How To Photograph Butterflies


Checkerspot Baltimore

Photographing Butterflies

Butterflies are virtually everywhere inhabited by humans. From the most urban of environs to the Arctic tundra, these delicate, gossamer-winged creatures flourish. Even a city garden can provide opportunity to witness the free show butterflies stage all around us.


Watching butterflies has become a popular activity.  While most butterfly watchers carry binoculars, more are beginning to take pictures, keeping track of what they see. Sharing the beauty with others and getting help with identification when need be.


Photographing butterflies is fun and easier than ever before. It can be as simple or as involved as you like.


Thanks to revolutionary digital technology, almost anyone can take beautiful images of Nature. Sometimes you don’t even need to own a camera! Smartphones take decent quality photographs for emailing and posting on the Internet, and they’re only going to get better. You can even buy close-up adaptors for your phone, so you can take detailed macro images.


Your phone not only takes the picture, it can record the exact time and location, edit the image and distribute your picture wherever you want to, almost instantly. It can even shoot high-definition video. For many people, there’s no point in having an actual camera anymore if they have a Smartphone.


For those who want to take better pictures than a cell phone or tablet can take, digital Point and Shoot cameras are the next step up. They’re compact, very affordable and loaded with features. They provide more creative control and produce higher quality images.


For people who want complete control and take advantage of the highest quality optics, the next step up would be a DSLR (Digital Single Lens Reflex) camera with interchangeable lenses.


No matter what your current equipment, here’s an easy way to start. Simply cut out a paper butterfly shape with scissors. Pin or paper clip your faux butterfly to a flower, and take a series of photographs. See how close you can get with what you have. Some people like to fill the frame with their subject—others prefer to document the butterfly and its environment. There’s no right or wrong—each to their own.


Find a Great Camera Store!

The first rule of photography is: have fun—anything goes! The second, for me at least, is: find a great camera store! Sure, you might save a few bucks buying online, but at least when you’re starting out, good advice can save you way more in the long run.


In my experience, good camera store people know their stuff, and they’re happy to share their knowledge. Take your photographs to a reputable, locally owned specialty store. Sometimes even the big box stores have great local people who know their stuff working in the camera department, so that’s an option too.  Show them your test shots and see what they say.


You can learn all you need to get started this way. Most knowledgeable camera people are eager to share their expertise with you. If you don’t find anyone at one store helpful, keep looking—it will be worth it.


My hope is you’ll find someone you can trust, whose answers aren’t always about spending your money in their store. If they recommend you purchase a new camera for the job, and you aren’t willing or able to spend outrageous sums of money, ask them about used equipment. Yesterday’s best digital camera might be more than capable of doing the job, for a lot less than the latest and greatest model.


Some stores will allow you to try a camera out for a short period of time if you pay for it up front, and return it in perfect, “new” condition, or they might have some good used equipment you can try out and return if necessary. Digital cameras are constantly being improved and there are some photographers who always need to have the latest model. They trade their old one in for pennies on the dollar, and you can benefit from that. Some of those used Nikon Coolpics and Canon Powershots are very capable indeed.


Digital cameras are so superior to film for beginners; they’re the only way to go. The learning curve is infinitely shortened by the luxury of instant feedback. You can see your mistakes and make adjustments in real time. In my day, film was expensive and unforgiving. Sometimes I had to wait a week to see my results, and by then I might not remember what I did—then I’d have to shoot a whole roll of film and wait another week to see if the adjustments made my photographs better or even worse.


Today, cameras are so sophisticated that they can capture a reasonable facsimile of almost anything in front of them. You don’t need to know an f-word from an ƒ-stop (unless you want to).


I know a very successful, National Award-winning professional portrait photographer who confessed to me that she didn’t know what an ƒ-stop was. I promised not to tell on her, so I won’t divulge her name, but it illustrates my point. She makes a good living from her work, but has no clue about the nuts and bolts of photography. I’d argue that knowing all the technical stuff is extremely helpful, but I also need to be honest—it’s no longer absolutely essential.


Continue to Part 2