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Get the most from your butterfly hunt

by Jacob Jasinski, 1998

My favorite recipe for a successful nature photograph is to pick a well-known subject and portray it in a different way. Our photographs receive the most attention if the viewer can easily identify the subject and it is our technique that makes him look again and again. Butterflies are some of the most widely known and easily recognizable animals in the world, but few have seen these creatures though a macro lens. Their active behavior, irregular flying pattern and a large circle of safety are just some of the reasons, making them a difficult target. However, if everything goes right, the results can be very rewarding.

Like with most nature subjects, timing is the crucial factor. Some truly wonderful butterfly photographs can be taken before dawn, when their metabolic rate is very low making them practically motionless. At that time most of them are well hidden from their nocturnal predators, so you need to look very carefully as you walk across the meadows of your local park. They can be found anywhere from the ground to the tree branches and trunks. With folded wings their camouflage design makes them quite difficult to find. However, when found, they will reward you with images of beautiful specimens, decorated with morning dew, posing for you patiently during those last windless moments.

Soon after sunrise butterflies spread their wings wide ready to absorb heat and start feeding. During that period your lens will still not disturb them, even within a few inches. Moreover, they will remain still for several minutes giving you enough time to set a tripod and all light reflectors/diffusers that you may need. Just avoid bumping the tripod legs against the twig that the insect is sunbathing on, since this most likely will trigger some desperate escape such as free fall to the ground. A focusing rail is very helpful in repositioning the camera without moving the tripod legs. I find the Novoflex Mini Focusing Rail quite sufficient for a 35mm camera. For more information on focusing rails see Getting Up-Close, Outdoor Photographer August 1995 by Joseph Meehan.

As the day warms up insects become more active and less tolerant of cameras. Many successful photographers extend the warming up period by simply refrigerating their models for a few hours and then releasing them back to their habitat. Photos of refrigerated fruit eating butterflies on beautiful flowers, a place where it normally would not be found, may result from this technique. Refrigeration, while harmless to the animals, is avoided by those who want to capture only their natural behavior. One hour after sunrise, photography using natural light and tripod is still possible but requires a longer macro lens - ideally 200mm. A purchase of the 200mm macro lens may be difficult to justify, particularly if you already have a regular 200mm lens and/or a 100mm macro. The less expensive options, which will produce professional quality images, are the two element closeup lenses made by Canon and, Nikon , extension tubes , and teleconverters . These accessories will turn the telephoto lens that you already own into a macro lens. More information is provided the section on Macro Accessories .

Depending on the weather conditions, 2 to 3 hours after sunrise the tripod will no longer be useful. It is time to put on your long telephoto, add a flash and get ready for action. If you move slowly, the butterflies will ignore you but will flee in search of food before you click. If you move fast, they will flee immediately. With some luck and patience you can still get some pleasing environmental portraits, where the insect is shown together with a good fragment of its habitat. Pay attention to the mating couples. Not only their acrobatic skills are amazing but also, being focused on the partner, they will offer you a better chance to get close and fill the frame.

There are 700 species of butterflies in North America, this is not much compared to over 20,000 world wide. So when you feel that you have a good portrait off all your backyard residents, it is time to pay a visit to an aviary. Outdoor and indoor "butterfly farms" are scattered throughout America. Some of the better known are:

For a more complete list contact the North American Butterfly Association (NABA) , 909 Birch Street, Baraboo, WI 53913 or the Lepidopterists' Society . Among hundreds of web sites related to butterflies The Butterffly Web Site is worth noting.

The Butterfly World does not even allow monopods while many other allow tripods. At moderate additional cost, some aviaries offer special photo sessions. These rules change continuously, so be sure to call before your trip. None of these places open before 8:00 a.m. so the butterflies will be up and running even if you are the first guest of the day. You should still take advantage of the morning hours to avoid the crowds. In Winter months the butterflies will be considerably less active before 10:00a.m. Keep in mind however that if you bring a cold camera into a glass house with 80 F and 80% humidity the front element will fog so quickly and heavily, you will not be able to take any pictures for up two hours. Fogging will also occur if the camera is at a room temperature but will be less intense and should seize in about 20 minutes. All my equipment has survived aviary conditions many times without getting condensation inside of any lens. As precaution, I open the camera bags and turn the car heater up on the way to the aviary for at least an hour before the shoot.

It is nice to have an option of using a tripod but I seldom bring it into an aviary. 95% of my shots are taken with a hand held camera and a flash. I have tired two flashes on a bracket, set at 1:2 ratio to gain some shadows and better detail. This is a rather heavy setup and my hands quickly loose their steadiness needed to keep the subject in the very limited depth of field. I have better results with one strong unit equipped with the Photoflex bouncer. Black backgrounds look good with moths but artificial for butterflies. To avoid them, whenever possible I meter the background and choose exposure 1 to 2 stops under this reading. This frequently means an f-stop close to f5.6 and very limited depth of field. Under these conditions, getting the whole winger in focus is the main challenge.

In an indoor aviary there are so many butterflies that you may choose a flower, angle, and background and wait for the subject to land in front of your lens. Some species are very "tame" other will let you chase them for a while but you will get all pictures you want, even with a 100mm macro lens.

The final step in butterfly photography is proper identification. There are several excellent field guides to North American species. The wing pattern may appear significantly different within one species (e.g., different number of eyespots on a Common Wood Nymph). On the other hand, for protection, completely different species may look similar to one butterfly that is poisonous, so be sure not only to look at the pictures but also read the description. Most aviaries specialize in exotic butterflies and these may be very difficult to identify. The aviary gift shop may have the answers to some of your questions but most likely you must contact the manager. I make wallet size prints from slides and send them the aviary etymologist.

Whether in an aviary or the backyard, shooting butterflies can be just as rewarding as any other kind of wildlife photography, and it will not break your budget. With good technique and patience professional quality results may be obtained by adding little if anything to your camera bag. Images that reveal details of butterfly anatomy and behavior have great impact and attract much attention.

Macro Accessories

To fill the frame with smaller butterflies magnification of 0.5x (or 1:2) is necessary. To obtain a "head and shoulders" portrait life size (1.0x or 1:1) lens is desirable. Below are some numbers which should help you choose the right accessory for the job.

The effect of adding extension tubes to the lens is determined by three factors: (1) length of extension, (2) lens' focal length, and (3) lens' build in magnification (or closest focus.)

Master Lens'
focal length in mm
50 80 105 210 210 300 300 400
Closest Focus Distance
of the Master Lens in inches
18 31 39 43 71 59 98 158
Master Lens
0.14 0.13 0.14 0.25 0.14 0.25 0.14 0.11
Length of
Extension in mm
20 0.52 0.36 0.31 0.33 0.23 0.32 0.20 0.16
27.5 0.67 0.46 0.38 0.37 0.26 0.34 0.23 0.18
36 0.84 0.56 0.46 0.41 0.30 0.37 0.26 0.20
52.5 1.17 0.77 0.62 0.49 0.38 0.43 0.31 0.24
56 1.24 0.81 0.65 0.50 0.40 0.44 0.32 0.25
80 1.72 1.11 0.88 0.62 0.51 0.52 0.40 0.31

Magnification obtained by adding extension tubes to some commonly used lenses.

Adding extension tubes causes significant loss of light of up to two stops but your TTL metering system will compensate for this. However, I would recommend taking some test shots with your extension-lens-flash combo before going on a bigger shoot. Auto focus is lost with the use of most extension tubes.

You do not loose any light with close-up lenses . The two-element units from Canon (250D and 500D) or Nikon (3T, 4T, 5T, and 6T) can be mounted on any telephoto lens of up to 77mm filter size.

close-up lens filter size diopter power Approximate magnification for 100-300mm zoom with 0.25 (1:4) build in magnification at 300mm
Canon 500D 52, 58, 72, 77mm 2.00 0.85
Nikon 3T 52mm 1.50 0.70
Nikon 4T 52mm 3.00 1.15
Nikon 5T 62mm 1.50 0.70
Nikon 6T 62mm 3.00 1.15

The magnification (M) achieved with close-up lenses may be approximated by the following formula: M = (Diopter power) x (lens focal length/1000) + Lens' build in magnification.

The 1.4x and 2x teleconverters multiply the focal length and the magnification by 1.4 and 2 respectively. The 1.4x takes away one and the 2x takes two stops of light. Nearly all teleconverters are not recommended for zoom lenses.

Other reading

  • John Shaw, Closeups in nature , Amphoto, New York, 1987
  • George Lepp, Beyond the basics , Lepp and Associates, Los Osos, 1993
  • Don Pryor, Pursuit of Butterflies , Photographic Society of America Journal, Feb. 1992 pp.14-16
  • Ralph and Kathy Curtin, Butterfly Dreams , Outdoor Photographer, April 1991 pp.14-16

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Article created 1998

Readers' Comments

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Bruce MacArthur , May 04, 1997; 04:19 P.M.

By way of a correction, the butterfly conservatory in Niagara Falls is in Ontario Canada, and not Niagara Falls New York.

Jonathan Watmough , September 22, 2000; 05:37 P.M.


Where are the pictures ?

The nice thing about photo.net used to be that there were pictures everywhere.

The nature section seems to be the worst.

Bill Liljeroos , July 10, 2008; 02:24 P.M.

This has to the hardest to do.

J. Harrington USA (Massachusetts) , April 02, 2009; 05:39 P.M.

Informative article Jacob. Thanks for sharing your expertise. Butterflies are one of my favorite subjects.


Ellery Curtis , April 12, 2013; 10:49 A.M.

my first attempt last year proved that shooting them in the daytime when it is very warm is DIFFICULT, but not impossible....with handholding and a macro flash bracket setup...and persistence....these things are fun to shoot


Thanks for the article...Im looking forward to waking up early enough this season to go for some ambient light only shots with that nice early morning light, dew drops, etc :)

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