Tips for Butterfly Photography

Text and photography copyright Mike Ash 2003. All rights reserved.

The easiest way to get pictures of butterflies is to grow your own. If you want to take pictures of the whole life cycle, then that is probably the only way to do it. Any local butterfly club can tell you what to plant. That or any decent nursery should be able to help you. Even if you live in an apartment you can still keep a few plants on your porch or balcony, and the ones that I use are anything but expensive. Cheap is the way to go. Plant the right plants, and the butterflies will show up on their own. They KNOW where the food is.The easiest to grow are monarchs because there is some kind of milkweed growing in every part of this country. Milkweed is also very easy to grow. It IS a weed, and requires very little care if you get the plants common to your region.
If all you want are just the butterflies, then you can plant what the butterfly enthusiasts call support plants, such as pentas. They too are easy to grow, and bloom most of the time. They are also like a butterfly magnet. After planting mine I walked a few feet away to see how it looked, and there was already a butterfly feeding on it. To grow the polydamas, or the pipevine swallowtail, then you will need a Dutchman's pipevine. They are not so easy to get started, but once they are established you can pretty much forget about them. They prefer shady areas, but will take full sun. They also have an interesting flower. Growing your own plants will limit the number of types of butterflies that you can get pictures of because you can only draw in what is local, but for those that can't go globe trotting it's the best way to get pictures of butterflies.


Once you have butterflies coming in it's just a matter of getting the pictures. The first thing to keep in mind that can work to your advantage is that most insects seem to have a one track mind. The more involved they are with doing something the more likely it is that you can get close to them. Walk up to a butterfly that's just landed, and it will probably fly away. Wait until it starts feeding, and it's not so hard. The longer they feed the more involved they seem to become, and the easier it is to get close to them.

This also works for when they are laying their eggs. The polydamas are easier than many of the other butterflies because they lay their eggs in groups. Other butterflies, like the Monarch, lay single eggs to a location though are likely to put many of them to a plant. They will just be on different leaves.

With the polydamas it is fairly easy to get pictures of them laying their eggs. The female tends to hunt for the "perfect" spot, and will hover around until she finds it. If you watch from a distance you will know when she has found it, and you can just walk right up to it. The female will fly away, but if you hold still (pretend to be a bush, and they treat you like one), and wait, then she will probably return. If not to that exact spot, then to one close by. You will be in a position to take close pictures then. It's best to wait until the female is occupied with laying her eggs. It's the one track mind thing working to your advantage. You CAN scare them away, but if you are careful not to make any fast movements, then you should be able to get the pictures. Following that method I've been as close as 2 inches away, and watched the whole egg laying sequence.


One note of caution. Strange noises can frighten them. I had to turn off the beep that my camera makes when it takes a picture because it was scaring away too many butterflies. The noise of a zoom lens can do the same thing, so be zoomed in as far as you can before you even start. Even the noise of the camera going through its auto focus routine can tip them off. That one is not as much of a problem though, and is less likely to get their attention once they are fully involved in laying the eggs. If they do leave, then just wait. Butterflies can pick other spots, but just as often as not they will continue to return to the same place.

With Monarchs and the other single egg layers it's a matter of getting in the right area. Often the monarchs will feed first, and then lay their eggs. If your plants are all in one area, then it's not hard to get close to them when you see them flying about. Butterflies can be quite skittish, and won't let you get close to them very easily, but if they are in the area, then they are after something, and you can just pick a plant to get close to, and wait for them. Monarchs can take a while to do this, and it can test your patience, but if you will wait, they will return. Usually within about 10 minutes or so. The more involved they are with doing something the less likely they will be to see you when you move to take your pictures.


Eggs are easy enough. At least they are not trying to fly away on you. I use a magnifying glass to get in close. With butterfly eggs I use 2 stacked together as they really are quite small. Polydamas eggs are about the size of the head of a pin, and monarch eggs are smaller than that. The eggs will change color on the day that they are going to hatch, so just a glance at them daily will tell you if you need to get ready or not. With the polydamas they are more likely to hatch in the early morning, or late afternoon. It has to do with sun light, and not the hour of the day, so keep that in mind.

That generally means having to use your flash, but that can work to your advantage. With the automatic cameras, using the flash will also stop down the aperture, and give you a little more depth of field. The flash also helps to bring out the colors better. Just be careful not to wash things out. Underexposed is better than overexposed as you can always brighten up a picture with your software. An area that is washed out though is gone. There is nothing that you can really do with it other than trying to cut and paste, and that's not always so easy to do. It's better to have a decent picture to work with in the first place.

I use magnifying glasses because enough close up rings stacked to get you in close enough will also cast a shadow on the picture. The magnifying glasses also seem to have a better depth of field. Using the LCD screen to focus with is easy enough until you try to take pictures of something as small as a caterpillar hatching. Then it can be difficult. Originally I used the same method that the camera used, and that was contrast. Look for something in the picture that you CAN focus on, and use it as your guide. What I do now is use some of those reading glasses that only magnify. I bought mine at the grocery store, so they are readily available. The greatest magnification that I have found was 3.25x, but that is enough to help you see the LCD screen better so you can get a good focus. There is no real hurry with the eggs hatching. It doesn't go real fast.

Taking pictures of them shedding their skin can be a challenge if it is at night. The problem is having enough light so you and your camera can focus. I use a flash light for that. The camera flash will take care of the picture itself. If at all possible though wait until you find one shedding during the day. When they shed their skin they will be wet, and the pictures wash out much more easily then if you use a flash. Where the polydamas are likely to be close to where they feed, the monarchs are likely to wander off quite a ways, and it's not always easy to find them. They can also be in some very unusual places. Hanging under the eve of the house, from a door knob, or in the middle of the screen on a screen porch. The polydamas are easier to photograph at this stage because they are tied down at both ends. The monarchs hang by their tail end, and can swing about in circles often taking them out of your focus range. The best thing I can suggest for that is to just wait until they take one of their breaks to rest, and take your pictures then. The biggest trick to it is being there when it happens. The same with the eggs hatching.

With a butterfly emerging from its chrysalis you have to be ready at a moments notice. It goes fast. The polydamas will pull themselves out, but the monarchs are a bit different. Since they hang from their tail end they will get to a certain point, and then just flop out. While hanging onto the chrysalis they will simply swap ends real quickly. As a general rule I will clear out the area around them so I can get the best angle possible. That and it gives the butterfly more room in which to dry out its wings. Once they are out things slow down. The wings will unfold and straighten out, but that takes several minutes. Their drying time takes hours, so you will have lots of time to take as many pictures as you want to. This is also the best time to get any really close pictures that you might want. At best the butterfly can only walk, and they don't seem to be very inclined to do even that.

For any part of it I take as many pictures as I can, and usually as fast as the camera can recycle. That will give you more chances of getting some good ones, and you will have enough to pick and choose from. If you are like me, then you want to see ALL of it anyway, and the more pictures there are the better. Learn from your mistakes. Look for how you can do better next time.

The real trick to photography is in learning what the camera sees instead of what your eyes see. Looking at the pictures will show you exactly what the camera saw, and you can work on ways to improve your results with the next shoot. With some of the pictures you can download them to see the results, and then go right back out and try again. I do that myself quite often. Other times that can work to your advantage is in the early morning. Especially if it was cool over night. Butterflies can't fly until it's warm enough, so on cool mornings you can go looking for ones that are still asleep. The only ones that I have really found doing that in my own yard are the Gulf Fritillary, and they like to exercise their wings a bit to dry them out, and work out the kinks. That is a good time to get good pictures of a butterfly with its wings spread. You can also get some very interesting lighting in the early mornings.

Another good time is right after a rain. Butterflies will find a place to wait it out, and don't immediately fly away when it stops. Those kinds of pictures are a good place to learn the best ways to take butterfly pictures, but get boring after a while.

The real challenge comes with taking pictures of them feeding. As I pointed out earlier it's better to watch for when they are coming in to feed, go to that spot, and then let them come back to you instead of you trying to go to them. Most of the time they will return. If not, then there is always next time. As long as you have the right plants around there will always be butterflies coming in to feed on them.

With fall quickly approaching there is almost a frenzy to the butterflies' activity as they try to get in one more cycle before the winter sets in. From early morning to late afternoon I'm likely to have at least a dozen butterflies in my yard at any given time. This is the best time of the year to get lots of pictures.

There is another thing that I will usually do when taking pictures of butterflies, and that is to force the flash even in bright light. That way you can eliminate any shadows. Most digitals will show you the picture that you have just taken before you can take another one. If the pictures are washing out because of the flash, and it happens, then just turn it off. You can get deep somber colors using the available light, an sometimes they can look very good that way. Using the flash will make the colors bright and more intense. If it's early or late enough in the day, then the flash will only light up your butterfly and whatever flower they are on. The background will be dark because the flash is not reaching that far. That can make your butterfly stand out too.

The main thing to remember when getting close to butterflies is not to give them a reason to fly away. Make slow steady movements, and they will probably not see you as a threat. That's the most basic thing to remember. There are different specifics for each of the types, and you will learn them as you try taking pictures of each one. The other key to all of it is observation. Pay attention to what is going on, and look for ways to use their habits to your advantage.

You can also use your software to enhance your pictures. A few tricks that I have learned has to do with lowering the brightness some, and adjusting the contrast up. If your image is not in sharp focus sometimes doing this will help to make it clearer, but that is limited. Pictures taken with a flash can usually be darkened some, and that can help to bring out the details and color better. Contrast can be tricky. It's much like the soap commercials. It can make your reds redder, and your blues bluer, but it will also make you whites whiter, and your blacks darker. Washed out areas will stand out more, and the black wings of some butterflies will disappear into a dark background. If the picture will take it though, then the result can be amazing.

When you adjust your pictures don't worry about color so much. Go for the lighting that you need. If a picture looks too light after that, then just saturate the colors a bit. If the colors are too bright, then adjust the saturation down. You can use the sharpen routine, but too much of that adds unwanted artifacts to the picture. I usually use the unsharp mask instead, and the results are usually better.

One note of caution with both of these. Any area that is white, like washed out areas, or places highlighted by a flash, will really stand out afterward. You might do better to just go with what you have. For pictures that were taken with good available light, and no white highlights to them, you can really add to the detail by using one of these routines. Nothing can take the place of a well taken picture though, nor compensate for a bad one. There are no set rules for enhancing your pictures other than doing what looks right. Each picture can require different settings and adjustments. With a little practice you will learn what an image needs, and there will be less guess work to it. Experiment with your software so you can see what it's capable of doing. Sometimes you can discover something that will make a big difference in many of your shots. Be inventive and use your imagination. The results can easily be worth the time spent.

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