Gonepteryx rhamni, Overhead midday sun enhances the textures ©
delving into daylight-shooting techniques, let's first look at a few
are new to butterfly photography it's tempting to fit your camera with
a fairly long zoom lens, and to take your pictures from a distance.
The problem with this approach is that it's difficult to hold the
camera steady. You can minimise the effects of camera-shake by using a
fast shutter speed but that necessitates using a high ISO setting. The
latter unfortunately results in high levels of image 'noise' -
distracting multi-coloured specks that show up in shadowy areas if you
make large prints.
are of course occasions when you have no choice but to shoot from a
distance, e.g. when a butterfly is high up in a tree. It makes sense
therefore to carry a long lens in your camera bag, but for 90% of the
time you are better off using a shorter lens. A camera fitted with a
60mm or 70mm macro lens will be more manoeuvrable and lighter. It will
also have a wider maximum aperture, resulting in a brighter
viewfinder. OK, you have to get closer to the butterfly, but if you
wear dark clothes, approach carefully, and avoid casting your shadow
on it you'll be fine.
Shutter speeds and apertures
easy option is to set Program mode and let the camera take care of all
the settings, but most experienced photographers prefer to have more
control. When shooting images for the website, I set the camera to 200
or 400 ISO, and Shutter Priority mode, usually with the shutter speed
set to 1/250 or 1/500 sec. The camera then sets an appropriate
aperture for the lighting conditions - typically between F8 - F11.
All lenses, including macro
lenses are optimised to produce the sharpest results in the F5.6 to
F11 range. Stopping down beyond F16 increases depth of field but at
the same time it decreases optical quality.
cameras have sophisticated light metering systems that compare the
scene in the viewfinder with an on-board database representing 1000's
of different scenes. Using advanced algorithms they calculate the
exposure needed, and set a suitable shutter speed / aperture
combination. Thus with 'average' subjects a DSLR will usually deliver
a fairly accurate exposure.
Butterflies however are far from being average subjects - they range
from very dark, almost black Ringlets, to dazzlingly reflective Whites
and Morphos. Furthermore butterflies often settle on bare ground or
other reflective substrates that fool metering systems into
under-exposing, resulting in a very dark image. You can have similar
problems when photographing brightly coloured butterflies against a
very dark background such as shown in the photo below.
can use the camera's exposure compensation control to correct this.
had used a 'straight' automatically metered exposure for the photo of
the Brimstone butterfly below, the meter would have been
over-influenced by the bright subject, and would have resulted in a
dark under-exposed photo. Using exposure compensation to increase the
exposure by +1 stop has produced a perfectly balanced exposure
capturing the luminescent quality of the lighting.
decisions about how much exposure compensation to use can be time
consuming, so most cameras enable you to 'bracket' exposures
This just means shooting a
rapid series of images, typically a series of 3 shots, with the first
shot 'as suggested' by the camera, followed by additional shots taken
at 'darker' and 'lighter' settings. This provides you with a series of
images from which you can later choose the best one.
Gonepteryx rhamni, with camera set to +1 stop exposure
good photographer will tell you, the quality of the lighting is just
as important as the subject and composition. Many people think that
you can only photograph butterflies on bright sunny days but nothing
could be further from the truth. In overcast conditions for example
lighting will be flat, virtually shadow-less and ideal for bringing
out the most delicate colours on a butterfly's wings. The subtle hues
of the subject and background in the image below could never have been
captured in bright lighting conditions. The photo was taken at dusk,
as the butterfly went to roost for the night.
Erynnis tages, male at roost on knapweed ©
sunlight on the other hand will make the colours much more vivid, and
give photos more visual impact. To bring out textures you need the
light to be directional. You can use the low angle of early morning /
late afternoon sunlight to accentuate the wing textures of species
that bask on the ground. Similarly you can take advantage of the
midday sun to bring out the textures of species that hold their wings
erect when at rest, such as the Brimstone butterfly at the top of this
butterflies, e.g. Coppers, Metalmarks, Emperors and Morphos, have
structural colours. This means that the colour varies according to the
type of lighting, and the angle at which it hits the wing scales. An
example is Doxocopa laure as illustrated
below. Species with structural wing colours are best photographed
under intense sun light. You can move around the butterfly and change
your angle of view to see the effects of sunlight hitting the wings at
male, Satipo, Peru ©