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Quick Tip: How to Photograph Insects & Butterflies

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Read Time: 3 min

I don’t know about you, but ever since I was a kid, I’ve found insects and butterflies fascinating. Their intricate details, intriguing behavior and amazing diversity are enthralling. There are such vast numbers of insects across the globe, somewhere between 6 and 10 million according to Wikipedia. So wherever you are in the world, you’ll have access to a huge variety of insects, butterflies, dragonflies and everything in between. There’s really no excuse for not grabbing your camera and capturing them in all their beauty.

Step 1 - Know Your Subject

It’s important to know when your subjects are likely to be out and about, there’s no point trawling through gardens in the winter as you’ll be very unlikely to find anything of much interest. Insects are cold-blooded, and therefore are less likely to be out and about once the temperature has dropped, so head out in the spring and summer months.

If you have one, use a macro lens, this will simply give you the best chance of zooming in nice and close to the subject and getting the shot you want. If you don’t have access to a macro lens, then try using a telephoto or any zoom lens or selecting macro mode on your camera.

Photo by Horia Varlan

Step 2 - Get Those Settings Sorted

To start with, I recommend you work handheld without the burden of a tripod and aim to capture insects whilst they are resting or feeding, and to minimize handshake use a minimum shutter speed of 1/125. I prefer to use available light for a more natural feel to the shots rather than using any fill flash or flashgun bursts.

Don’t overdo it with depth of field, start out with something around f/11 to ensure your subject is clearly captured and then as you gain more experience and understanding, you can start playing around with shallower depths of field and focusing in on the insect to isolate it from it’s surroundings, ensuring you have a nice smooth background.

Photo by Simon Bray

Step 3 - Getting Focused

Start out with auto focus and use single point focus, this will ensure that you capture the subject in focus, but as your work becomes more advanced, you’ll find that using manual focus is actually more beneficial, and allows you to focus in on the insect to a greater degree and gives you the freedom to be more creative.

It’s essential that you have your camera settings ready before you start shooting, because as soon as you find a potential subject, you need to work quickly, these little guys don’t hang around for long and are very good at adapting to their environments, so you have to take your chances and you’ll have no time to fiddle!

Photo by Rob W

Step 4 - Framing and Composition

To begin with, shoot at the most appropriate angle to you. You’ll be lucky when you start out to even find the insects amongst the foliage, so don’t worry too much about how you frame your subject. Just get the shot, but one preference is to shoot from the front of the insect, but at an angle at which you can see the body. This way, you can shoot at eye level and really make that connection with the insects eyes.

When working with butterflies, the best times to shoot are early morning and late afternoon as they bask in the sun to keep warm. They don’t open their wings for long, so if you do see one showcasing it’s stunning wing patters, take your chance and snap away, in this instance, composition comes second to actually getting the shot.

Photo by Alain Picard

Step 5 - Now It’s Your Turn!

One of the best pieces of advice I’ve received is to avoid casting a shadow over your subject. Whether that’s a butterfly or any type of insect, as they it will cause them to move to find sunlight. It’s important to work quickly and cautiously so as to get the shot you want without disrupting the environment that you’re working in.

For inspiration, check out the amazing work of Stephen Dalton.

Photo by David Reece
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