Depending on who you ask, the butterfly affects people’s lives in a variety of ways. To some, they’re a symbol of exquisite beauty. This comes as no surprise of course, especially considering their vibrant colors and multi-patterned wings. Still, others can personally relate to the amazing transformative process of a butterfly’s life. From a tightly woven cocoon to its ultimate flying form, this creature represents growth and change.
To photograph these gems of nature, try this series of 4 special tips and techniques. These apply to just about any type of camera, even a smartphone.
1) Focus Carefully
I’ve selected this as tip #1 for a good reason. Your ability to attain sharp focus can make or break a shot. Smartphones and point and shoot cameras actually have reasonably good close-up ability. With the iPhone for example, you can be mere inches from a subject and still focus. If you get too close however, you’ve surpassed the minimum focusing distance and the photo will be blurry no matter what you try. While holding the camera, try rocking forward and back ever so slightly to find the sharpest point.
With a DSLR, look for lenses with macro capability. A 1:1 (one to one) ratio is ideal as it allows you to fill the frame with small subjects like butterflies.
2) Freeze the Wings
A butterfly may not beat its wings as rapidly as a hummingbird, but a fast shutter speed is still necessary to freeze their wing motion. My recommended starting point is no slower than 1/250th of a second. Any slower and the image suffers from blur. You can also use non-technical trick and wait for the lulls in action before shooting. A butterfly will often dance about the flowers before settling on a spot for several seconds. Resting with its wings open, you’ll have a perfect opportunity to capture it’s full beauty.
3) Find a Clean Background
Great butterfly photos often have a similar characteristic. It’s a clean, uncluttered background. Knowing this, you can angle yourself accordingly. This definitely adds a new wrinkle to the challenge, but a busy background distracts from the main subject. If you find a particularly great spot with butterflies nearby, you can even wait for one to come to you. Remain patient and it just may happen.
4) Light the Antennae
You may not think to use the flash on a bright sunny day. Yet, when it comes to highlighting the fine details of a butterfly, a little bit of artificial light is quite effective. Even tiny bits of pollen on a flower will be more evident with this method. If you’re interested in experimenting with a more technical approach, you can underexpose the background and use the flash to illuminate the main subject.
Photos and Text by Chris Corradino