21 January 2017

Butterfly Photography 101 - Part 3

Butterfly Photography 101
Part 3 - Digital SLRs and Camera settings for Butterfly Photography

Our earlier two articles Part 1 and Part 2 of this series on Butterfly Photography outlines the spectrum of digital photography equipment and accessories that are required for good photos of butterflies. It should be emphasised that expensive equipment alone does not guarantee National Geographic-quality outputs. Even a smartphone can sometimes deliver results that much higher end cameras can, depending on the conditions that the photograph is taken under, and the most important part of the whole photography equation - the man (or woman!) behind the camera.

Putting aside the debates on the pros and cons of different types of photographic equipment, let us now assume that a butterfly enthusiast has decided to use a digital SLR as his primary equipment for butterfly photography. The modern DSLR starts from entry-level models to the high-end professional equipment. However, irrespective of the technological capabilities of each model in a camera manufacturer's line-up, let us look at the basic settings that you should consider when using a DSLR for butterfly photography in the field.

ISO Settings

Different types of Fujifilm in the good old days of yore.  For slide film, the Provia ISO100 and Velvia ISO50 were my favourites

The most fundamental setting in a DSLR is the ISO setting. In the good ol' film days, we used to go to a photographic outlet to select film to suit the conditions that we were planning to photograph in. Back then, selecting film speeds of ISO25 to ISO100 was quite typical. Basically, ISO is the sensitivity of your camera sensor to available light. The lower the ISO number, the less sensitive it is to the light, while a higher ISO number increases the sensitivity of your camera. This translates to the amount of graininess (on film) or "noise" (on a digital sensor) that you see on your photo. A higher ISO means more noise, whilst a lower ISO delivers less noise on your photo.

A graphical representation of ISO and the amount of "noise" or "graininess" of the output.  Recent models of DSLRs can push the ISO to 102,400 and even way up to an astonishing ISO 3,208,000!

Most DSLRs will allow you to change the ISO settings manually to a setting of your choice. Generally, under bright sunlit situations, select a lower ISO and in dark shady conditions, choose a higher ISO. The more recent DSLRs also have a function where the ISO can be automatically set by the camera depending on the lighting condition. I usually avoid this automatic setting, as it is quite important for the photographer to adjust the ISO settings to control the output desired.

In very shaded conditions where certain species of butterflies lurk, you may have to push your camera sensor's ISO capability to its extreme.  In this shot, the ISO setting was 10,000

With recent technological advances in sensor design, many DSLRs can now handle ISO3200, ISO6400 and above, with more than acceptable results coming out of the camera. So, for a start, learn how to set the ISO on your chosen DSLR and to quickly adjust the ISO according to the shooting conditions that you encounter in the field.

Exposure Modes

Most modern DSLRs will allow a photographer to select the exposure mode of choice to suit the preferred type of photography requirements and conditions. In fast-action sports photography, for example, a photographer would usually select a Shutter Priority mode, so that he can control the shutter speeds to freeze the high-speed action on a racing track or a sports field. Basic DSLRs will feature 5 main exposure modes - Fully Automatic Mode; Program Mode; Shutter Priority Mode, Aperture Priority Mode and Manual Mode.

A typical Nikon DSLR's dial to switch to one of 5 basic exposure modes from Manual to Fully Auto. There are often other preset modes that help the photographer handle exposure modes for different scenarios

Exposure modes determine how the DLSR selects shutter speeds and aperture settings for the best exposure of your shot. For butterfly photography, I almost exclusively use the Aperture Priority mode. This is primarily because I will have control over the aperture (and hence the depth of field) of the shot, to keep as much of the subject butterfly in sharp focus, as well as "design" the background in which the subject butterfly is shot.

Controlling the aperture means the ability to manage the background of the shot. From left to right, the butterfly shot taken at apertures of f/5.6, f/9 and f/11. Note how the backgrounds blur off smoothly when you shoot with a larger aperture.

However, using a preferred aperture to achieve a sharp subject and a nice creamy background may mean that the shutter speed falls below handholding speed. In such instances, increasing the ISO or finding a stable platform from which to shoot your subject may be required.

The understanding of the relationship between ISO, aperture and shutter speed forms the most fundamental building block of photographing butterflies. Setting the appropriate ISO allows the photographer to control the aperture (depth of field) to determine the end result that he desires. In Aperture Priority mode, setting the aperture of preference means that the camera controls the shutter speed to get the best exposure of the shot. This will sometimes cause motion blur (caused by camera shake) that will spoil a perfectly exposed shot, rendering it out of focus!

Exposure Metering

Coupled with the Exposure Mode that you have selected, most DSLRs then allow a photographer to determine what the camera "sees" to deliver the optimal exposure for the shot. There are typically 3 metering modes :

Typical Canon camera exposure metering modes © digitalcameraworld

Automatic Multi-Pattern Metering : Also called Matrix metering in Nikon and Evaluative metering in Canon DSLRs, this mode measures the light coming off the entire scene onto the sensor and averages the lighting condition to deliver a best exposure output. Most of the time, this works well for butterfly photography, except in instances where the background and subject lighting are significantly different. More about this in future articles)

Centre-Weighted Metering - This exposure metering shifts the camera's "eye" towards the centre of the image and largely ignoring the light input from the outer edges of the scene. In Canon DSLRs there is a further mode known as the Partial metering, but still falls under the class of the Centre-biased metering exposure mode.

Spot Metering - The DSLR "sees" only a small single spot at the centre of the frame, metering its exposure on this area of usually 2-4% of the sensor. This mode is typically used for images where the subject and background are of high contrast and a photographer wants to get the correct exposure for the subject, rather than the background.

A shot taken with multi-pattern metering (matrix metering on the Nikon D500).  Despite different brightness levels on the subject, background and foreground, the camera's metering capability manages to even out the bright and dark areas, giving a pleasing and natural-looking result

For my butterfly photography needs, I normally leave the exposure metering to the multi-pattern metering mode (Matrix metering in Nikon, Evaluative metering in Canon) and allow the camera's technology to do its work. This works for me at least 95% of the time, and only in exceptional cases where the field situation is so challenging that I need to switch to the other exposure metering modes.

Focusing Modes

Contemporary DSLR models feature a number of different focusing modes that allows a photographer to choose the most appropriate one for his photographic requirements. There are typically 3 focusing modes on most DSLRs :

Different type of focusing modes on a Nikon DSLR.  The selection of Manual Focus, Single Auto Focus or Continuous Auto Focus modes vary from camera model to camera model

Manual Focus - where you use your own judgement to determine whether or not your subject is in focus. You manually focus the camera, overriding any automatic focusing functions of the camera.
Single Auto Focus - where the camera uses its autofocus technology to snap onto the subject and focus once and then lock it.
Continuous Auto Focus - where the camera uses its autofocus capability to continuously track and focus on the subject (which may be moving) and then takes a photo when the shutter is pressed fully.

Nikon system AF modes - clockwise from the top left: Single-point AF mode, Dynamic-area AF mode (9 points), Dynamic-area AF mode (21 points), Dynamic-area AF mode (51 points), 3D-tracking mode, Auto-area AF mode and Group-area AF mode.

I find that for butterfly photography, I usually stay on the Single Focus mode, using the AF technology that I paid for in the camera body, and depending mostly on the autofocus capability of the camera to do its work. There are many advocates of manual focusing amongst macro photography enthusiasts, and it is a question of preference which mode of focusing a photographer chooses to use.

A shot of a Green Commodore with a single AF point locked onto its eyes.

Having discussed the focusing modes, and assuming that you have chosen to exploit the camera's autofocusing technology, there are then several AF settings that can be found in many recent DSLRs. These are :

Single AF point (in red) showing where the camera has locked its focus on. Canon DSLR system

Single Point AF - where the camera will focus on where the AF point is placed. Many DSLRs allow you to shift the AF point from centre to a series of off-centre locations ranging from 9 points to over a 150 points on the sensor!

Multi AF points (in red) showing where the camera is focusing on. Canon DSLR system

Multi-Point AF - or sometimes called dynamic-area AF, allows the user to focus on one spot but the camera automatically changes the focus if the subject moves or shifts.
There are other modes of AF depending on the brand and model of the DSLR you choose - from Group Dynamic AF, Closest Subject AF, Predictive AF and so on, which I will not deal with in this article.

Single AF focus point at (or near to) the subject's eye

In butterfly photography, I just stick to the plain vanilla Single Point AF coupled with the Single Focus AF mode. This gives the best control over where you want to focus on (usually the eye of the subject butterfly) and then shift the focusing point accordingly if needed. The camera does not override your focusing preference, so that you don't end up with an out-of-focus shot most of the time.

White Balance

The final in-camera setting that we will discuss here, is the White Balance. The White Balance setting in a camera basically tells the camera how to make the distinction of "seeing" whites under different lighting conditions. The human eye can adjust itself to see a white object in bright sunlight, overcast conditions, in a room lit by fluorescent lighting or incandescent lighting or in deep shadow. A camera is unable to make that decision.

Same butterfly, different "whites" depends on the white balance settings and its environment

Most cameras feature a range of white balance settings - Sunlight, Flash, Cloudy, Shadow, Fluorescent, Incandescent, and Automatic.

White butterflies and flowers require a 2nd look to ensure that the whites stay natural. Different DSLRs' white balance technology vary - some are more accurate than others. At times, the colour cast due to reflections from its surroundings affect the subject's "whiteness"

I normally leave my DSLRs White Balance setting on "Auto" and then shoot in the camera's RAW mode. This allows me to make adjustments to the White Balance during post-processing and tweak the shot to the most natural colour as far as possible.

Another white butterfly, the Psyche, tests the DSLR's white balance capability

Part 3 of this series of articles covers the basic settings in a DSLR for butterfly photography and we hope it will be useful to our readers who are just venturing out to photograph butterflies in the field.

Text by Khew SK : Photos by Sunny Chir and Khew SK and credits to various websites and individuals.