This past two weeks Chris Smith and I have organized and run two private photo shoots at the Butterflies and Blooms exhibit at the Chicago Botanic Garden for the 'Out of Chicago' community. I came up with a list of 10 tips for shooting butterflies in the exhibit but many of these tips can also be applied to shooting butterflies in your home gardens or outdoors at CBG. My butterfly garden at home has been busy with monarchs feeding on the milkweed and Tiger Swallowtails enjoying the butterfly bushes. I was able to capture this beautiful Tiger Swallowtail yesterday.
10 Tips for Photographing Butterflies
Take a few minutes to look around and observe the butterflies when you enter the exhibit. You will quickly learn which flowers are most popular and begin to anticipate where they might land and where some butterflies like to hang out. In the early morning they are less active making them easier to photograph. Watch each and every step you take; butterflies love to rest on the path and have even been seen mating on the path!
Look for butterflies without damaged or tattered wings and those resting on flowers. Include the flower in your composition.
If you have Image Stabilization on your lens, use it if hand-holding!
Use aperture priority so that you can change your aperture quickly as the situation demands. With my 100mm macro I find that f7.1 - f11 are usually the best apertures to get the whole butterfly in focus but keep the background blurred. If I am including a flower in the photograph and need more depth of field to get the flower in focus, I will increase the aperture number accordingly. It will take some experimenting to get to know what apertures work best with your lens.
Make sure your shutter speed is high enough to avoid blurring if you are hand-holding your camera. You may have to increase your ISO to accommodate a higher shutter speed with the appropriate aperture. You are also allowed to use flash within the exhibit if you want to use it to illuminate the butterfly or darken your background.
Hold your camera parallel to the entire length of the butterfly to ensure getting the eyes, body and wings in focus. I move my focus point to the head/eye of the butterfly. This is the most critical part to have sharply in focus. Don't forget to make sure the antennae are included in your shot.
Pay attention to your background while composing your shot. Sometimes moving a tiny bit will eliminate a bright spot or create a less distracting background.
If you are using a macro lens move in close and do some close-ups of the head, eyes and proboscis or the patterns on the wings.
Experiment with catching butterflies in flight and dreamier shots with wide apertures.
Don't forget to check out the action in the pupa emergence room window. You might catch a butterfly emerging from its chrysalis or a butterfly with its underside pressed up against the glass.