Macro butterfly photography

A Doris Longwing Butterfly, native of of the Amazon Basin through Mexico.

A Doris Longwing Butterfly, native of of the Amazon Basin through Mexico.

Photographing butterflies up close can be either very joyful or very aggravating depending on how well prepared you are and if you have access to some special equipment.

First off, your digital slr needs to be well maintained and in working order. The first additional piece of equipment that you will need will be a macro lens. While most lenses that come with your camera have a built in 1:4 macro, you will find that if you wish to photograph close ups of the natural world on a regular basis, you will probably need to invest in a 1:1 macro lens.

Nikon and Canon manufacture macro lenses for their cameras and there are the off brand lenses by Sigma, Tokina, Tamron that will all do the trick. What size? Well, basically, I find that I work with Nikon’s 105mm macro. It puts me about 12 inches away from the subject, allowing some comfort space between myself and the butterfly. A 60mm macro would have you too close to the subject. Sigma also makes a 180mm macro that gives about 18 inches of space between the subject and lens. That allows some room for not crowding the creatures.

Definitely, the next piece of equipment you need is an off-camera cord allowing you to use your flash off camera. Most of you are going to be photographing butterflies at some sort of place like The Niagara Butterfly Conservatory and you will find that you are going to need to use your camera flash as your main source of light. When you are working close up and the flash remains on top of the camera, well, to put it simply, the light from the flash will just pass right over your subject. You need to get the flash off camera and aim it at your subject. The problem with this is the light becomes one directional light and if you aim it from the left or right side, you create shadows on one side.

Ultimately what we want to do is create a method for having a flash as a main light and one as a fill light. You can set up a little tripod with your main flash on it and use the built in radio slaves (one flash senses the other going off and it is triggered, manufacturers have set them up with radio channels to transmit to each other flash firing information and control) to trigger your fill light. I have done this with the Nikon SB 800 as my main light and the Nikon SB 600 filling in the shadows, usually at a 2:1(fill light is half as powerful as main light) ratio. This results in a nice evenly lit photo or, depending on my placement of my fill light, a nice photo with good background separation. If I place my fill light a little behind the subject and set for a 1:1 (main light is the same strength as the fill light)lighting ratio, then I get some background separation.

Nikon D200, 105mm macro, Manfrotto 330B Dual Flash Bracket, Nikon SB600 (left), Nikon SB800.

Nikon D200, 105mm macro, Manfrotto 330B Dual
Flash Bracket, Nikon SB600 (left), Nikon SB800.

What I find in doing macro work, some people like the nice even lighting given off by ring flashes. I prefer a lighting set up using the Manfrotto 330B Dual-Flash Bracket. With a flash in the left bracket and one in the right, it allows the light to go right on the subject in front of the lens and allows for nice, even lighting of the subject. However, if you want, you can vary the strength of either flash allowing for some different lighting effects. It also allows you the ability to remove one flash and place it in different locations creating more dramatic lighting effects including better background separations.

When you are at a location with natural backgrounds that are dark, you are going to find you need the electronic lighting to really help them pop out. As butterflies tend to live in wooded, green areas, you may find you use flash quite a bit, indoors or out of doors.

Banded orange butterfly A Banded Orange Butterfly with just a touch of fill flash to bring the colours out.

Banded orange butterfly
A Banded Orange Butterfly with just a touch
of fill flash to bring the colours out.

Now,technically, I am using flashes, sometimes two flashes, slaved, to light my butterflies. What I like to do is set my cameras maximum flash synch speed, which for me with a Nikon D200, is 1/250th sec. I set my fastest flash synch speed, without going into the higher speed program modes, to insure that I get rid of any possibility of camera shake. In macro photos, camera shake can be exaggerated fairly easily, so I want to eliminate the chance. Also, since I am using the macro lens, I am also trying for as much depth-of-field as possible, generally setting apertures of f/11, f/16 or f/22. My ASA/ISO setting is 100. With these settings, I find that I am not really concerned with the natural light because my flashes have now become my main sources of light and the settings I have set mean that they are going to be much more powerful than the ambient light, so it doesn’t really factor into my worries. It’s if I start to decrease my aperture to say f/5.6. Then I must pay attention to my camera meter and make sure there is no overexposure. This Banded Orange butterfly in photo above was shot where it was brighter, my exposure, 1/250th sec. at f/5.6 at ASA/ISO 100. My exposure meter had read that this was a proper exposure, but, I used a flash just to make sure the color stood out just a little more, balancing my flash with the natural light.

Keep in mind, as we are photographing in these locations, we probably won’t be allowed to use our tripods and can’t bring in a whole bunch of portable lighting so what you use has to be portable and practical. When you are awaiting butterflies to land on a certain spot, you may find yourself holding the camera up for a long period of time. Hopefully the rigging that you do is lightweight enough for you to do that. Well, I hope this has helped with a few ideas for getting that magical macro photo of a butterfly.

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