5 Tips for Photographing Butterflies

A red-spotted purple admiral butterfly on a yellow coreopsis. Sari ONeal/Shutterstock

Butterflies are some of the most beautiful insects on the planet, and they can be found in practically any backyard, so it's no surprise they're a popular subject for photography. If you'd like to improve your photos of butterflies, try these tips:

Photograph during the cooler hours of the day.

Butterflies move more slowly when it’s cold out, preferring to stay perched on a flower or leaf for longer if they can. The cooler hours of the day are in the mornings and late afternoons, which works out perfectly because that’s also the time of the soft golden light that all photographers love. Not only will you have beautiful light, but you'll also have a subject that sits still enough that you can get some shots without chasing it around the yard

Keep your camera’s sensor parallel to the butterfly’s wings.

Because you're likely dealing with a shallow depth of field, the only way to get the full wing of the butterfly in focus is if you hold your camera parallel to the wings. That said, don’t be afraid to mix things up, taking shots from above, from in front of the butterfly focusing on its face or from other unique angles. But if you want the full effect of crisp, sharp detail across the full wing, you need to be parallel to the butterfly.

Use a macro lens.

While you can certainly use a zoom lens to get in closer to a butterfly, the real magic happens with a macro lens. You get that super soft background and don’t have to get so close to your subject that you cause it to flit away. Try renting a 100mm macro lens and see what a difference it makes in photographing butterflies.

Use a tripod.

Whether you’re using a zoom lens or a macro lens, you'll likely have a bit of lens blur from the shake of your hands while holding the camera. Putting your camera on a tripod helps eliminate this. Just keep the tripod head loose so you can easily move the camera around to follow the movement of the butterfly. You will have a little bit less mobility with a tripod, but if you set up in front of flowers that butterflies are frequenting, you won’t have to wait too long before a butterfly lands in front of you. Besides, you don’t want to chase a butterfly around the yard anyway. If you wait for them to come to you, staying still and calm, you’ll get more opportunities for shots in the long run.

Anticipate the butterfly’s movements.

Knowing your subject’s behavior is key to all photography, and that includes butterflies. Watch the butterflies you’re photographing carefully and you’ll be able to predict their movements — when they’re about to take off from a flower, when they’re about to land, when the next beat of their wing will happen when they are resting, and so on. When you are able to predict a butterfly’s movements, you’ll have far more success and far less frustration during your photo sessions.