- Photographic techniques - daylight
- Photographic techniques - flash
- Digital cameras and lenses
4 - Top 10 tips for butterfly photography
Digital cameras &
Point & shoot compacts and
megazooms have advanced a lot in recent years but if you are serious
about photographing butterflies you really need a DSLR or CSC camera.
Both types accept a huge range of interchangeable lenses, flashguns
and accessories making them suitable for a wide range of subjects
including landscapes, sports, portraits and wildlife as well as
DSLRs have optical viewing
systems that use mirrors and prisms to divert incoming light from the
lens to the viewfinder. When the shutter button is pressed the mirror
swings instantly out of the way, allowing the light to reach the
sensor. The viewfinders are bright but have the disadvantage that the
view is momentarily interrupted when the mirror is raised and the
shutter is open. The mechanism may also introduce vibrations which can
affect image sharpness.
CSCs dispense with mirrors and prisms.
Instead the image from the sensor is relayed to an EVF (electronic
viewfinder), and onto a live-view monitor on the rear of the camera.
There are many advantages over DSLRs - less mechanical parts, less
vibration and faster auto-focusing. Viewfinder sharpness and clarity
on the most recent models is equal to that of optical prism finders.
often asked to advise on camera purchases. "Should I get a Canon or a
Nikon?", "Who makes the best lenses?". People often claim that one
brand is better than another. I doubt if Van Gogh or Picasso descended
into brand loyalty debates about their paintbrushes!
My advice would be to steer clear of such debates. Just shortlist a
few cameras that meet your specifications, then go to a shop and
handle each of them. A camera which feels good in your hands, with
easily accessible controls and a high quality viewfinder will be
quicker and far more enjoyable to use than a fiddly, gimmick-laden but
less well designed model.
Choosing the right model
From an economic
standpoint it is advisable to buy a camera that is due to be
discontinued, because prices drop dramatically when a replacement
model is on the horizon. Upgrading to the very latest hi-spec model is
an enticing prospect however! Personally I upgrade about once every 4
years, and buy a well established and proven model. When choosing a
model I prefer to go for a camera with a superior autofocus and
metering system rather than a similarly priced model with more
megapixels or with an articulated focus screen or advanced video
Apatura iris, photographed by natural
light with a budget DSLR ©
All the major manufacturers produce a
vast range of lenses suitable for every conceivable situation,
including a wide choice of macro lenses of various focal lengths.
Always check compatibility between lenses and camera bodies by using
the charts shown on the camera manufacturer websites. Beware that
certain camera functions may not work if you fit an incompatible lens.
There are 3 basic types of lens available
- primes, zooms and macros. Don't be misled into thinking that the
so-called 'macro' facility of zoom lenses will give you results as
good as a real macro lens, it won't. The results however are quite
acceptable to many people, and it's well worthwhile having a general
purpose zoom with a close-up facility.
18-70mm zoom set at 70mm and closest focus ©
Standard kit lenses,
typically 18-70mm zooms, offer a reasonable working distance and focus
close enough to fill the picture with a medium sized butterfly. Most
manufacturers also offer longer zooms such as 18-135mm or even
18-250mm. These versatile optics will cover a huge range of subjects -
butterflies, birds, sports, portraits, landscapes etc; and can be left
permanently fixed to the camera.
The disadvantage of zoom
lenses is that they usually have a small maximum aperture. This
reduces viewfinder brightness making it harder to compose photos in
poor lighting conditions. Zoom lenses never focus as closely as true
macro lenses. They are fine for larger butterflies but they don't
focus close enough to photograph blues, coppers or skippers.
Many people find it
difficult to approach nervous butterflies, and prefer to use long
prime telephotos that enable them to shoot from further away. The
greater working distance however can often be a disadvantage as it
severely limits your choice of viewpoint. Another big problem with
such lenses is their weight, which makes them difficult to hold steady
and necessitates the use of a tripod.
If you are really serious
about butterfly photography, particularly if you want to photograph
larvae, pupae, anatomical details etc, you will need a proper macro
lens, i.e. one that will focus continually from infinity down to
life-size without needing to fiddle with switches, or to add close up
Thymelicus lineola ©
The major manufacturers
produce a range of macro lenses to cater for all needs. The light and
easy to use lenses in the 60-70mm range are fine for the more
approachable species, but butterflies are often quite nervous, so
ideally you need something longer. Most users therefore feel happier
using something in the 90-105mm range.
The best lenses
feature internal focussing, which keeps the length of the lens
constant regardless of focus distance and makes focussing much faster.
These lenses have virtually silent focus motors.
Some of the more expensive lenses also
feature image stabilisation which helps to reduce blurred images
caused by camera-shake. At macro distances their effectiveness is
limited but they will still let you use a slightly slower shutter
speed assuming of course that the subject is stationary. Beware that
image stabilisation only corrects for camera shake, it does not
correct for subject movement!
this close you need a macro lens that provides a magnification ratio
of 1:1 ©
If you are considering
buying one of the longer 150mm or 180mm macro lenses, beware that
these are a lot heavier, much more difficult to hold steady, and
slower to focus than shorter lenses. There are times when they can be
useful to photograph a distant butterfly, but for most of the time if
you approach your subject carefully you should have no difficulty
getting close with a 105mm macro.
The egg illustrated below is about the
size of a pin head. It was photographed at 1:1 scale using a 105mm
macro lens. The resulting image was then heavily cropped and
sharpened. To photograph subjects this small however it is much better
to mount the lens on a long extension tube or bellows. These allow the
lens to focus a lot closer, down to about 2x magnification.
Unfortunately there are two major problems when using extension tubes
or bellows. Firstly the amount of light reaching the sensor is greatly
reduced, making it very difficult to see the image in the viewfinder.
Secondly such set-ups are cumbersome, and are almost impossible to use
without the aid of a strong tripod.
Another alternative is to mount a 10
dioptre close-up lens on the front of a normal macro lens. This allows
more light to reach the viewfinder, making composition and focussing a
lot easier. Close-up lenses are much cheaper than tubes or bellows.
Unfortunately their optical quality is poor, but if you use an
aperture of F11-16 the loss of sharpness is minimised and the results
are fairly acceptable.
Brown Hairstreak egg
Thecla betulae, actual size about 1mm