29 December 2007

Stalking and Shooting Butterflies - A Personal Perspective

Butterfly photography is a rewarding and satisfying hobby, and one can be out in the field for some exercise, fresh air and sunshine and at the same time, learn about photography and butterflies.

In this feature article, ButterflyCircle member, Sunny Chir shares his tips and secrets of how he is able to get those amazing and awesome shots of butterflies over the past two years of picking up this hobby.

Photographing Butterflies

Butterflies are beautiful creatures and they are my main subject in photography. Being skittish in nature, shooting them is not as easy as it appears. They are amongst the most difficult subjects to get close to in the wild in macro photography.

I have always been asked about my equipment setup and how to get close to them from beginners picking up this hobby. Here are some tips and tricks that I have learnt in the past 2 years and many hours of hard work and practice out in the field.

Stalking the Butterfly

In general, there are two broad categories of butterflies, the sun loving and the shade loving. So, depending on what you are stalking, choose your location accordingly. Some species of butterflies can also be very localised and found only within a small radius of their preferred habitat.

Knowing their host plants and nectaring plants before stalking will increase your chances of finding a particular species, so do a bit of research on what plants they lay their eggs on (host plants) and what types of flowers they feed on (nectaring plants). Concentrate your search at locations where such plants are abundant, and that will save you kilometers of footwork. The common flowering nectaring plants most butterflies feed on are Ixora, Lantana, Coat Button (Tridax procumbens), Snakeweed (Stachytarpeta indica) and Mile-a-minute (Mikania cordata) flowers. Some species feed on tree sap, seed pods and fermented fruits. Some species tend to stay in the vicinity of their preferred host and nectaring plants for days.

Puddling and sunbathing are behaviours exhibited by a number of species of butterflies. In certain families of butterflies only the males puddle, using their proboscis to extract mineral contents from damp spots on the ground. The mineral contents are stored as a “nuptial package” to be transferred to the female during mating. These puddling grounds are a bonanza for a photographer, for up to hundreds of butterflies may be seen at these spots during a feeding frenzy on some sunny days. Some species tends to congregate at certain spots and at a particular time, either to mate or to sunbathe themselves. For such species once you get to know their habits and timing, it becomes relatively easy to find them.

The best time to shoot butterflies is when they are pre-occupied in warming up their dew covered wings in the early morning, or when they are feeding or mating. In the wild, butterflies are sighted mainly when they are in flight, by their motion and contrast with the surrounding vegetation. In the cool morning hours, they tend to be more sluggish, as they are “solar powered” and need to warm up before taking flight. So, unless you have intimate knowledge of a particular species and its favourite hangout, finding a Lycaenid size butterfly amongst the foliage drying its wings is tough. To me, the best times to hunt for most butterflies are around 10am-12pm and 2-4 pm on sunny days when they are actively feeding.

Butterflies are sensitive to bright colours and objects, hence avoid bright coloured clothing. Wear drab or camouflaged clothing to avoid spooking them. In the field, scout around their host plants and nectaring plants, and use your peripheral vision as the surveillance mode to detect movement. Your peripheral vision will cover a wider angle and increase your probability of detecting movement within your field of view.

After detecting them, your eyes will automatically switch to tracking mode, following its flight path till it lands. All butterflies, and for that matter all insects, have their respective ‘circles of fear’ - a radius at which they will take flight when there is abrupt movement or intrusion. Do not be in a hurry to rush in for the shoot, as the butterfly will still be at very high alert state after being startled by your presence. Wait perhaps 10 -20 seconds, let it settle down and get used to your presence, before trying to approach closer for the shoot.

Think of how you want to frame the butterfly and select the angle of approach accordingly from a distance, with camera at chest level Approach the butterfly in a straight line slowly with minimum sideways movement that will alarm the butterfly. Avoid casting your shadow on the butterfly as it reacts instinctively to interpret a moving shadow as a potential predator attack.

Equipment Setup

If you have approached the butterfly without startling it off, set yourself up and let the equipment do most of the work. Spend more time working on your composition and background and this will improve your chances of keepers.

You have to be familiar with the equipment you use and employ them effectively. I use either a Canon 20D or 40D coupled to a Tamron 180mm macro lens and a Canon 580EX flash. The Tamron 180mm provides a longer working distance for shooting butterflies and it is legendary for being a sharp macro lens. The sweet spot of this lens is around f/8 to f/11. All my shots taken on the 20D or 40D are recorded in RAW format to provide the flexibility to post-process the images in Photoshop.

Even with the reach of the Tamron 180mm you are likely to be within the ‘circle of fear’ of most butterflies. With small butterflies, you will have to get closer to the subject to get the magnification you desire. At times, you might have problem finding small butterflies through your viewfinder while the lens is focusing. Just open both eyes and look at the subject using the other eye that is not glued to the view finder. The butterfly should appear approximately at the center of your view finder when the AF sensor snaps the image into focus.

Typically, you will have perhaps 1-4 sec to focus, compose and take your shots before it flies off. To me, there is no time to set up a tripod or fiddle with camera settings. For this reason, I preset my camera settings and shoot hand-held most of the time. I use high speed servo mode to increase my chances of having some keepers for the brief encounter. For rare species, it might be the only chance in your lifetime to get a shot. I only use a monopod when the vegetation and situation allow.

My camera is always set at ISO 400, AWB, AV mode, aperture at f/8-f/11 range and ready to shoot. I let the camera take care of the shutter speed and accept whatever shutter speed it computes. You can experiment with your camera and if the shutter speed is too low to prevent motion blur due to hand shake, increase the ISO until you have developed a more steady hand holding technique. With most of the fiddling out of the way, I concentrate on focusing, framing and getting a clean background for the shot. I use auto-focus most of the time, but when lighting is poor, I switch to manual focusing. In low light situations, I make adjustments to whatever f/ setting that is required to get proper exposure; which at times can result in shutter speeds as low as 1/30 sec, so a steady hand with correct breathing techniques helps.

To reduce handshake I hold the camera with arms close to the body, leaning on whatever available support nearby to stabilise myself. If the butterfly is at a lower level, I kneel down on one leg and half bend the other, rest my elbow on my half bent thigh and control my breathing when I squeeze the shutter. If all these are not enough, a higher ISO setting will be selected to increase the shutter speed. With some practice most photographers should be able to handhold at 1/120sec (using a 180mm lens) with a high keeper rate.

There will never be enough depth-of-field (DOF) in macro photography. One has to juggle between DOF, background, exposure and shutter speed to get the picture you can best produce under the given conditions. I try to help by maximizing the DOF by getting the camera sensor parallel to the butterfly as much as possible with my active AF point placed on the eyes of the butterfly.

I use the 580EX flash mainly as a fill-flash in "Rear sync", to bring out the finer details of the butterfly. Once the flash is on the camera and set to ETTL, rear sync mode (second curtain mode) I do not fiddle with it, and aim directly at the butterfly. With the "rear sync" mode set, after letting sufficient ambient light in, the camera and flash are intelligent enough to figure out what is the optimal power to bring out the details of the subject, so I do not try to outsmart or confuse it by adjusting or tilting the flash and use additional diffuser or Omibounce.

Knowing the theory is not good enough for any photographer - you will have to be able to do it through hands-on practice. Joining outings regularly organised by ButterflyCircle would be a great way to learn shooting in the field. At these outings, the experienced and friendly photographers in the group are always ready to help newbies into the hobby. Such outings are fun and relaxing for a weekend morning and well worth the time and effort, and much more effective in improving your skills than just reading about it on the Internet.

A convenient place for beginners to practice and shoot some butterflies is the Alexandra Hospital Butterfly Trail, where over 100 species of butterflies have been recorded so far. There will be at least 4-5 species of butterfly present at anytime during daylight hours to hone your skills.

Most of what I have written above is learned from fellow butterfly shooters and some from my own observations. I hope by sharing these observations, you can try them out and use some of them to improve your success rate of keepers in shooting butterflies

......otherwise, shoot and shoot and shoot till you succeed!


Text and Photos by Sunny Chir


budak said...

Hi, thanks for the detailed tutorial. Just a couple of questions on using the 580EX with the 350D for this purpose. What I gather is that I'd have to set the flash at the 'second curtain sync' mode with the camera in 'second curtain sync' (under custom functions) – is this correct? I am using the 100mm macro and find that at f11-16 i need to slow down to 1/25-1/40 to get decent results and was wondering if the flash setting has anything to do with it.

Sunny said...

Hi Budak,

Yes, you are correct! Both the camera and flash are to be set in 'second curtain syn' mode.

The flash setting has nothing to do with the shutter speed.

I am assuming you are using TV mode , at F/11-16 and under marginal ambient light you are likely to be at a fairly low shutter speed.

You might have to come to a compromise in DOF and shutter speed by either opening up your aperture or selecting a higher ISO setting, in order to get higher shutter speed.


budak said...

i usually use M mode and handheld and find f14 or more necessary to get enough depth of field for insects/spiders. But will try shooting using these sync settings. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

Thanks, by the way, is this ButterflyCircle Forum and outing open to public? Tried to join but was told that it had been disabled.

Commander said...

Thanks for the post, Steplim. It was temporarily closed for registration due to an attack by searchbots and spam registrants recently. It's now open again. Please register soon. There's an outing to Pulau Ubin this Sunday. Do join us if you can.

William B. Folsom Photography, Inc. said...

Sir: Your comments are spot-on and your photographs extraordinary. I wrote two bools on butterfly photography and appreciate your views.

i'd love to visit Singapore one day and if tat happens it would be great to meet you. Perhaps we could go out and photograph together.

William B. Folsom

PS: I too would like to join your group

Sunny said...

Hi William,

Thank you for your kind comments !! It is an honour coming from a well known photographer like you who had written two books on photography.

I do hope you can drop by Singapore and be our guest and explore some of the butterfly hunts in and around Singapore.

Your membership with ButterflyCircle have been activated and we wish you a pleasant and fruit stay with us, and there are much to learn by us from an accomplished nature photographer like you

Warmest Regards!


Roro Murni said...


How far is the distance of the butterfly observed?

Thanks for u r attention