As a wildlife photographer, some subjects are easy (bigger, like bears, eagles, or moose), and others not so much (smaller, like butterflies, lizards, and wildflowers). While reptiles are pretty active anytime it is warm, butterflies and wildflowers are mostly spring and early summer subjects that fade out as the season moves forward towards fall. There are some tactics that can be used for all small subjects, so I’m going to illustrate some of the equipment and tactics needed for butterflies.
A few decades ago I wrote a newspaper article for the Deseret News in Salt Lake City called “Jewels on the Wind” about butterfly photography. At that time I was spending many hours per week haunting the backroads of southern Utah, specifically targeting butterflies – I wanted to photograph them all. I didn’t have great equipment … as a matter of fact, my go-to lens was an old 100mm Vivitar Macro lens with the ability to achieve 1:1 life-size magnification – though I never focused it to its minimum focusing distance.
Another important piece of equipment was an Olympus T-28 Macro Twin Flash system that attached to the end of the lens. The control unit attached to the camera hot shoe while each flash could be rotated and positioned independently. Normally I had the two flash heads angled in a bit, giving even light to my tiny subject at about 18 inches, which was a magnification ratio of about 1:3, or third life-size, with the Vivitar macro lens I was using. The flash operated on TTL (through-the-lens) light metering that required me to turn the power down slightly if I was shooting within that 18 inches. Nikon and Canon make similar units today.
The image above is a perfect example. The lighting is very even, with enough light spilling into the background to give detail and texture. I could shoot at f16, pushing it up to f22 if I got closer than those 18 inches. While the Olympus flash system cost me about $400 back in the late 1980s, Nikon, my camera system of choice today, offers a similar twin flash system for shooting these difficult macro images for about $700 now.
The Nikon R1C1 is shown above. After a bit of experimentation I learned the best distance to be at, the proper flash settings to use at that distance, the flash angles for the subject and background, and how important it was to get parallel to the wings/body of the butterfly to get the maximum dof (depth-of-field). Even at f16, dof is extremely shallow at these greater magnifications.
I don’t want to get too technical about lens magnification ratios, but it’s important to know the basics. While many lens makers might say a lens is a “macro” lens, closer reading might find a ratio of just 1:6 or 1:8 – not a true macro lens which can shoot lifesize at 1:1. Photographing a penny produces an image on the sensor (or film) that is the size of a penny – that is 1:1. If the penny is only half it’s original lifesize on the sensor – that is 1:2, etc.
Another important factor with a macro lens is “working distance”. How far away from a subject do you have to be to achieve a 1:1 ratio? Whether it is 8″ or 16″ might not seem like a big concern … until being 8″ away from a creepy spider sends tingles down your spine. Then working distance is important. A 100mm 1:1 macro lens has twice the working distance from the subject as a 50mm 1:1 macro lens. The drawback to the 100mm 1:1 macro lens is the size, weight, and cost (usually more of all three) versus a 60mm 1:1. After owning both, I prefer the 60mm 1:1 f2.8 macro lens because I found myself carrying it more often, thus using it more often.
One of the drawbacks to using a flash is the light fall-off darkening the background. Since these systems use TTL light metering, once the correct subject exposure is reached, the flash shuts off instantly. If one of the flash heads is not aimed towards the background the result is a black, or near black, background that I find distracting (see the image above). Even in full daylight, shooting with flash at small f-stops and high magnification does not lend itself to fully lit backgrounds because of the working distance.
One way to avoid this is to use telephoto lenses without flash. While this might seem an obvious move, many butterflies are found in shaded areas where, without the flash, movement from the wind or the butterfly itself would ruin the image. I’ve successfully used my old Olympus 300mm f4.5 lens (before I moved to Nikon) as well as my Nikon 500mm f4 telephoto lens to capture remarkably sharp butterfly images, in full sun as the image below illustrates.
Finally, understanding habitat and environmental traits of butterflies can lead to better images. While butterflies like most flowers, they like some flowers more than others. A simple rule to follow is if the bees are active on certain flowers, the butterflies will be as well – they are good sources of nectar. Also, some plants are “hostplants” that butterflies will lay their eggs on, and thus be more active around them. Back in southern Utah, I found that one of the best plants to find was Yerba Santa or the Great Herb. These bushes would be covered in butterflies throughout the spring and early summer before they tended to dry out. See the image below. The Great Blue Hairstreak, aka the Great Purple Hairstreak, is resting on a Yerba Santa bush. You can see the sticky-looking leaves pretty well. In the photo above, of the Red Admiral, the meadow of American Bistort flowers provided a great source of nectar – notice the bees in the image.
Lastly, having a great guide book to identify the butterflies is a must. While expensive, my personal favorite is “The Butterflies of North America” by James A. Scott. Not cheap, but it has color images of all the species, and their sub-species, and ranges, hostplants, etc.
Good Hunting!! BRP