Photographing Butterflies

posted in: Photography | 7
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I’ve spent a lot of time photographing butterflies during the COVID-19 lockdown.

There’s a large butterfly bush in the garden, so it has been very relaxing to sit and watch and photograph its visitors. It has attracted peacock, small tortoiseshell, and red admirals all summer long… and there’s been no social distancing on those blooms!

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So what have I learned that I can share with you?

The first new thing I’ve learned is that butterflies taste with their feet rather than with their proboscis! Their antennae pick up the scents from flowers. While their feet can actually taste the sugar in nectar.

I also found out that a female butterfly lands on different plants, drumming the leaves with her feet until the plant releases its juices. Spines on the back of her legs have chemoreceptors that detect the right match of plant chemicals. When she identifies the right plant, she lays her eggs. [1]

My Gear For Photographing Butterflies

I’ve also discovered that my Canon EF 100 – 400mm L II lens (affiliate link) plus a 1.4x III extender (affiliate link) combination actually takes good photos of butterflies. The 100-400 f/4-5.6 becomes a 140-560mm f/5.6-8 lens when I use a 1.4 extender. Plus I get a lovely soft bokeh background even shooting at f8. That’s if I make sure I have enough space between my subject and the other shrubs in the garden.

Using the Canon lens even without an extender has meant that I’m far enough away to not scare off the butterflies, or cast a shadow over them.

Photographing butterflies is best done using a tripod. I had a ball head on the tripod and I kept it very loose. As a result, I could follow the butterflies as they flew from one flower to another. But I wasn’t happy with my compositions. The flowers were just too close to the branches and the bokeh was not pleasing. Now if you knew me well you’d know that I am VERY fussy about backgrounds.

red admiral butterfly tasting nectar with its feet on a purple flower
Red Admiral Butterfly

Planning is Key To Photographing Butterflies

…well maybe just for me as I don’t want to take a snapshot. It has to be something that’s so much more creative, straight out of the camera.

Firstly, I needed space between my background and the flowers, so I needed to move into a better position.

I wanted to incorporate blur not only in the background but also in the foreground. So I took decisive action – I ditched the tripod.

Secondly, to get the composition I wanted, I leaned into a privet hedge to support myself while I handheld the camera. I wanted the privet hedge to add blur in the foreground.

Attention To Detail When Photographing Butterflies

In addition, there was one particular flower I wanted those butterflies to land on. The other flowers were fading, but this one flower was pristine. Never mind that lots of green leaves had been eaten by caterpillars. The last thing I wanted was to be cloning holes in photoshop later on.

Furthermore, there was a lovely golden Euonymus shrub some distance behind that flower and I knew it would make a great bokeh.

So it became a waiting game. Those butterflies had to land on that one specific flower… and most did. However, the red admiral refused to oblige me with his presence on that flower!

Up until this summer, I’d only ever photographed birds and a few flowers with this camera gear setup. So I’m delighted with the results, as I was able to achieve macro-like images. Plus using the extender enabled me to shoot at longer focal lengths. But there’s an even greater benefit. It means that if I am out and about with the camera I don’t need to carry the 100-200mm plus a macro lens.

Finally, here are my favourite photos. They are handheld, taken on a full-frame camera, f8, and at iso 1600. Enjoy …

A peacock butterfly drinking nectar from a butterfly bush in summer.
Peacock Butterfly
The underside patterns of a Peacock butterfly wings
The patterns on the wings look like two large eyes and their colours span the rainbow.
A small tortoiseshell butterfly
A small tortoiseshell butterfly

There are more photography tutorials here.



Follow Rosie Nixon:

Photography Tutor and Gardener

Rosie is a garden photographer, writer and nature lover. She enjoys soaking up nature and is easily distracted from doing the weeding by anything that flutters, flies, buzzes, creeps or crawls! She enjoys sharing the beauty of creation through her photography. Rosie has been featured on TV on BBC2's The Beechgrove Garden and she uses the outdoors as her natural light studio. Her work can be seen at one of Scotland's only photography galleries - Close Gallery, 4b Howe Street, Edinburgh.

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7 Responses

  1. Caroline

    These are stunningly beautiful, Rosie… and, like you, we have also found butterflies to be a big part of our lockdown year.

  2. Leslee Horning

    It’s been a while since I’ve seen a post from you, so happy to find it!

    We just worked a butterfly puzzle during quarantine and loved it. Your captures are simply lovely!!

    • Rosie Nixon

      Thanks, Leslee, life has changed so much for both of us and I’d like to start sharing on the blog again and finally opening up the comment section after having them closed for a couple of years.

  3. FlowerLady

    Good to see a post from you again. The butterfly photos are beautiful! Thanks for sharing. They are a hard subject to capture as they hardly sit still. Have a great weekend ~ FlowerLady

    • Rosie Nixon

      Such a lovely surprise to see your comment Lorraine – I’ve just opened up the comments after 2 years of having them closed.

  4. FlowerLady

    Dear Rosie ~ I just watched your Beechgrove Garden appearance video and enjoyed it so much. Seeing your beautiful photography makes me want to cry for some reason. The beauty of it all and how you have captured it, so soft and gentle, speaks to my heart. I do enjoy photographing flowers, but I’ll never get photos like you. I have an old Canon Powershot and my smartphone camera. Your photography inspires me and it was so nice to see you posting again. It’s been years since we first connected. I’ve subscribed to your you-tube channel. God’s blessings on you, your family and your gardens. Thanks for sharing ~ FlowerLady