How Do You Photograph Butterflies?

As a longtime nature photographer, I’ve observed that people who are just beginning to take photographs of nature often face the same difficulties. To help you avoid frustration when you take nature photos, I would like to share some of my knowledge with you.

This article may be helpful to you, if you already have some basic knowledge about photography in general but have not yet tried to photograph butterflies. For the purposes of this article, I am going to assume that you are familiar with the terms F-stop, shutter speed, depth of field, focal length of lens, magnification, exposure, ISO sensitivity. If these are new terms for you – don’t worry. I will be writing about some of those basic terms in other articles that you can find on If you read those, you’ll find the rest of this article much easier to follow.

Butterflies are fascinating, colorful creatures, which makes them so popular among any age group. Even people who are not necessarily involved in wildlife conservation seem to be attracted to these gorgeous insects.

So let’s assume that you have discovered a beautiful Swallowtail Butterfly in your backyard that you want to photograph. You have your camera ready. The Swallowtail is resting on a flower. There are two ideal positions that the butterfly can be in that will make it easier for you to get an excellent shot. I’m going to describe them and then give you a strategy for getting a great photo in each situation.

1. The butterfly has fully spread its wings.

Carefully approach the butterfly from above, avoiding any hasty movement or loud noise.

The sunlight is on your back – do not cast a shadow on the butterfly. This would most likely spook the butterfly and spoil the lighting on your subject. Once you are close enough that the Swallowtail’s wingspan fills the frame about halfway to three quarters of the way, you will need to adjust your camera and lens so that the back of your camera (or film or sensor plane) is aligned parallel to the wings’ top surface.

Misalignment may cause parts of the butterfly to be out of focus. The same happens if the butterfly lifts the wings up to a V. Then it becomes impossible to get the entire butterfly in focus.

Stopping down may improve the situation slightly, but the gain of depth of field becomes less the closer you are and the longer the focal length of the lens. With the available light, the shutter speed may drop too far and you will have to take measures to avoid blurring the picture. Using a tripod would be ideal, but it restricts mobility. A monopod would be a compromise. Use the vibration reduction feature, if available.

2. The butterfly has folded up the wings. This is a good opportunity to photograph the bottom side of the butterfly’s wings. The undersurface of the wings of some butterfly species, like the Swallowtail, reveals an attractive color pattern. The same applies for camera lens alignment as in the first example. The film or sensor plane must be parallel to the underside of the butterfly’s wing. This time you need to move in even closer than you did in the previous situation, because the wings are folded, leaving you with only half as much of the wing surface to photograph as you had in the previous example.

Here are two ways to improve your chances of getting that great butterfly photo you’re aiming for. As you’ve probably guessed, there’s a lot more to know about taking pictures of these beautiful but difficult models. I wish you the best of luck as you begin your new hobby; may it bring you much enjoyment!