Photographing Butterflies

I've gotten the occasional question about my butterfly photographs, and this seems like a good place to explain what I'm using and why I'm using it. I'm far from an expert, but I'm learning in a hurry, and want to share what I've learned. If you've got any tips, please . (The information below about equipment is now enormously out of date; digital photography advances far too quickly, and my need for new eqiupment has not kept up!)

My Equipment

My current setup is a Sony DSC F-717 digital camera. To that, I've added a Hoya +5 two-element achromatic diopter and Canon 500D diopter. The diopters are a critical part of this setup! If you don't know what a diopter does or why you'd want one, I've written a page that illustrates and explains their effect.

How I Photograph

Focusing: With a +5 diopter, just about all successful photos will be taken from roughly 20 centimeters (8 inches) away from the target. Autofocus is useless if the camera is too close or too far, so you'll first have to move the camera into the correct range. Once you've done that, your camera is already nearly in focus. So: put the camera on manual focus. Then just move the camera forward (or back) until the butterfly is at least roughly in focus. If the image isn't framed as you'd like, zoom in or out until it is. (Don't spend too much time framing it perfectly: you'll have plenty of time to crop the image on your computer. Just make sure you're not clipping out any details that you'll want later.) You'll probably need to tweak the focus again; move the camera towards and away from the butterfly until the eyes are in focus. Press the trigger, and done.

Exposure: In good light, the automatic exposure recommended by the camera will probably be good enough. But in low light, shadows, overly strong light, or when a butterfly is badly backlit, it's much simpler to ignore the automatic exposure. Instead, I turn the camera to full manual mode, at F-8.0 and 1/1000s exposure, and force on the flash, set to low power. (On normal power, I got reflections from the butterfly that were too strong.) This also helps improve the depth of field, improving the odds that any one picture will be in focus. The built-in flash isn't perfect for this approach; an external flash with a diffuser (or a ring flash) would be an improvement, but would add to the bulk of this setup. In practice, this

Tripod: I don't use one, ever. It's hard enough approaching butterflies without a tripod getting in the way. They also make it impossible to get ground-level shots. If I did start using one, a focusing rail would be essential.

Other advice

Keep shooting pictures. And shooting. And shooting. If you're used to shooting with film, it's really tough keeping in mind that digital film is free! If the butterfly is still sitting there when you're walking away, you didn't take enough photos. I took 125 photos of a single Yucca Giant-Skipper, and it didn't cost me a dime!

Always review the focus of your pictures in the field by zooming in on the playback. Few things are more frustrating than returning home and realizing you didn't get a single sharp, in-focus shot of that rare skipper that was so obligingly perching for you.

The more you zoom in, the small the depth-of-field you get. And the less depth-of-field you have, the fewer in-focus shots you'll get. So, don't get greedy; don't start with frame-filling shots. Get some "half-frame" shots, then check the focus, and when you're satisfied with those, then move in for the kill. You can always crop "half-frame" shots and still have a great, detailed picture - if you've got a high megapixel camera.

Find a piece of software you can use to edit photos, and learn how to use it. For Mac users I highly recommend Graphic Converter. If you're putting photos up on the web, get to know how to crop photos, how to scale them down, how to adjust the lighting, and how to sharpen the photos.

Buy a UV filter to protect the camera's lens. This is even more important for an all-in-one digital camera than it would be for an SLR. Don't buy a cheap UV filter - quality does actually matter.

The English language has many, many swear words. Don't just use the same old, tired profanities when that crescent absolutely refuses to sit still, again. Butterfly photography will give you a plethora of swear-able moments, and you'll be happier having mastered a full suite of execrations.

Why I bought this camera

Before getting this camera, I had a DSC F-707 (now in my mother's hands). This is an earlier version of the F-717, and was a very similar camera. I didn't have the diopter back then, which makes a big difference, but the 717 has also improved on the 707 in several important respects:

Prior to that, I used frame grabs from a Sony TRV-17 digital videocamera. It's a fine videocamera, but the lack of image quality was just too frustrating - a digital videocamera is essentially a 0.3 megapixel camera - 16 times less resolution!)

Review sites were very helpful. For my money, the best of the bunch is Digital Photography Review. The in-depth reviews are superb, with statistics and comparisons out the yin-yang. Please, do not simply go by what I've written below; visit this site (and others), and if at all possible, try holding these cameras in your hands.

I did a lot of thinking about this before buying. I strongly considered the Sony F-717, the Olympus C-5050Z, the CoolPix 5700, and the Minolta 7hi. These are all "prosumer" five megapixel cameras with full sets of functionality. I wanted a good lens with full manual control over aperture, shutter speed, etc., and real manual focus. In the end, the Nikon and Sony were my top two choices. (New cameras have been released since then - see below for more information.)

To me, the major Pros of the CoolPix 5700 were:

But significant Cons included:

I went with the Sony F-717, which has a bunch of Pros:

There are some Cons:

The only major minus was a big one. Out of the box, the minimum focus distance is great at full wide angle (only 2 cm), but lousy when at full telephoto (a full 90cm). So to get really great images, I would have to get to within a few centimeters. But this causes three problems. First, the big lens puts the butterfly in shadows. Second, the lens blocks the flash. Finally, the resulting images were always soft in the corners. (For an example of the "soft in the corners" problem, see my Mormon Metalmark shot. Beautiful in the center, but very blurry at the right edge.)

However, adding my Hoya diopter solves this problem. With a +5 diopter, as long as I can get to within 20cm, I can get a gorgeous photo, especially at full zoom. I've been shooting many, many pictures with the camera manually set to f8.0, 1/1000 of a second, with the built-in flash forced on; it's been almost ridiculously easy to get a good shot with this approach. I also use a +2 diopter (Canon 500D) for larger and less approachable butterflies; shots with this feel significantly less sharp.

For what it's worth, here's my wish list of features that would improve this camera further:

New camera models to look at

The quality of digital cameras keeps advancing at an astonishing pace. If I were buying today, I'd strongly consider looking at the following two models, neither of which were available back I bought mine:

The cost of digital SLR models have come down dramatically, from thousands to a mere $900 as of September 2003. The "prosumer" models I'm recommending are often over $1000. So why not go with a digital SLR? Digital SLRs are better cameras, with higher quality sensors, the option for a vast array of lenses (including true macro lenses), and are superbly quick to turn on and take pictures. But they're all missing one feature I can't live without: live LCD displays. All digital SLRs force you to use the viewfinder when shooting, which means your head has to move with the camera. The LCD is used for reviewing pictures you've already taken. Live LCD displays - especially on tiltable cameras, like the Sony DSC-F series, the CoolPix 5700, or the Dimage A1 - are simply wonderful for getting cameras close to butterflies.

Where to buy

B&H Photo & Video is a very reliable site. I've purchased from the several times, and never had less than a perfect experience. Prices are good - including accessories - and shipping charges are reasonable.

For filters, I can recommend The Filter Connection.

I have no connection or affiliation whatsoever with either of these companies. I'm just a happy customer. Please, shop around and do your own research instead of just taking my word.

What else to buy

Consider a portable hard drive designed for loading pictures off of sticks. I've used the X's Drive with success. Even the smallest model (20GB) can easily store over 10,000 pictures! Other drives are also on the market, some of which include LCD screens and video output (but are fairly expensive). Whatever you choose, research its reliability.