8 Tips for Photographing Butterflies

In this post, Steve Berardi from PhotoNaturalist discusses eight tips for photographing butterflies.

Photo by Steve BerardiPhoto by Steve Berardi

Butterflies are pretty sensitive little creatures. Get too close, and they’ll fly away in a hurry. And, even when you do get close, they’re constantly moving from flower to flower, gathering their most precious prize: sweet nectar. All this makes it difficult to photograph butterflies, but here are 8 tips for dealing with some of these problems:

1. Use a tripod, but keep the head loose

Butterflies move quickly from flower to flower, so you won’t have time to lock in your tripod. But, you can still use it for some stability by keeping the head loose (so you can quickly move the camera).

2. Wait for colder weather

Butterflies need heat from the sun to use their wings, so they like to take it easy when it’s colder out (early morning or late afternoon). With colder weather, you’ll be able to approach them more easily.

This photo was shot on a cold overcast day. The cold weather kept the butterfly from moving, and allowed me to position my macro lens just a few inches from the butterfly. (Photo by Steve Berardi)This photo was shot on a cold overcast day. The cold weather kept the butterfly from moving, and allowed me to position my macro lens just a few inches from the butterfly. (Photo by Steve Berardi)

3. Position your camera’s sensor so it’s parallel to the butterfly’s wings

You only get one geometrical plane of complete sharpness, so you want to put as much of your subject in this plane as possible. With butterflies, you’ll want their body and wings tack sharp, so make sure your camera’s sensor is parallel to them.

4. Wait until the butterfly is frontlit by the sun

Side lighting will usually result in a harsh shadow across the butterfly’s wings, and backlighting is always difficult because of flares. So, wait until the butterfly moves to a position where it’s frontlit by the sun.

5. Use a fast shutter

When you’re photographing butterflies, three things are almost always moving: the camera, the butterfly, and the flower it’s perched on. To help freeze the action and increase your chances of getting a sharp photo, use a fast shutter by increasing your ISO to 400.

6. Shoot in JPEG mode (sometimes)

If you’re having a hard time with the wind and a constantly moving butterfly, you may want to consider shooting in JPEG instead of RAW. This will allow you to snap a lot more shots in a burst, increasing your chances of getting a sharp photo (when everything stood still for a microsecond).

7. Wait for butterflies (patiently), don’t chase them

If the butterflies seem extra sensitive when you’re trying to approach them, then try to just wait patiently at one flower instead. Although butterflies will usually get scared if you approach them, they’ll usually land on flowers right next to you if you’re already sitting there. Be patient though: it might be 15-20 minutes before a butterfly shows up.

8. Be careful not to cast a shadow on the butterfly

Butterflies love the sun, so if you cast a shadow on them, they’ll usually fly away. Remember this as you’re approaching them.

What did I miss?

If you have another tip for photographing butterflies, please share it by leaving a comment below! Thanks!

About the AuthorSteve Berardi is a naturalist, photographer, and computer scientist. You can usually find him hiking in the beautiful mountains and deserts of Southern California. Read more of his articles on nature photography at the PhotoNaturalist and check out his new eBook, Digital Wildflower Photography.

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