefer to try shooting them mid-morning or early evening while they are still active but not in that middle of the day ‘manic’ mode when it’s near impossible to get a shot. I also want lower, softer light because to my eye, a backlit butterfly is always best.

I did a Lightroom tutorial on processing a backlit shot that you might want to view again (or for the first time) here.

Why backlit? Simply because I’m not trying to take a scientific record of a butterfly, I’m trying to show it in an interesting way as possible. For this reason, I’m never bothered whether every part of the butterfly is 100% pinsharp. It can be nice if you can get that, but it’s not a deal breaker for me. I just need the right part of the image sharp.

Although you can successfully shoot with a long telephoto lens, I usually prefer using a macro. It allows me to get that bit closer, although largely I don’t want a one-to-one magnification as I like to keep some of the surrounding in for context.

I don’t use a tripod either as it just gets in the way. It’s handheld for me, often crouching, kneeling, or lying in awkward positions. Actually, it’s blinking hard work photographing butterflies and I’ll often finish a session with an aching neck and a headache!

For the sake of argument, let’s assume you are handholding the camera too. Now you really need to think about the shutter speed here. Macro lenses are relatively lightweight, at least in comparison to a hefty telephoto, but even so don’t expect to get a sharp shot if the shutter speed drops too low. If your lens or body has Image Stabilisation this will help, but as a general rule of thumb, I try not to let my shutter speed drop below 1/250sec. This is because I’ll often be handholding in the most awkward of positions and awkward positions mean ‘the shakes’. To get shutter speeds high enough it’s likely you are going to need to push ISO, even on a sunny morning or evening.  As a rule, my butterfly shots are taken with ISO set at 400, but I’ll think nothing of edging up to 800 or occasionally 1600.

As I am generally backlighting subjects and almost always pushing the Histogram to the right with + exposure compensation, I don’t need to worry about noise.

The MOST important thing for butterfly shots is the composition and in particular, the background and how it works with the main shot. Here’s a frame taken on the session I used for that Lightroom tutorial. Everything is wrong here. I’ve listed the mistakes on the image itself. Overall, this image is just awful. I don’t like the mixtures of colours in the background or the position of the butterfly. There’s nothing evocative about the shot.

Whether you shoot upright (portrait) or landscape depends on the subject’s position but, because you want a good bit of stem from the flower or plant the subject is on coming up from the base, I often find myself shooting upright. Or sometimes cropping to upright after the event! Here’s a portrait orientated shot that works.

This one isn’t backlit, but I like the angle of the composition and the position of the butterfly. Focus is perfectly on the eye, and we can see its feeding proboscis. Most of all I like the background. It’s not one colour as the greens and yellows are varied, but it sets off the butterfly’s wings colouration nicely and complements the little strip of yellow. The wing drops out of focus at f/5.6 but as I said before, that isn’t an issue for me. It’s about the aesthetic and not the technical.

This next shot is definitely backlit and to my eye has just the right blend of elements I like to achieve.

It’s not High Key but it’s leaning that way. The background is soft and bright, accentuating the ethereal quality I like, and the very pale purples also tones well with the main flower. The little dangling petal is a bonus too, because I like the way it acts as an interesting detail almost as a counterpoint to the butterfly.

Backgrounds are so difficult to get right when it comes to butterflies. After all, we have very little control over where they’re going to land and what’s behind them. The further things are away, the better, so they drop into an indistinct blur, but I also like some variance in tone and colour. For example, I don’t like a flat one-toned backdrop because it doesn’t look natural even if it is!

This next shot shows a butterfly next to a field edge and the warm background tone is the field itself. I was initially in two minds about the blurred thistle on the right but I now like it, as it feels balanced and natural.

I think that without bit of background green, the earthy tones of the field would have given that extra sense of depth. As I said, nature isn’t uniform, so as long as we can show that without it becoming a distraction, all is good. Here’s the final shot for this butterfly article and quite a different angle.

A front view can be really good – even though we then lose the wings. It feels intimate and the visibility of the probiscis is key again, as is the backlighting and the hint of bokeh in the lighting. Depth of field is of course limited, but it’s the visual impact I want and not head-to-wingtip sharpness.

One final technical tip, and that’s to use a single AF point for focusing. This can prove tricky, especially with a macro lens that can stubbornly refuse to focus at times. However, it’s hugely important you lock focus at the right point in the frame when depth of field is so limited, so stick to your guns on this one. Practice makes perfect after all, and I hope this article gives you a bit of inspiration to get out there looking for butterflies this summer. Good luck…

Published in Camera Skills
  1. Nice butterflies 🦋 actually seen more in the garden this year compared to the last few. Will be heading off to photo the silver studded blue when we’re back from France (they’re around mid June for 4 weeks or so)

    • Are you in France now Jayne?

      • Not yet. We head out on Friday and should be in the south where we staying Saturday afternoon. Not tin tenting this time but testing the French EV charging network!

        • Ooh. Good luck with the charging!! We are on our way back from the South now. Been in Europe 6 weeks. 2 more to go 😀

          • Thanks Kim. Sounds like a mega trip! Longest we’ve done so far is 3 weeks taking in France, Switzerland, Italy, Luxembourg, Lichtenstein and back through France before crossing back to 🇬🇧

          • Yes retirement has a number of benefits!! On this trip have been Belgium (to get a pet passport), Luxembourg (cheap petrol), Germany, Austria, Italy and France. Will be in Francdd we for the next 2 weeks till we come back on the tunnel. In a French Passion tonight (vineyard). Will buy some of their wine tomorrow. We are the only people here. It’s so peaceful and just been visited by a pair of Hoopoe

  2. Great images, I will be out and about after them, still got Orange Tips, which is one of my first species oop Norf both male and female make nice images. I now occasionally use focus stacking when using a wide aperture and hand held and simply pick one out of the sequence that is dead on the eye and may try stacking another couple if no movement

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