Butterflies are one of the easiest and most rewarding subjects to shoot for a wildlife photographer, especially if you visit one of the many butterfly hot houses around the world. They are usually slow moving, stop frequently to rest and are usually unfazed by a photographer getting in close with a camera. They are also incredibly varied and colourful, often resulting in strikingly vibrant images. Butterflies are one of my favourite things to photograph, and over the years I’ve picked up a handful of useful rules of thumb on how to get the best results.
Unlike most wildlife photography, butterfly photography does not require expensive fast lenses with long focal lengths; all you really need is a macro lens with a maximum magnification of 1:2 or greater. A fast maximum aperture like f/2 can be useful in some circumstances, but most of the time you’ll end up stopping down the aperture anyway because at close range the depth of field will be too shallow at maximum aperture. After accounting for your tolerance for size and weight, longer focal lengths are generally better because they give you a larger working distance, making it easier to frame the subject without casting a shadow over it.
The first non-kit lens I bought was the Olympus 35mm f/3.5 1:1 macro lens. It cost £140 and was responsible for many of my best ever macro shots. Today I use the Olympus 60mm f/2.8 which also has 1:1 magnification and before that I used to use the Olympus 50mm f/2 with a maximum magnification of 2:1. I’ve had good results with all three. They are light and compact and serve a double purpose as portrait lenses.
I got a free macro ring flash from Olympus in a promotion when I bought my E-3 camera and it does prove very useful in some circumstances. For macro, a ring flash is the simplest and most convenient lighting accessory although there are various bracket systems you can buy which allow you to attach and position speed lights near to the lens with greater flexibility in direction of light.
If you can afford to invest in a macro flash lighting system they can be really useful in some situations, but they are by no means essential. If you don’t have one, don’t bother trying to use a standard hotshoe-mounted flash; you are too close to the subject for the light to reach the subject, and even if you move it off-camera and next to the lens you will probably get horribly unnatural directional light.
As with any flash photography, for the best results you need to correctly balance the artificial light with the available light to avoid unnatural looking results. A ring flash works best as a fill-in flash, lighting the side of the subject that is in shadow. Used in this way you should expose for the available light and use only as much flash power as is necessary to fill in the shadows on the wing nearest to you.
My best results with butterflies are taken from a side-on angle. Pointing downwards can be tempting if the butterfly has perched on a flower or leaf that is low to the ground, but in my experience that almost always results in including distracting plant stalks and leaves in the composition. As with portraiture, isolating the subject from the background produces the most pleasing results and to that end you want to select an angle in which the background behind the subject is as far from the subject as possible.
Getting closer to the subject usually makes for a more interesting composition – I typically aim to fill about half the frame with the butterfly although it’s definitely worth trying some extreme close-ups on wing details and the butterfly’s head if you have time before it flies away. Generally butterflies are easier to photograph with closed wings parallel to the camera’s sensor because you can get the whole wing in focus with a wide aperture, allowing for better separation of subject and background. You should always focus on the closest eye, otherwise the photo will appear incorrectly focused to the viewer irrespective of what else is in focus.
There is a great amount of variety in the speed and temperament of butterfly species. In the UK, the Comma butterfly for example is particularly difficult to photograph because it is a fast flyer and lands infrequently and for short periods of time. In the wild you can expect to spend more time chasing them around than photographing them. Depending on the species, location and abundance of butterflies, your best bet may be to find a spot near some flowers that the butterflies like and stay put, waiting for the butterflies to come to you rather than chasing them all over the place. The other option is to go somewhere custom made for easy access: a butterfly hot house.
Butterfly hot houses
A butterfly hot house is a popular tourist attraction with free-flying butterflies in an enclosed space, typically a greenhouse pumped full of hot air. There are quite a few dedicated butterfly hot houses dotted around the world, and many zoos and museums have small butterfly enclosures although the dedicated sites tend to offer a much greater variety of species. Hot houses usually have a path that loops through the building lined with tropical plants and a relatively abundant supply of tropical butterflies. Tickets are usually quite cheap and they welcome photographers. They are humid and as you first enter your lens will steam up, but give it a minute and it will adjust to the ambient temperature.
Although there are around 17,500 species of butterflies, hot houses mostly tend to stock the same few species – particularly the smaller venues. Expect to see the Owl butterfly, the Blue Morpho, the Giant Atlas Moth and the White Tree Nymph among a handful of other staple species. I’ve never quite figured out why this is the case, though I suspect it’s a combination of factors that include lifespan, ease of breeding, flight speed, predilection for landing on the ground (and being stepped on), feeding plant requirements and capacity to impress visitors with large wings and vibrant colours. Hot houses almost always have an annexe containing spiders and other insects and maybe the odd reptile.
In the UK I can particularly recommend the Stratford Butterfly Farm in Stratford-upon-Avon. It’s a comparatively large site with separate caterpillar room, spider room and mini reptilarium. The main butterfly enclosure is nicely landscaped around a large central koi pond and features an unusually large range of butterfly species. The best hot houses I’ve visited are the Phuket Butterfly Garden and Insect World in Thailand and the Kuala Lumpur Butterfly Park in Malaysia. Understandably European sites can’t really compete with sites where the world’s most exotic butterflies can be found locally and the heat is natural!
There used to be a great hot house in Syon Park called the London Butterfly House but it was razed in 2007 to make room for a hotel complex. Butterfly World in St. Albans was announced several years ago with grand plans to become the largest butterfly enclosure in Europe, but it has apparently struggled to get funding to complete development of the site due to the financial crisis. It has been open to the public as an uncompleted attraction for years featuring some landscaped gardens and a small temporary hot house, and the team behind it still seem optimistic that the centrepiece of their site will eventually get built although they’ve stopped making predictions about exactly when. If and when it does, I will be first in line for an annual pass.