Photographing butterflies – know your subject

Essex Skipper

Essex Skipper

It is wonderful to capture the beauty of wildilfe on camera.  The thrill of seeing a beautiful butterfly and getting an image that really captures the spirit of that fragile little creature.  I started out, like most people, just snapping butterflies in our garden on the buddleia bushes.  At the moment there are clouds of butterflies everywhere, making the most of the hot weather.  There are lots of people with cameras out, enthusiastically trying to snap them as they flit and fly around, defying attempts to approach, annoyingly fluttering away just as the camera is raised.  Then when the photo is viewed, it is often competent but there is something lacking.  The knack is to capture the spirit of the butterfly, to show something of its soul, of the ephemeral nature of its life and the world which it inhabits.


Ringlet on cleavers

You may be lucky if you take the opportunistic approach, and there are many fantastic pictures out there from people who have done just that:  they have had the camera ready at the right time in the right place, and snapped a great image.

What can get better results, however, is if you know your subject.  Which butterflies can be found in which habitat at what time of year?  Which plants need to be present for caterpillars and adult butterflies?  Where do they alight to feed – on what plants, in what lighting, at what height?  Where do they roost?  At what time of day will they be active?  Are they territorial, and therefore if they fly off, will they come back roughly to the same spot?  Answer these questions, and you have a much better chance of getting something special with your camera, and a much better chance that you capture the spirit of the butterfly, and not just its physical form.

Speckled Wood on Bramble

Speckled Wood on Bramble

Then there is the lighting and background.  Speckled wood butterflies, for example, flit around the sunny patches in a woodland, alighting on sunlit spots on trees, shrubs, brambles and on the floor.  It isn’t usually very interesting to take a picture of the butterfly on the floor.  The background is often cluttered, and the beauty of the butterfly is lost among the leaf litter and grass.  The lighting is often full-on and harsh.  It doesn’t usually work.  But get the butterfly on a beautiful leaf or flower, with a clear background, or one that can be blurred by selecting a low depth of field and getting in close, and you have a much better chance of getting a picture that enhances the beauty of the little creature.

There are a lot of skipper butterflies around at the moment in our meadow.  Now these little creatures flitter and flutter in a very moth-like way – indeed, many people confuse them with moths because of the way they rest with their wings half-open, unlike many butterflies, which rest with wings closed.  They are very skittish in the bright sunshine.  They often rest low down in the grass, making it very hard to get an uncluttered foreground, much less an uncluttered background.  How do you go about getting a picture of them?  One thing I noticed yesterday was that many of them were coming down to the edge of the pond to drink.  Not a brilliant background, but then they flew up and perched on the grass and flowers adjacent to the pond.  So, stationing myself near the ponds, in among the grass, daisies and birdsfoot trefoil, I was able to get some pictures.  The fact that there were many about meant I could choose the direction of lighting, and wait until they arrived where there was a suitable perch and background, and take a picture.

Essex Skipper

Essex Skipper on thistle

Another good way of getting pictures is to wait until they are going to roost, late in the evening.  This has a number of advantages – the lighting is not overhead, and is often warmer in quality, and obviously the butterflies are less active as the temperature falls.  The disadvantage is that they may be harder to spot when not on the wing, but you can quickly tune your eyes in to spotting them in the meadow, as long as you know their favoured roosting points.  The same applies to the rain – butterflies will be there, roosting, and if you can find them, you can often get a decent shot without them flying off.

Comma butterfly on bramble

Comma butterfly on bramble

Some articles on butterfly photography advocate trapping them, putting them in the fridge to cool them down and make them less active, then setting up what is in effect a studio shot with the butterfly in optimal conditions of lighting, and with a nice plain background.  I dislike this approach.  First of all, it disturbs the butterfly.  For a creature whose life may be numbered in days to begin with, you are, by trapping it and cooling it, taking up a significant fraction of its life-span just to get a picture, and limiting its chances of finding a mate.  Then where do you let it go?  Just let it out of the door?  Or do you take the time and trouble to take it back exactly where you found it?  Failing to take that time and trouble means it may well be released in an environment devoid of its preferred food, without caterpillar foodplants on which to lay eggs, and without a mate.  Not really a nice thing to do, just for a photo.  But more than that, I often find these pictures to be very false.  There is something of the spirit of the butterfly missing.  The butterflies are often perched in a way in which they do not perch in nature, and often on plants that don’t occur in their habitat, or on plants that they don’t roost on, even if they are present in their natural environment.   They may look nice, but they give me an uncomfortable feeling.  This isn’t really wildlife photography – it is studio photography, treating a living thing as an inanimate object.  I do not, and will not, do that.

Butterflies are alive.  Their beauty exists in the context of where they live and how they live.  Their beauty is a fusion of the butterfly and the surrounding environment – the plants, the flowers, the light, the shade, the sun, the time of day, the time of year.

If you know your subject, and take the time and trouble to spend time in their world, learning about them, then I think you will be much better placed to get pictures that are special because they capture the spirit of the butterfly, that exquisite, ephemeral beauty that characterises these lovely little insects.

Small Skipper

Small Skipper on grass

6 thoughts on “Photographing butterflies – know your subject

  1. Pingback: Skipper Butterfly | Winged Beauty

  2. Pingback: Northern Pearly- Eye Butterfly | Winged Beauty

  3. Pingback: Butterfly in Context | Photomiser

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