How to Get Started

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Butterflies are virtually everywhere. Even in the most urban of environs, these gossamer-winged creatures somehow adapt. To be sure, while more variety and volume flourish in natural areas, even a city garden can provide opportunity for anyone to witness the show these animals put on, free of charge, for anyone who cares to watch. Watching butterflies has become an activity that many have begun to enjoy as a hobby, or as a side-interest for birders and botanists.

While most butterfly watchers carry binoculars to help identify the species they see, why not start bringing along a camera? Photographing butterflies can be rewarding and be as simple or as involved as you like. Instead of buying expensive camera equipment right away, consider beginning at a basic level and decide for yourself how far you might wish to pursue the hobby. If you have a video camera, why not start there? If you prefer stills, why not test out the camera you already have.

Digital cameras have recently taken over the photography world. They’re definitely the way to go for those who can afford them. Whatever your current camera is, why not do a little experiment to see what will work?

Find a photograph of a butterfly in a magazine (say three inches across), or cut out a paper butterfly shape. Take it, with a pin or paper clip (and your present camera), into a garden on a sunny day. Attach your faux butterfly to a flower, and take several pictures of it. See how close you can get with what you have.

Find a good Camera Store

The first rule of photography is: find a great camera store. Take your photographs to a reputable store that carries a wide range of equipment. Ask if there is someone there who can explain how you might improve your close-up photos next time. You can learn all you need to get started this way. Most knowledgeable camera store staff, if not swamped by other customers, are eager to share their expertise with you. If you don’t find anyone at this store helpful, (or if all they seem interested in doing is selling you the most expensive cameras they carry), find another store. Eventually you will find one worth their weight in Kodachrome!

Some salespeople might be tempted to oversell you on what you need. Take what they say with a grain of salt, and resist the temptation to walk out of their store with thousands of dollars worth of equipment on the first visit. 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.

Another approach is to strike a “full refund if not completely satisfied” deal. 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. Unfortunately, this approach is less successful with digital cameras. Some stores won’t even break the seal on a digital camera package unless you’re “serious”. I wouldn’t give that kind of store the time of day.

For butterfly photography, using film, you will probably end up looking at a 35mm SLR (single lens reflex--meaning you look through the same lens the photo is taken through) camera with interchangeable lenses. If you go the used route, try to stay with major names like Pentax, Nikon, Canon, or Minolta; brands that the store is licensed to carry. Be sure that the lenses and accessories the maker now sells will fit and function optimally on this used camera. Due to the popularity of digital cameras, used film SLR prices have dropped dramatically in recent years.

A good starting point is a camera with a lens that can focus within a foot or so of your subject. Ask the salesperson to show you all the alternatives before deciding. Usually, they will start with a fairly hefty-priced solution, and go up and down from there depending on your response. If you frown a lot and reinforce your budget, they might fix you up with a new or used camera with a “normal” lens or moderate macro-zoom, and a few close up filters. This would be the most cost-effective first step. If you buy equipment, go back and try some test shots with the paper butterfly again and show these to your salesperson.

The Digital Revolution

The digital age is taking over photography and whether you’re just getting started or you’re a seasoned pro, the latest generation of digital cameras is probably the way to go.

There is a plethora of excellent cameras now on the market and to publish one “best” camera for butterfly photography would be foolish. Best talk to that great camera store employee near you for the latest and greatest (or he/she may be able to discount last year’s model that’s essentially similar to the new one.) There are some excellent websites that test and review these cameras in depth, so I won’t attempt to here. Suffice it to say, there are excellent choices offered by Nikon, Canon, Fuji, Olympus, Minolta, Pentax, Sony, Kodak and others. Ask that trusty camera store employee what they think would work best for the type of photography you want to do. Chances are, the latest and greatest model just arrived yesterday!

Digital point-and-shoot cameras are actually a good way to start. I’ve seen amazing results from the current medium to high-resolution cameras! They often focus at very close distances, but give you limited working distance and depth of field control. Some are notoriously sensitive to conditions you may encounter in the field. There are some great digital SLRs now too, that may work with the specialized interchangeable lenses you may already own. Be sure to check your old lenses on any new digital camera before committing yourself. Some of the digital SLRs are pretty picky.

My recommendations change from moment to moment, as the manufacturers scramble to outdo one another. If I mentioned one brand, someone will surely send me a photo taken with another equally good or better.

Now, let's cut to the chase!


Take Off Eh?
you never know when they'll 
decide that enough is enough.

Stealth & Cunning

For the purpose of this essay, we will assume you probably have an auto exposure TTL (through the lens metering) camera. Whatever the hardware, once you have equipment that can get you close enough to your subject, and have decided on what film you want to use (a 400 ISO Kodak or Fuji print film would be good to start with), you will need to learn how to get you and your camera close enough to your quarry without scaring it off. If you are photographing flowers that can’t run away, stealth is not important. With butterflies and other insects, however, it is crucial.

While many butterflies are more approachable than you might think, sudden movement will startle most butterflies from a dozen feet away or more. Best choose the angle you want to shoot from first, considering the lighting and where your shadow will fall. Ideally for the best, even illumination of the butterfly’s wings, you will want the sun directly above the subject, or over your shoulder. Shooting into the sun at this point would not be best for the novice, since it would probably result in a poorly exposed picture considering the camera’s automatic metering. In any case, see what angle of light looks best on the butterfly, and approach from that angle with smooth, careful, gradual movements. Be careful not to cast your shadow on the creature, as most butterflies will take wing by instinctive reflex. If other plants are in your path, try to place your feet so as not to trample them. Not only might you damage your neighbour’s flowers, the bending plant might disturb the butterfly. Even stepping on a stick or vine can initiate a domino effect and nudge the butterfly’s perch ever so slightly, spoiling your opportunity.

Shoot First, Ask Questions Later

The best approach is to take several pictures while you have the subject in focus. Butterflies move so frequently and quickly that in many cases, you have no idea what the best shot will be until the film is processed. Also, you never know how long the butterfly will stick around. If you wait until the perfect instant before tripping the shutter, you can miss the whole opportunity when the butterfly unexpectedly flies off. When photographing butterflies, shoot first and ask questions later. Best to shoot a first frame from a little more distance than you would prefer, and then move closer, shooting more frames as you continue to approach the ideal position.

Some butterflies will take off and leave the area completely when disturbed, while others will just move to another flower and allow you to advance until you invade their comfort zone again. Some seem to get used to you and tolerate you a little more on subsequent attempts. Keep trying; they often reward your perseverance.

Don’t expect miracles on your first attempt, but hopefully you’ll be surprised and encouraged by the results you get. Again, that helpful camera store person can look at your photographs and suggest ways to get even better results. If you feel like pursuing the craft a little further, there are other techniques, lenses and accessories that can may become worth investigating and investing in.


Bring Extra Film, Batteries (and/or Memory Cards)
you always seem to run out at the worst possible moment!

Close-Up on Macro Accessories

Close-up photography is often referred to as “macro-photography”. This refers to taking pictures approaching “life size”. Life size is sometimes expressed as “1x” or “1:1”, meaning that the subject in real life is represented on the film by an image the same size. Therefore, at life size, a butterfly an inch across in real life will translate on the film (the slide or negative--not the print or digital image) to an image an inch across. You will probably want to aim for ideal magnifications around 1/8 to 1/4 life size to begin with. Unlike most manufacturers, Nikon uses the term micro instead of macro for their 55mm, 105mm and 200mm close-focusing lenses. My understanding is that micro would refer to more extreme magnifications than can be achieved with these lenses, and that they probably use the word for marketing purposes, because it sounds precise, and is more familiar to most people than the word macro. Macro lenses are optimized for close-up use, but the vast majority can also focus to infinity with excellent results..

Close-Up filters are lenses that screw on to the front of an existing lens to magnify the image the camera sees. They come in various price and quality ranges but are usually the least expensive route. Close-up filters have more or less universal adaptability and can allow inexpensive cameras to focus closer than they were designed to. For a relatively small cost, you can adapt an existing lens to focus considerably closer than normal. 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 further away. Because they extend the camera’s lens to an extreme not intended by the manufacturer, they usually are not sharp from corner to corner, and may introduce various distortions and aberrations, which you may or may not notice. Cheaper close-up filters may not be optically coated, making them more likely to produce lens flare if the sun strikes them during an exposure.

Extension Tubes are hollow tubes of various lengths that mount between the camera and the lens. They also let you focus the lens closer--potentially much closer. While there are no optics involved to reduce sharpness, few lenses are designed with them in mind. They too must be removed for more distant focusing, which can be cumbersome. One thing that tubes do that filters do not is they diminish the light that reaches the film. A through-the-lens (TTL) light meter will adjust for this, but at higher extensions, the reduction in depth of field and shutter speed can be drastic and make available light photographs impractical. Check with your retailer to see what tubes are available that work with your camera and lens. Unlike the filters, extension tubes have to be made specifically for your brand (and sometimes model) of camera.

Reverse Adaptors allow you to put your camera lens on backwards. Mounted back to front, a 50mm lens will focus very close, but you have no access to any of the functions that were connected through the normal lens mount. Best find a good book or get some advice from your camera salesperson to figure how to do this. Sometimes these are used with extension tubes or bellows at higher magnifications to improve resolution.

Bellows Units work like flexible extension tubes but 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. These are best left to serious amateurs and professionals to use in more controlled environments.

Tele-converters are also devices placed between the camera and lens, and share many disadvantages with extension tubes. They consist of a tube with a lens inside, and work by multiplying the effective focal length of your lens. A 2X tele-converter will double the effective focal length of the lens it is used with. This means a 50mm lens will work more like a 100mm lens and a 100mm will work more like a 200mm and so on. These also come in a wide range of prices and qualities depending on your needs and budget. They let you focus at the same distance your lens would normally focus at, but will double the size you would normally expect in the viewfinder. This works well for photographing butterflies, but, for sooth, there are always considerations. These devices will diminish the quality of the lens to which it is attached to varying degrees. They too diminish the light reaching the film, and can result in reductions in shutter speed or aperture (depth of field), and will rarely result in as sharp a photograph as you would like. Tele-converters are usually available in 1.4X, 2X, and 3X increments. The 1.4X is usually the most advisable, and while the 3X sounds good, it is for most intents and purposes, practically useless. Again, each tele-converter needs to be specifically made for your equipment to fit and function properly. 

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 accessory lenses or tubes. Unfortunately, most of these are not made to be much help in photographing butterflies. Frequently, the macro-focusing range is available only in the widest angle of the zoom range. If the lens is a 35mm to 70mm zoom, then this means you will be able to focus very close, but you also will have to get very close to your elusive subject. Look for a lens that allows you to access the macro focus throughout its zooming range. Your camera shop person, given your preferences and budget, can probably locate a lens that at least is able to come close to the result you might achieve with a true macro lens. In any case, you will be able to do justice with the larger butterflies with a close-focusing zoom lens.

Macro Lenses are the most effective and convenient piece of equipment for excellent close-up photography. Not surprisingly, they come at a price. Sometimes you can find a used 90mm or 100mm lens for a reasonable cost, but normally expect to pay considerable coin for a good new one. I wouldn’t recommend starting with one unless you intend to devote yourself to this pursuit. On the other hand, if a good used macro becomes available, you could always buy it and resell it without sacrificing too much should you lose interest or become discouraged. These lenses are specifically calibrated to work well close up, and come in various focal lengths for 35mm cameras. They usually allow you to focus from up close to infinity and make good all 'round lenses. A 50, 55, or 60mm macro lens is best for photographing nature that won’t run (or fly) away on you. The 90, 100, or 105mm lenses are the most practical in my experience for butterflies, affording a more comfortable working distance as well as working well with extension tubes, should you care to get even closer. Some manufacturers offer 180mm or 200mm macro lenses that are very nice, but very expensive as well. They don’t work as well with some close up accessories such as macro flash rigs, and should be used with a tripod, but they're great for subjects like dragonflies, which can be very skittish and often perch in out-of-reach places..

Tripods are great tools to help keep your subjects sharp--as long as the butterflies stay still and the plants they perch on don’t move either. You can probably tell where I’m going with this. 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 bask in the sun on a perch anywhere near as stable as a tripod. When it does, get out the tripod--but in the vast majority of the shots I take, a tripod would be impractical. Consider a monopod (a one legged tripod) for practical field use to help steady the camera, and keep your shutter speeds at 1/125 or higher when possible.

Electronic Flash units are used by most serious insect photographers to achieve the highest image quality on the finest grain (slowest) films. Flash units can freeze motion and optimize depth of field, resulting in stunning sharpness and detail. There are a number of specialized flash units designed for macro use. In conjunction with high-end auto focus, auto exposure, and auto fill flash cameras and macro lenses, electronic flash can help relative newcomers take professional looking butterfly photographs. Perhaps we can deal with this topic on a more in-depth future “Focus On” feature. Meanwhile, talk to your camera store for more information.

Most of the above accessories can be used in conjunction with each other, but some combinations work better than others. I use extension tubes when I need to make my macro lens reproduce beyond life size, and a macro flash rig to get dependable, consistent results. Sometimes, however, I want to convey a feeling and aim for atmosphere rather than technical excellence. With both natural and artificial light capabilities, you can tackle just about any situation. I always carry a second camera body with a moderate zoom lens, loaded with 400 speed film for available light shooting. With a little experience, you will get to know which approach will best accomplish what you have in mind.

Ask that friendly camera store person to show how you can settle on a combination of cameras, lenses, and accessories that will allow you to get the kind of pictures you want to take. Your store might also be able to direct you to resources that can answer questions they can’t (or lack the time to address). Check your library; some books on butterflies include chapters about photography, and you may even find a publication devoted to close up photography. Any nature photography book by John Shaw is worth borrowing or buying.


Work With Me Baby!
Jay photographing a Tiger Swallowtail 
on milkweed.

I hope you will try your hand at photographing butterflies. It can be a rewarding activity and a lot of fun--especially in conjunction with a butterfly garden. Since butterflies are an integral part of the ecosystem, you will discover more about other insects, flowers, plants, trees, and birds the more you study butterflies. Please visit my Personal Profile on this web site to learn a little more about me and for a more philosophical approach to this hobby. If you want to know more about close-up photography (I admit I’ve only tickled the surface) contact me. I would be delighted to share more of my experience with you, or direct you to some excellent resource materials.

All the best,
Jay Cossey

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