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My favorite recipe for a successful nature photograph is to pick a well-known
subject and portray it in a different way.
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
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
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
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:
Butterfly World, Coconut
Creek (North of Fort Lauderdale), Fl, (954)-977-4400;
Day's Butterfly Center at Callaway Gardens, Pine Mountain, GA
The Butterfly Place, Westford, MA (508)-392-0955,
Butterfly Pavilion, Westminster (near Denver), CO (303)-469-5441;
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.)
focal length in mm
Closest Focus Distance
of the Master Lens in inches
Extension in mm
Magnification obtained by adding extension tubes to some commonly used
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.
Approximate magnification for 100-300mm zoom with 0.25 (1:4) build in
magnification at 300mm
52, 58, 72, 77mm
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
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.
John Shaw, Closeups in nature , Amphoto, New York, 1987
George Lepp, Beyond the basics , Lepp and Associates, Los Osos,
Don Pryor, Pursuit of Butterflies , Photographic Society of America
Journal, Feb. 1992 pp.14-16
Ralph and Kathy Curtin, Butterfly Dreams , Outdoor Photographer, April