Thursday, December 17, 2009


I've had many people ask me how I manage to produce such beautiful pictures of butterflies. I feel I have a lot left to learn, but I don't mind sharing the techniques that I use. Also, if you're a photo enthusiast, please add comments that you feel might be helpful.


I use a Canon 40D SLR camera with a 100-400mm lens with a 25mm extension tube most of the time, however I've seen excellent pictures from small point and shoot camera's as well and with many point and shoots you can get within inches of your subject. With my setup, if I don't use the extension tube, I have to be about 6' away which is too far for small butterflies. The extension tube allows me to focus down to about 3 1/2'. Yes, a good camera is important, but technique is probably more important, so if you feel you need a new camera, try improving your technique first. You will know when you've outgrown your camera because one day you'll be trying to capture a certain quality to your pictures and the camera won't live up to your standard.

I just about always use a tripod because I have shaky hands. Many people do well without a tripod, it's your choice. Other than eliminating shaky hands though, the tripod also helps me compose the picture better. More about this later.

This means that the sun ideally will be directly behind you. This is to eliminate shadows on your image. Many times though this won't be possible as you compose your picture. As well, many times butterflies are sitting in a position where there basically isn't a shadow, therefore this doesn't apply. If you do shoot your shadow, make sure that your shadow isn't covering the butterfly.

Sometimes you won't have time to compose your picture first because maybe a rare butterfly comes by and you have to shoot fast and think later. That's all right. I do it all the time, but it usually turns out to be an identification shot rather than a beautiful picture. If you want good pictures, there are basically three elements that are essential: a pretty flower, a nice background and a nice (preferrably fresh) butterfly. The background is extremely important. A good background is referred to as being a good bokeh. This means that the background is out of focus and is uniform. Below are two pictures, one with good bokeh and one with bad background.

The top picture has good bokeh while the lower one does not. To get good bokeh, you should try to have the background as far away as possible, and if it's uniform in color and texture, so much the better. To achieve this, try setting up so that you have a flower that is higher than the rest or is off to the side from the rest of the flowers. Even though there may not be a butterfly on the flower, take a picture of the flower with the background some distance away. The flower and the background should look pretty even without the butterfly in the picture. If you do get a pleasing picture then it's time to start looking for butterflies in a similar setting. Patience is the name of the game here. Those butterflies won't always land just where you want them.
Another technique for getting good bokeh is to use a flash and expose for the butterfly. If the background is some distance away, it should be under exposed and dark which can be a very pleasing result, especially if you have a brightly colored flower and butterfly.
Of these three settings, f stop or apeture setting is the most important. For shutter speed and ISO as long as they're fast enough to stop any movement and produce a clear picture, they should be fine. The apeture or f stop is very important. Ideally, it would be nice to have the entire butterfly in focus. This is hard to accomplish, especially with larger butterflies. Using a higher f stop, say f 16 will give you more depth of field making more of the butterfly to be in focus, but this may cause your background to have bad bokeh and you may not have enough light to have a half decent shutter speed. Much of this is dependant on the type of camera you have. With many point and shoot cameras, it's fairly easy to get the entire butterfly in focus, but it's much more difficult to get a good bokeh. With most SLR cameras, the depth of field is shorter making it hard to get the entire butterfly in focus but they usually produce pretty good bokeh if the background isn't too close. Therefore, you'll have to experiment with your camera, using different f stops to see what happens to depth of field and bokeh and you'll have to experiment with different sizes of butterflies as well. Posing the butterfly parallel to the camera will usually solve the depth of field problem but getting the butterfly to cooperate might be difficult. Below are two examples.

In the upper picture, the butterfly is parallel to the camera and is completely in focus. In the lower picture, the tip of the left wing is out of focus because it is so much closer to the camera. It was shot at f 9 and 1/1000 second, and ISO=200. If I had shot it at f 16 or f 22, it might have the wing in focus. It's still a nice picture though, I really like it and the reason I included this picture in my example is to show that you don't always have to have the entire butterfly in focus. The most important part is the butterflies head. Always try to get that in focus.
That's the most important part of photography. Have fun. Experiment with different settings and if you're shooting digital, shoot lots, they're easy to delete and each time you do shoot, you'll learn something.


Arlene said...

Oh my what beautiful pictures you have. I am just learning how to work with my camera. Well actually on my 3rd. I just got a point and shoot. Its a Cannon SD780 and I love it. I am looking forward to getting more pictures soon.

Arti said...

I agree, this IS a nice picture!

hardyp3 said...

Nice pictures Fred. I particularly like your comments regarding getting the butterfly to cooperate! I'll have to try your suggestion for using a tripod, test shots, and patience. Enjoyed meeting you at the NABA party the other day.

Anonymous said...

good one! i just added lots of another emo backgrounds at my blog