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Butterfly Photography - In Sharp Focus

Updated: Mar 29, 2023


Butterflies can be both a photographers dream and a photographers nightmare! It can go either way, depending on what you hope to achieve from the photo. Butterflies are actually easy to photograph, they tend to be very photogenic and have a penchant for sitting patiently on pretty flowers while you snap away.

A backlit Nettle-tree butterfly


I have written my blog mainly for users of DSLR or Mirrorless cameras but I appreciate that many people want to use their smartphone for butterfly photography, and I have no problem with that. Some of the hints and tips here can be applied to smartphones but a lot of them are very specific to photography with true cameras. Many people take photographs of butterflies and I'm sure that all have a technique, that they've developed over time, which will not be the same as mine. All I can say is that this blog contains methods and techniques that work for me and, hopefully, it will work for others wishing to improve their butterfly photography too.


THE CAMERA

My personal camera preference for photography is Nikon cameras and lenses. I mostly use either a Nikon D850 (FX-format) or a Nikon D7500 (DX-format) camera with Nikon 105mm Macro and Nikon 80-400mm telephoto lenses. I have considered the switch to a mirrorless camera, but the benefits don’t seem worth the cost at the moment. With butterflies, it doesn’t really matter if it’s a full-frame FX camera or a smaller frame DX camera. A lot of photographers assume that a full frame (35mm) sensor is much better than the smaller DX sensor, but this is wrong in many instances. For landscapes, portraits, weddings etc the FX sensor would be my preferred choice but, outside of that, the choice becomes much more blurred. For photographing small things, like butterflies, it is the lens that is important and not the size of the camera sensor. There is no point in having an expensive full-frame, 45mp camera and then cropping the image to the size of a smaller sensor, just to end up with exactly the same result. The following set of test images explain the difference between FX and DX camera sensors for butterfly photography, please excuse the subject, I couldn’t persuade a butterfly to pose for long enough!!

DX-format photograph at 5568 x 3712px

FX-format photograph at 8256 x 5504px (35mm)

FX-format photograph cropped to the same 5568 x 3712px as the DX-format image


These photographs were taken with both FX and DX cameras using a 105mm macro lens. The smaller DX sensor effectively magnifies the image by 1.5x, which would be the same as using a 157mm lens on the full-frame camera. The FX photo was cropped to make the image identical, in size, to the DX photo and there is barely any discernible difference between them. It clearly makes little difference whether you use an FX or DX format DSLR camera for your butterfly photographs. While I pretty much use my DX Nikon D850 for all my butterfly photography, mainly because of many additional options available on the camera, the DX camera does have a few benefits over an FX that are worth noting.

  1. The DX camera is smaller and lighter than the FX camera, which can be quite a bonus when out for hours with it dangling round your neck.

  2. The 1.5x magnification in the viewfinder makes it a lot easier to set up your shot, and you can afford to give the butterfly a bit more space, and gain a bit of DoF.

  3. The native RAW files are smaller, so you can take many more photos without worrying about filling your card up.


THE BUTTERFLY

When you're trying to take close-up or macro photographs, it is important to understand exactly what it is you're trying to photograph. In the case of butterflies, it's safe to say that while they all look the same basic shape, there's big differences between them that make it a challenge. Some are big, some are tiny, some sit with their wings open and some immediately close their wings on landing. All will let you line up the perfect photo and then fly off a millisecond before you press the shutter, it's just the way butterflies are!!

Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui)


It is very important to get a good position when trying to photograph a butterfly, your photograph can look completely different depending on the angle you take the shot from. The above pictures of a Painted Lady show how different a shot can look and how much of the butterfly needs to be in focus. Taking sideways and top-down photographs is the easiest way to achieve good focus on the butterfly and most cameras and lenses will cope well with achieving it. If the butterfly is sat at an angle or has its wings half open then there is much more of it that needs to be in focus. This problem is greatly increased if the butterfly has its wings open, perfect focus can be obtained if you're looking straight at it but, if there's any angle involved, then the the area that needs to be in focus becomes far greater to the point where it is almost impossible to achieve.


In this image of a Southern Festoon, you can easily see the soft focus on the wings which spoil an otherwise good butterfly photo. This focus problem is called Depth of Field (DOF) and is the key consideration when photographing butterflies, or anything, in close-up.





This image has the same DOF as the above photo but is taken side-on. This allows every part of the butterfly to be within the focus range of the lens and camera, the next section explains a range of methods to consistently achieve it.




DEPTH OF FIELD

I have explained that Depth of Field (DOF) is a major factor to take into account when photographing butterflies but, what exactly is it, and why is it so important?


Depth of Field (DOF) is the distance between the closest objects and the farthest objects in a photograph that will be in focus. There are several factors that have an effect on the DOF but all are not, necessarily, helpful when you are trying to get a close up photo of a butterfly.

  1. The APERTURE (f/number) has a very significant effect on DOF. The wider you set the lens aperture (eg. f/2.8) the smaller the DOF, and the smaller you set the lens aperture (eg. f/22) the bigger the DOF. Understanding this is important when photographing butterflies as you need to ensure that you get all of the butterfly in focus. The problem here is that as your aperture gets smaller, the light getting to the sensor gets less so you have to make adjustments to the exposure triangle that will impact on the final image.

  2. The FOCAL DISTANCE means that the closer you are to your subject, the smaller the DOF, and the further away you are, the bigger the DOF. On the face of it, this isn't a very practical solution because we will always be trying to get close-up photos of the butterflies to get the highest level of detail.

  3. The FOCAL LENGTH of the lens you are using is an important factor when trying to obtain a good DOF. A wide-angle lens of 14mm will give a DOF from a couple of metres all the way to infinity but your butterfly will be tiny in the resulting image. A 500mm standard telephoto lens will allow you to make the butterfly bigger in your image but you will have to be several metres away before you can get focus on it. The resulting image will not contain the same level of detail that a close-up shot will produce.

This diagram created by Digital Camera World clearly shows the impact on DOF by each of the above factors.

A good DOF is THE most critical factor in butterfly photography, it allows you to get a sharp, well focussed image, and there are several ways to achieve this.


THE LENS

The Lens is the most important piece of equipment you'll use for butterfly photography but getting the right one can be a bit hit-and-miss. I’m sure others will have their own ideas about lenses, but I’m going to discuss what I consider to be the two best options. Modern lenses are not simply tubes of glass, they have become very sophisticated pieces of photographic equipment that contribute greatly to the final image. They can be very expensive and it is worth spending time to ensure that you know exactly what you'll be getting, and if it will suit your photography, before handing over your hard-earned cash. I won't bore you with the details (in case my wife finds out!) but, on my path to becoming an accomplished photographer, I have left many a dud lens by the roadside.


When it comes to photographing butterflies, I finally came to the conclusion that there are only two types of lenses worthy of consideration, and I now use them both exclusively. The two lenses that I use for butterfly (and many other insect) photography, are the Nikon 105mm Micro 1:2.8G ED and the Nikon 80-400 1:4.5-5.6G ED. I know that many other manufacturers (Canon, Sigma etc.) make very similar lenses and I'm sure they're just as good. Both lenses have their place in my camera bag and I often don't know which I'll be using until I get to my butterfly spot. I would say that I use the 80-400mm about 80% of the time and the 105mm for the remaining 20%


What makes the 80-400mm lens so good is that it gives me a deep DOF and is very sharp. The only drawback is that you have to be a minimum of 1.75m from the butterfly to take the shot and quite often lining up the shot from this distance is a problem. It can, however, also be an advantage because most of the time the butterfly doesn't know you're there, and doesn't get spooked.


The 105mm macro lens is designed for close-up work and is really excellent, the quality of the image at an aperture of f/20 is excellent. The problem with the lens is that it is designed for close-up (macro) photography and thus, the DOF is limited.


To show the difference in the DOF between the two lenses, the following images were created.

The 105mm lens can focus from about 30cm away from the subject. In this test image, along my computer keyboard, the camera was set at 40cm from the focus point and 5 images were taken at differing apertures of f/5.6, f/8, f/11, f/16, f/22. The results clearly show that at an aperture of f/5.6 the DOF of 0.5cm increases to a DOF of 5.0cm at f/22.

Set to 400mm, this lens can focus from 175cm away from the subject. In this test image, the camera was set at 180cm from the focus point and 5 images were taken at differing apertures of f/5.6, f/8, f/11, f/16, f/22. The results clearly show that at an aperture of f/5.6 the DOF of 2.5cm increases to a DOF of 11.0cm at f/22.


On the basis of these findings, it is clear that the 400mm lens is an outright winner when it comes to creating the deepest DOF to ensure that as much of your butterfly is in focus as possible. At the normally workable aperture of f/8-f/11 the lens can produce as much as 50mm of usable DOF whereas the 105mm lens struggles to produce 20mm, at best.


The 105mm has a trick up its sleeve that makes the choice of the lenses less simple. Using a camera flash is a simple method of achieving a good DOF for butterfly photography and is very applicable to the smaller 105mm lens.

Using a flash, you can set both an aperture of f/20 and a low ISO to get a good close-up photo of your butterfly. A ring-flash, as used for general macro photography, is a much better alternative than a standard built-in or on-camera flash. It's a very easy technique, you simply set up your camera and flash at the start of your shoot and you can fire away without changing anything but the focus point. A shutter speed of 1/250s - 1/320s means you won't have too much trouble with camera shake but it is also possible to use a tripod. There are some downsides to this method in that your images are artificially lit and can look quite unnatural with a black background because of light drop off (the light from the flash doesn’t return). Also, at a small aperture of f/20, you are not getting quite the image quality that is achievable at much lower f/numbers from your lens, due to diffraction. My 105mm macro lens will focus down to about 30cm, so detailed macro images of butterflies are quite possible. The trouble is that a 105mm lens, with a huge flash ring on the front, isn’t the best of things if you need to get close to the butterfly to achieve a good image and you can easily scare it away.


Using flash to increase the light and therefore your f/number and DOF has to be used with caution as you can end up with some rather odd-looking photographs if you're not careful.



While this photo of a Clouded Yellow is nicely in focus, the light from the flash has disappeared into the background and the image looks like it was taken at night. By ensuring that the background was closer, this photo would have looked a lot better.





This photo of a Small Tortoiseshell was taken using an on-camera flash on a very dull day. The flash was set to 'Fill Flash' so the light didn't override the natural light. The background makes the photo look far more natural.




This photo of a male and female Silver-washed Fritillary is an extreme example

of how a deep DOF can be used to create a very sharp image:


CAMERA SETTINGS

Irrespective of the camera you choose to use, there are a few camera settings that will make your butterfly photography a lot easier and improve your chances of a great photo. I cannot describe how you apply these settings to your particular camera but, if your camera supports them, you should be able to identify how to set them in your user manual.


BACK-BUTTON FOCUSSING - most cameras come out of the box with the autofocus operated by a half-press on the shutter release button. This is fine for most scenarios but a much better option is to set a button on the back of the camera to do this task. Your manual will tell you what configurable buttons are available and you will need to reprogram it for autofocus, and remove the half-press on your shutter release. You can then forget the shutter release until you’re ready, and use your right thumb to set the autofocus.


AUTOFOCUS MODES - Setting the autofocus modes to settings specifically for butterfly photography will greatly help you get good in-focus shots. The Focus Mode (AF-S, AF-C or AF-A) must always be set to AF-C, which is the mode that best deals with moving subjects and is often referred to as continuous-servo mode. This mode allows the camera to continue to adjust focus while the focus button is being pressed. Some cameras allow you to set the sensitivity of the focus tracking when the camera locks on to your subject, but I recommend leaving this in the default setting.


AUTOFOCUS AREA MODE - Most DSLR cameras use a multitude of focus points across the sensor to get an accurate focus on the image. My Nikon D850 has 153 focus points but, for butterfly photography, I have the camera set so that it only utilises the middle nine. This is because the butterfly is at the centre of my shot and I don’t want the focus point to move from the butterfly. I also have one of the front programmable buttons set so that I can instantly switch to single-point focussing for a more accurate positioning of the focus point. Again, look in your camera manual to see how to set this up.


EXPOSURE MODE

Getting the exposure correct for the butterfly is critical. Unlike landscape photography, where everything needs to be properly exposed, the butterfly is the focal point of your shot and your exposure settings need to be concentrated on it. Set the auto exposure on your camera to ‘Centre Weighted’ so that the butterfly is prioritised over the rest of the image. If your camera gives you the option, it is a good idea to set a programmable button to ‘Spot Metering’ for even more accurate exposures.

For every shot you take, you need to be aware of the ‘exposure triangle’ (ET). This simply consists of the aperture of the lens, the shutter speed, and the sensitivity of the sensor or ISO (this stands for ‘International Organisation for Standardisation’ 🤷‍♂️) If you imagine a perfectly exposed photograph, changing any of the ET’s settings will either lighten or darken the image. If you widen the aperture, the photo will become overexposed, you then need to change either the ISO or shutter speed to return the photo back to its perfect exposure.


Many beginners to photography use the camera’s ‘Auto’ exposure setting, this automatically adjusts each side of the ET to suit what the camera thinks it’s seeing. This works OK for general snapping but you can get very poor results doing something, like butterfly photography, where you need far more control over your camera to ensure consistently good photographs. There are several options available apart from the Auto setting, these are usually on a dial on top of your camera body and have the letters M, A (or Av), S (or Tv) and P. The P option is basically the same as Auto but does allow you to make some adjustments, such as ISO, which full Auto doesn’t allow. I’m putting both Auto and P camera modes together in the ‘don’t use’ category now. We are left with M (Manual mode), A (Aperture Priority mode) and S (Shutter Priority mode). With the exception of Manual mode, these modes allow you to choose either the aperture or shutter speed with the camera making the other exposure adjustments automatically.


The difference between the camera exposure modes:

Aperture Priority - Many photographers love Aperture Priority mode and, for many situations, it can be very useful as it allows you precise control over the depth of field (DoF) which changes with aperture. A wide aperture of f/2.8 will give you a much shallower DoF than a narrow aperture of f/20. This can be helpful if doing weddings or portraits where a constant shallow DoF is needed, and a much deeper one with a landscape photograph. The camera automatically adjusts the shutter speed to suit the aperture that has been set, a fast shutter for wide apertures and a slower one for narrow apertures, in the same situation.

Shutter Priority - This mode lets you control the camera's shutter speed while the camera automatically adjusts the lens aperture to suit. Very fast shutter speeds such as 1/4000sec are good for fast moving objects like butterflies in flight or Hummingbird Hawkmoths, lower shutter speeds at around 1/250 sec are more practical for a sitting Butterfly.

Manual - As the name suggests, this mode allows you to make adjustments to both the aperture and shutter speed without any auto help from the camera. It can be quite daunting when you first try it, but with practice you will realise how powerful it is and it will become your default for nearly all your photography. It is not strictly true that everything in the ET becomes fully manual, you can still set the camera to automatically adjust the ISO within a range that you set…………. more on this later, as it’s a very important part of getting a good photograph.


SENSOR SENSITIVITY (ISO) SETTINGS

In the old days of film cameras, the ‘sensor’ was the the film you put into the camera. Depending on what you wanted to photograph, you bought film with a particular ‘ASA’ rating that related to the sensitivity of the film. Today, modern digital cameras have the ‘film’ installed as a sensor that detects the light coming through the lens and its sensitivity to that light can be adjusted within the camera.


The ISO setting can be easily overlooked as it’s probably the hardest of the ET sides to understand. It is very important when trying to get detailed macro images of small things like butterflies as the ISO range that can be huge, with settings from as low as 64 to the giddy heights of >25,000, being possible. With an ISO range of this magnitude, how do you know what setting should be used for each shot? The answer is surprisingly simple……the lowest one you can get away with!


I’m not going to go into great detail about ISO settings, they vary greatly depending on the type of photography you want to do. For butterfly photography, an ISO range of 100-400 is probably all you’ll ever need, with the emphasis on 100 (or lower if your camera allows it). The reason why the lower end of the range is best is that ‘noise’ in the image increases as the ISO setting increases and, because most butterfly images need to be cropped, this can spoil an otherwise good photograph. It should be noted that there are some excellent noise-reduction software that can significantly improve the image if noise is a problem.

A very grainy photograph of an Ilex Hairstreak shot with a high ISO

The same photograph having been put through a Denoise program


Many cameras have an auto ISO sensitivity control which allows you to set your optimum (low) ISO and also a maximum ISO that the camera can go up to if necessary. If you set the optimum sensitivity to 100 and the Auto ISO control to 400 then your exposure settings will fall somewhere between the two. Personally, I never use this because I find it too easily goes to the highest setting and I’m always checking it. I prefer to set the ISO for the photography I’m doing and then I don’t have to think about it unless the exposure is so limited that I need to change it.


It is important to remember that if you double (or halve) the ISO number it changes your exposure by 1 stop. This is quite important but somewhat confusing at low ISO’s where, what appears to be a small change from ISO 64 to ISO 125 actually increases the sensor's sensitivity by 1 stop. Moving from ISO 2000 to ISO 4000 is also a 1 stop change, so bear that in mind.


IMAGE QUALITY

There are probably many options for the type of image that will be stored in your camera, these will consist of lots of JPEG options, a TIFF format and a RAW format. Ignore TIFF completely, and that leaves either JPEG or RAW, and there is much discussion about which is the best.

A default JPEG image of an

Old World Swallowtail


JPEG stands for the catchy name ‘Joint Photographic Experts Group’ and is a file format that is popular with photographers. It will, almost certainly, be the format that your final image will be saved as. Many photographers swear by the JPEG format because the camera’s internal image processor can produce a good quality final image straight from the camera. The JPEG image will look much more vibrant and colourful than the same RAW image, which will appear flat and a bit drab. The processor’s decisions about the way the JPEG image is created cannot be undone and any further editing you carry out will progressively degrade the image. File size can be a major factor for some photographers and JPEG files are much smaller than RAW files because much of the data has been lost in the processing of the final image.


The default RAW image of the

Old World Swallowtail


RAW files are essentially a digital version of the negative taken on a film camera, manufacturers name their RAW files differently, eg. Nikon is .nef and Canon uses .crw or .cr2. They all contain the image information in a completely unprocessed format which allows you far more control over the image after it’s been shot. Being completely unprocessed, they are very much larger than the equivalent JPEG file, a 45MP RAW file is about 53Mb and the same image in JPEG format is 12Mb which means you have to watch your camera’s memory card. RAW files can be edited without losing much of the original data, for instance you can leave your camera’s White Balance on auto, in the knowledge that you can change it later without affecting the image quality.


My recommendation is to forget the JPEG format and only use RAW format for your photography, only use JPEG when you have finished editing and want to save the file for distribution. Think of it like this, a RAW image is like having a film negative that you can process how you want in a darkroom, whereas a JPEG is like dropping a roll of film off at a photo store to be developed how they see fit.


SHUTTER RELEASE MODE

The shutter release mode is an important consideration when taking photographs, such as butterflies, where you will be using the camera almost exclusively hand-held. There are three settings that are normally found on the release mode dial on the top of your camera, these settings can improve your chances of a good photograph if used correctly. These modes are, Single Shot mode, Continuous High Speed mode and Mirror Up mode and you’ll need to check your camera manual for information on how to select the mode you want to use.


Single Shot Mode - this mode takes one shot every time the shutter release button is pressed. I only select this mode when using a tripod, doing landscape/astro photography or using a flash.

Continuous High Speed Mode - In this mode, the camera keeps firing off continuous frames for as long as the shutter release button is held down, and is the mode that I use most when doing butterfly or close up photography. The reason I use this mode is because I have found that even if an image looks sharp on the camera screen the focus point might not be exactly right if the camera is hand held. As a rough guide, I would say that as few as 1 in 5 identical shots produces a perfectly focussed image, the difference can be very slight, but one of them always stands out as better than the rest. If I only took a single image, I’d only get a 1:5 chance of the same result, so taking a few extra shots is well worthwhile. An additional advantage is that you might find that one image is perfectly in focus in one place but not another, and the next image is the reverse. You can then blend or focus stack the images to get a photo that is perfectly in focus overall.

Mirror Up Mode - The function of this mode is to reduce the amount of vibration produced inside the camera when you take an image. When enabled, pressing the shutter release lifts the mirror and a second press then fires the shutter. In the context of this Blog, the mode is only useful for close-up or macro photography where it can help to reduce vibrations and improve the image quality. In reality, I have not noticed any significant improvements with my macro camera/lens setup when using this mode, but it would be worth trying it.


LENS SETTINGS

Most modern lenses have switches on them that give you a variety of settings that the lens will implement when you are taking a photograph. Before you are ready to take your shots, always check that the switches are in the correct position because they can have quite an impact on your photography.

Vibration Reduction Switch - This is the most important setting so always ensure that VR (Vibration Reduction) is ON if you are shooting hand-held and OFF if you are using a tripod. The reason you need to turn it off when using a tripod is that there shouldn’t be any vibration but the lens will still be hunting for it and actually create vibrations that you don’t want.

Sometimes there is a Normal/Active switch alongside the VR switch. Normal mode compensates for random camera shake whereas Active mode compensates for continuous vibrations such as those when shooting from a moving vehicle. It should be left set to Normal for butterfly photography.

AF/MF or A/M, M/A, M Switch - This switch simply changes the lens to either Manual Focus or Auto Focus mode and for most situations you should set it to AF (A/M or M/A) unless you particularly want to use manual focussing.

Limit Switch - Not all lenses have this switch and I think it is of dubious benefit. If you have the switch, it normally has two settings such as FULL and ∞-5m and refer to the range of focus that the autofocus will attempt. Full gives the full range from the closest all the way to infinity and ∞-5m gives you from five metres to infinity. This should always be set to FULL for butterfly photography.

Lock Switch - This is a switch, normally found on zoom lenses, that locks the lens in it's closed position for transporting.


I hope that some of the information here has been helpful and you can now get butterfly photos that are sharp, and crisp with everything in focus.


Thank you for reading my Blog,


Pete Hardiman


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