Photographing Butterflies in a Butterfly Exhibit or a Garden Setting

Anne Belmont
Learn some helpful tips to master the art of butterfly photography in a butterfly exhibit or garden setting.

In garden settings and in butterfly exhibits there are many opportunities to photograph butterflies. Check to see if you have a butterfly exhibit near you, or in an area you are visiting. In Chicago, we have a summer exhibit in a large outdoor mesh enclosure at Chicago Botanic Garden and a year-round indoor exhibit at Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum. Butterflies are a fascinating and beautiful subject, but they can be challenging to capture. I hope to provide you with some useful tips to help you find success in photographing these magical creatures.

Butterfly exhibits are often part of botanic gardens and museums, giving you opportunities to see and photograph exotic butterflies that may not be native to your area. If you are visiting a butterfly exhibit, take a few minutes to look around and observe the butterflies when you enter. You will begin to learn which flowers, plant life, or trees are most popular, and will begin to anticipate where the butterflies might land or like to hang out. Butterflies are less active in the early morning, making them easier to photograph.

Lens Choice, Camera Mode, and Aperture

I often choose to photograph butterflies with a 100mm macro lens because the lens offers image stabilization, a feature that is helpful in handholding. A longer focal length lens, such as a 180 macro or a 70-300mm zoom lens, can be helpful to photograph butterflies that are farther away. The longer focal length allows you to keep some distance so you do not startle the butterfly, and also helps to create beautiful, blurred backgrounds. Alternatively, I might reach for my Lensbaby lenses, particularly my Velvet 85mm, to photograph butterflies. The subtle glow of the Velvet and surrounding blur creates magical images with beautiful backgrounds. If you have focus peaking technology in your camera and are using a manual focus lens, that will help get the eye, body, and wings successfully in focus.

I recommend shooting in aperture priority camera mode (A or AV) so that you can change your aperture quickly as the situation demands. I generally use apertures between f/4-f/13 in my butterfly photography. Choice of aperture depends on how close you are to the butterfly and how much detail or blur you want in the surrounding elements or background. If you are including the flower the butterfly is resting on, you may want more depth of field to get both the butterfly and the flower in focus. It will take some experimenting to find the apertures that work best with your lens. Experiment with a range of apertures on each subject to ensure you get the image you envision. If a butterfly is moving quickly from flower to flower, you may not have the luxury of time to experiment and may have to make a quick decision about aperture. It will become more intuitive with time and practice.

Monarch on Dahlia 'Bashful,' Chicago Botanic Garden, Lensbaby Velvet 85mm, f/5.6

 Photo ©Anne Belmont

Tripods or Monopods vs. Handholding

Tripods and monopods are usually not allowed in butterfly exhibits. You can certainly use a tripod or monopod when photographing outdoors, but keep in mind that butterflies move quickly and usually don’t rest on flowers very long. You might have more success handholding, allowing you to change positions quickly.

When handholding, make sure your shutter speed is high enough to avoid blurring your subject. You may need to increase your ISO to get a higher shutter speed with your chosen aperture. As a rule of thumb, you should use a minimum shutter speed equal to the focal length of your lens. For example, with a 100mm lens, use a shutter speed of at least 1/100th of a second. A lens with image stabilization will also help when handholding.

White Morpho Butterfly, Chicago Botanic Garden, 100mm Macro, f/11

 Photo ©Anne Belmont

Light

Light in butterfly exhibits can be harsh and contrasty on sunny days. Photographing butterflies on overcast days when light is diffuse and soft is ideal. On a sunny day, however, look for butterflies in shaded areas or use a small diffuser to soften the light. Remember that shading a butterfly may cause it to fly away because it is seeking sunlight to warm its wings. Move slowly and be ready to capture your image quickly.

Some exhibits allow the use of flash or a macro ring light to illuminate the butterfly and help darken the background. A flash or ring light will also help to even out light in bright, contrasty conditions. Check exhibit policies or ask a staff member before using a flash or ring light.

Some butterfly exhibits also have moths, like this large and spectacular Atlas Moth, 100mm Macro, f/8

 Photo ©Anne Belmont

Positioning and Backgrounds

Hold your camera parallel to the entire length of the butterfly to ensure you get the eyes, body, and wings in focus. When using autofocus on your lens, move the focus point to the eye of the butterfly – this is the most critical point to have sharply in focus. Don’t forget to include the entire length of the antennae in your composition. If you are using a manual focus lens and your camera has focus peaking technology, it will help get all the essential elements in focus.

Pay careful attention to your background while composing your image. A distracting background will pull the eye away from the butterfly. Look for darker backgrounds free of hot spots and backgrounds that are set back a bit. If including colorful flowers set behind the butterfly, use a lower/wider open aperture that will successfully create a beautifully blurred background.

Orchard Swallowtail Butterfly photographed with dark foliage in background, Chicago Botanic Garden, 100mm macro, f/6.3

 Photo ©Anne Belmont

Capturing Details Up-Close and Stages of Development

I have found that when butterflies are resting, especially earlier in the morning, they often don’t mind you getting close to capture details. If you are using a macro lens, move in carefully and do some close-ups of the head, eyes, proboscis or patterns on the wings. If using a longer focal length zoom, stand back and zoom in to capture those details. Experiment with unique compositions – perhaps the underside of a butterfly staring right at you!

If the exhibit includes a window into the pupa emergence room, you might capture a butterfly emerging from a chrysalis. These make for interesting images and help tell the story of the stages of butterfly development.

Many exhibits have butterfly guides or posters identifying the different butterflies within the exhibit. Take a picture of the guide or poster to help you remember the names of each butterfly.

Blue Clipper Butterfly Close-Up, Chicago Botanic Garden, Macro Ring Light, 100mm Macro, f/8

 Photo ©Anne Belmont

Capturing Butterflies in a Garden Setting

You don’t have to have access to a butterfly exhibit to photograph butterflies. You will likely find butterflies in the warmer months wherever there are flowers, whether a botanic garden, public park, prairie, or your own home garden. Prairie areas are wonderful places to find butterflies, especially monarchs, where their food source, milkweed, is prevalent. In garden settings, a longer focal length zoom, such as a 70-200mm, 70-300mm, or 100-400mm, is helpful to create some distance between you and your subject so you are less likely to startle the butterfly. It will also serve to create beautiful background blur.

 

Monarch in the Prairie, Chicago Botanic Garden, 70-300mm, f/5.6

 Photo ©Anne Belmont

Butterflies are a symbol of growth, transformation, and renewal. It is no wonder we are drawn to these beautiful subjects in nature. Take some time to learn about the butterflies you photograph and perhaps plant some flowers in your garden that attract and help sustain them. Butterflies, like many wildlife subjects, take patience and practice to capture successfully, but the rewards and joy in capturing these miracles of nature are many.

Anne Belmont

Anne Belmont is one of Out of Chicago’s diverse team of world-class photographers. To learn more about Anne and our photography conferences she’s teaching at, click here.

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