How To Photograph Butterflies

Part Three

Checkerspot Baltimore

Photographing Butterflies
Part Three: Cameras & Macro Gear

Macro Concepts and Terminologies

Close-up photography is often referred to as “macro-photography” or “photomacrography”. This refers to taking pictures approaching “life size”.


What is “life size”? Life size means less in the digital realm than it did in 35mm photography, but the terminology is still in use.


Conventional 35mm SLR cameras use film that’s 35mm wide. Each frame, located between the sprockets that ran along each side of the film, was exactly 36mm by 24mm (lengthwise on the film). Life size meant that the subject was the exact same size in real life as its image appeared on the film. So if you were shooting an object that was 1/4 inch long in real life, it was rendered as 1/4 inch long on the developed film. If that same subject was ½ inch long on the film, you’d express that as 2x life size (or 2:1) and so forth.


With digital, of course, there is no film, so you can’t actually measure, but you get the picture, so to speak. The physical dimensions of the image sensor isn’t as relevant as it used to be, but we still use that old-fashioned film/subject ratio to describe 1x, 2x, etc.


Most lenses that say “macro” (or “micro” as Nikon prefers) will provide up to life size reproduction. To further complicate matters, APS format cameras have such a smaller sensor than a so-called full-frame digital camera, such that 1x magnification is essentially equivalent to 1.6x, which is a significant consideration.


An APS format sensor renders your 100mm macro more or less equal to the way a 160mm macro would function on a full-frame DSLR. Your 200mm functions like it was a 320mm lens in terms of magnification.


The APS sensor possesses another considerable advantage for the macro photographer over the full-frame sensor: the smaller the sensor, the greater the depth of field. It’s complicated physics, so I encourage you to look that up on Wikipedia some day if you’re interested.


The point I’m trying to make here is, for the macro enthusiast, a full-frame DSLR isn’t as advantageous as you might think. While a landscape photographer might prefer a full-frame camera (wider wide angles), the APS format camera is more beneficial to the nature photographer who wants to shoot close-ups. With us, working distance is precious, as is depth of field.


The Digital Revolution

If you’ve ever used conventional film cameras, as I have for most of my life, you really appreciate the luxury of digital—especially if you were already comfortable with computers.


Back in the day, I was abundantly aware that each press of the shutter release cost me a significant amount of money. Just as important, I only could afford so many rolls of film each season, so each shot diminished my film reserves. Kodachrome came in rolls of 24 or 36 exposures, so I always had to ration them out. I could rarely afford to experiment as one can freely do now with digital.


I bought my first DSLR on January 1st, 2004 (a silver bodied, 6.3 megapixel Canon Rebel 300D). I fully expected to use the film camera for more serious work, but guess what? I haven’t used film for my Nature Photography since that day. I continued using medium and large 4x5 format studio cameras for a few more years, until those cameras also became obsolete, but I never went back to shooting 35mm film.


Whether your images end up in an email or gracing the pages of National Geographic magazine, virtually every picture goes through a computer at some point. Starting with a digital original simply makes sense for most photographers. Even expensive, high-end scans of film rarely approach the quality of the original. Digital images cost a lot less, they’re much more convenient and virtually instant. You don’t have to work within the constraints and limitations of film and you no longer have to go through the time-consuming, quality-wasting process of scanning. If you’ve ever scanned transparencies, you know how tricky that can be.  A decent digital RAW file surpasses the quality of a great scan, so it’s no longer practical for me to use film.


Point & Shoot or DSLR?

When you’re learning photography, digital point-and-shoot cameras are a good place to start. A good many of us never need a DSLR. In fact, some pro DSLR users have recognized several advantages to owning a point-and-shoot digital for certain situations. The smaller sensor intrinsically has better depth of field, and you can make creative use of the built-in wide angle close-focusing lens, to take pictures that would be unthinkable with a DSLR.


If you do choose a DSLR, you’ll probably find them more demanding. They’re more expensive, more complicated and sometimes, less forgiving. You’ll need to decide on lenses. Most DSLRs don’t come with a decent macro focusing lens. All-purpose lenses yield the best results with “normal” use—wide angle to portrait range.


Every camera lens is a series of compromises: an attempt to tease the laws of physics into giving the manufacturer the best results for the photographer.  Macro lenses are optimized to deliver the highest resolution (and less distortion, chromatic aberration, etc.) at closer distances, so almost any macro will be significantly better for close-ups than an all-purpose lens that attempts to be all things to all people. There’s a big difference between a lens designed to work best from 6 feet to infinity, and one optimised for use between 2 inches and 2 feet away.


Professional or Consumer DSLR?

While there are advantages to buying a top-of-the-line DSLR, I’ve always bought lower end consumer DSLR bodies. You can take perfectly professional images with them as long as your lenses are good. In the pre-digital era, you’d buy a camera body and it would last a decade or more, so you invested in a tough, reliable body. Camera models didn’t change radically from year to year back then. Film was the most upgradeable component.  Basically, all your camera did was hold your film in position behind good optics and provide you the controls necessary to expose the film the way you wanted.


These days a pro level digital camera isn’t a great long-term investment. Expect it to be obsolete within 3 or 4 years—long before even a cheaper camera will wear out. I prefer to use a good consumer-end body and upgrade more often. The cheaper body isn’t as durable, but it doesn’t have to be.


Avail Yourself of Camera and Lens Reviews

Before you buy a camera, there are some awesome resources available on the Internet. You’ll find a multitude of exhaustive tests and opinions about every single camera or lens you could possibly consider. Sometimes these tests go into far more detail than you need, so you can skip to the final recommendations, unless you like that kind of thing.


Google “best camera for Nature photography” and you’ll find dozens of recommendations from people who have experience with various equipment you might be considering.


I also highly recommend Wikipedia for more information on any of the terminologies or concepts mentioned here. There are some excellent resources and diagrams out there.


The Macro Lens

Macro Lenses are the most effective and convenient piece of equipment for excellent close-up photography. These lenses typically result in technically superior quality images in the macro range. Not surprisingly, they come at a price. Expect anywhere from $500 and $1,500 for a new brand-name macro lens.


If you’re just starting out, or you can’t afford a new macro lens, see the list of macro accessories below. There are other, more affordable ways to take close-ups of Nature that won’t break the bank.


Another approach: you might consider buying a used macro lens online. Even a used off-brand macro—some of them are well worth considering. You should be able to re-sell a used lens for close to what you paid for it if you decide macro photography’s not for you, or if you decide you want a new, brand-name lens down the road.


These lenses are specifically designed and calibrated to work best in the macro range. They usually allow you to focus from life size to infinity and will double as a decent portrait lenses too. A 50, 55, or 60mm macro lens is best for photographing nature that won’t run (or fly) away on you (still life, products, stamps/coins, botany, museum specimens, etc.).


I recommend a 90, 100, or 105mm lens for live, free range insects and butterflies. They afford the photographer a comfortable working distance and they work well with extension tubes, should you care to get even closer.


Some manufacturers offer 180mm or 200mm macro lenses that are very nice, but more expensive as well. They don’t work as well with some close up accessories such as macro flash rigs since the working distance is more substantial. They’re difficult to keep steady, but they're great for subjects like dragonflies, which can be very skittish and often perch in out-of-reach places. You can make them work, but personally, I prefer to stick around 100mm.


Choosing a Prime Macro Lens

Fixed focal length macro lenses come in many sizes. Having at least tried most prime macro lens focal lengths, I can offer some advice.


Most prime (non-zoom) macro lenses range from a focal length of 50mm to 200mm. For what I do, I prefer somewhere between 80 and 105mm for use with the APS format DSLRs. You might talk me into a 200mm with a “full frame” digital camera, but for APS, I find them too challenging to hold steady. Keep in mind that an APS sensor renders a 200mm lens like a 320mm lens would behave on a so-called full-frame, 24x36mm sensor (or 35mm film).


If you’re aiming for maximum depth of focus and a high shutter speed: the longer the lens, the more challenging that becomes. However: if you like shallow depth of field, to achieve a blurred, out of focus background, you should probably opt for the longer lens.


Other Macro Photography Accessories

When I bought my first 35mm SLR, it came with a 55mm “standard” lens that only focused down to 18 inches from the subject—nowhere near close enough for what I wanted to shoot. I needed something affordable that would get me much closer.


While buying a macro lens is the ideal, there are other options worth considering on a tight budget. It was several years before I could afford one, so here are some less expensive accessories that will allow you to get closer to the subjects you want to photograph. Some of the following items can also be used in conjunction with a macro lens to get you even closer than they can straight out of the box.


Extension Tubes are hollow tubes of various lengths that mount between the camera and the lens. They offer a stable way to move your lens farther from the film (sensor) plane, which allows you to take much more extreme close-ups than you could normally.


A 100mm focal length lens requires 100mm of extension to achieve life size (1x). A 50mm tube would result in a ½ life sized magnification factor, etc.


While there are no optics in an extension tube, few lenses were designed to work that far from the sensor. Tubes allow you to get closer, but you might lose some image quality.


Extension tubes, like close-up filters, must be removed for more distant focusing. With tubes you need to remove the lens from the camera, while with close-up filters, you simply unscrew them from the front of your lens.


One thing that tubes do that filters do not is they reduce the amount of light that reaches the film. A through-the-lens (TTL) light meter will adjust for this, but at higher extensions you’ll probably need a macro flash to maintain image sharpness and depth of focus. Unlike the filters, extension tubes have to be made specifically for your DSLR and may disable some of your camera’s features, such as auto focus.


Teleconverters are devices placed between the camera and lens. They consist of a short tube with a lens inside, and work by multiplying the effective focal length of your lens.


These also come in a wide range of prices and qualities depending on your needs and your budget. They let you focus at the same distance your lens would normally focus at, but will double the size you would normally expect to see in the viewfinder.


They work reasonably well for photographing butterflies, making just about any lens potentially useful for butterflies, but there are always trade-offs. Teleconverters enlarge the center portion of the light coming through the lens, which magnifies the image, but along with it, any shortcomings the lens might have. They also decrease the amount of light reaching the film, and can result in reductions in shutter speed and/or aperture (depth of focus). The main lens will appear less sharp to varying degrees as well, depending on the quality of the teleconverter.


Teleconverters can be used with both fixed (prime) and zoom lenses. They’re usually sold in 1.4x, 2x, and 3x configurations. Before you run out and buy the 3x converter, read on.


The 1.4x teleconverter is usually the best compromise in terms of final image quality—especially when it’s made by the same company as your lens and it’s recommended for use with that specific lens by the manufacturer.


A 2x teleconverter will double the effective focal length of the lens it is used with. This means a 100mm will work more like a 200mm and so on, but you lose more light and resolution than with the 1.4x.


While the 3x sounds good in theory, it is practically useless for high quality imaging. Most serious manufacturers don’t even offer a 3x since the loss of light and poor image sharpness is very noticeable.


If you do opt for a teleconverter, make certain it works with your model of camera and lens to ensure full functionality.


Close-Up Filters, mentioned previously, are like reading glasses for your camera. They’re lenses that screw onto the front of a camera lens to magnify the image. They come in several strengths, and various price and quality ranges but are usually the least expensive way to achieve closer focusing. Close-up filters have more or less universal adaptability and can allow inexpensive cameras to focus closer than they were originally designed to. For a relatively small cost, you can adapt an existing lens to focus considerably closer than normal. You can even buy close-up lenses for your smart phone.


Consider that they are somewhat cumbersome to use since you have to put them on to take close-ups and take them off again to focus farther away. Because they extend the camera’s lens to an extreme not intended by the manufacturer, expect them to be less sharp from corner to corner than a prime macro lens. They might also introduce various distortions and aberrations, which you may or may not notice. Cheaper close-up filters are less likely to have optical coatings, so they’re more likely to produce lens flare when shooting toward the sun.


Unlike Extension Tubes and Teleconverters, Close-up Filters do not interfere with lens couplings and do not substantially reduce the amount of light reaching the sensor.


Reverse Adaptors allow you to mount your camera lens on backwards. Why would you want to do that? Mounted back to front, a prime lens will focus a lot closer, but you have no access to any of the functions that were connected through the normal lens mount—including focus.


Best do some research on the Internet or get some advice from your camera salesperson to figure how to do this and when it might be advantageous with your specific make, model and lens. Sometimes these are used with extension tubes or bellows at higher magnifications to improve resolution.


Lens Stacking is a somewhat more complicated macro technique that I wouldn’t want to delve into here. Search “lens stacking macro” for more on that, somewhat complicated technique, if you’re so inclined.


Bellows Units are basically accordion-like, flexible extension tubes, varying the distance between the lens and camera body.  They are continuously adjustable between minimum and maximum lengths. These often are not considered practical for field use because they are easily damaged and often sever connections that extension tubes can maintain, disabling features built into lenses. Bellows units are best left to serious amateurs and professionals to use in more controlled environments.


Zoom Lenses with Macro Capability are multi-purpose lenses that will work with varying degrees of success for photographing butterflies. If you want one lens that does it all for you, you may be able to find one of these that will get you started without having to attach and re-attach accessories. Unfortunately, most of these are not ideal for photographing butterflies. Frequently, the macro-focusing range is available only in the widest angle of the zoom range, and the magnification rarely approaches that of a prime macro lens. Since the macro range is usually at the widest angle of the zoom range, you will have to get very close to your wary subject. Look for a lens that allows you to close-focus throughout its zooming range. Search the Internet for reviews of the macro zoom lens you’re interested in before you purchase one.


Tripods are great tools to help keep your camera steady, which can result in much sharper photographs—as long as the object you’re shooting is equally steady. The problem with using a tripod for butterfly photography is—the butterflies don’t naturally sit still for long, and their perches rarely do either.


Even the tiniest breath of a breeze can cancel out the benefits of a tripod in close-up work. Rarely in nature does a butterfly sit perfectly still on a perch that is as stable as your tripod. When it does, get out the tripod, but most of the time, by the time you’ve got your tripod set up, the butterfly is no longer there. For the vast majority of the macro photographs I take, a tripod is simply not worth carrying around.


Consider a monopod (a one legged tripod) for practical field use to help steady the camera, and keep your shutter speeds at 1/250th or faster when possible. If you want sharp images of moving butterflies, you need an exposure that freezes their motion, so holding a camera steady is less important than being able to follow their motion. If your camera can take rapid bursts of exposures, I’d recommend doing that when a subject is in motion or when the light conditions are less than optimal. Often one of the images will be acceptably sharp and you can discard the ones you don’t like.


In my opinion, tripods are most useful for long exposures, or for high precision image framing of relatively still objects. They are necessary when you’re using one of those enormous telephoto lenses, and they’re essential for video. Not much help for still images of living bugs, in my opinion.


Macro Flash units are used by many serious macro photographers to help them deal with several of the issues that make macro photography such a challenge. In the hands of a skilled photographer, the best of these can provide reasonably natural-looking light, while freezing motion and yielding a good depth of focus at ISO 100 or 200. Most major camera companies make their own dedicated macro flash systems, and a few flash manufacturers offer their own systems that are custom-fitted to work with the major camera brands.


Some pros build their own macro rigs that utilize mainstream flash units with custom brackets and diffusers that work very well. Recently, several manufacturers have introduced LED macro lighting gear I haven’t tested as of yet. You can find more information and detailed reviews on the Internet.


Personally, I currently use a Canon MR-14EX. While a true ringlight (or ring flash) has a circular flash tube that surrounds the front of your lens, the MR-14 employs 2 straight flash tubes in a circular housing that fits onto the front of the lens. The power/control module attaches to the camera’s hot shoe.


I’ve used both this and the more expensive (and more impressive looking) MT-24EX twin satellite flash system extensively. In my opinion, the MR-14EX is preferable for most field and studio situations. It’s quite adaptable and compact. The MT-24 is more bulky and gets caught in vegetation without providing many advantages over the simpler, less expensive MR-14. The closer proximity of the MR-14EX flash tubes to the lens axis and to your subject is also an advantage.


Experience will help you decide when to use a macro flash and when not to—or, when to use a combination of available light with a touch of fill flash.


Most of the above accessories can be used in conjunction with each other, but some combinations work better than others. For example: extension tubes or close-up filters allow a macro lens go beyond life size. A macro flash rig can help any of the other accessories to freeze motion and achieve good depth of focus with consistent results.