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Monday, July 6, 2009

Get Closer to Butterflies

Photographing butterflies is always a challenge because they seem to be very capricious in their movement. You'd think that once the found one good blossom with nectar, they'd settle in for a nice long drink, but that's rarely the case. Usually they flit from blossom to blossom and often even plant to plant in one feeding session. It can be really frustrating to try and get just one good close-up shot.

There are, however, some things you can do to improve your odds. The first, of course, is to plant a butterfly-friendly garden with plants like tithonia (shown here), butterfly weed, bee balm, etc. Once you've got them in your garden though, try these tips to get more good close-ups:

  • Shoot early in the morning. All insects feed heavily early in the day, so there will be more of them to shoot. Also, their metabolism is slower when it's cool out or when the air is heavy with morning dew, so they'll be moving slower. The hotter the day is the more buoyant they become.
  • Don't chase--wait. Set up your tripod near a nice blossom with a plain background and wait. You'll have a far better chance of getting a good shot if you sit-and-wait rather than chase. If you move around your motion will scare them off more than anything, but if you stay in one place, they will get used to your presence and they'll often land inches from your lens and ignore you.
  • Use a longer focal-length macro or macro zoom. I shot this photo with 105mm Micro Nikkor lensn and had about 18-inches between the lens and the butterfly. I've shot with a 55mm Micro Nikkor, as well, but I was less than 10-inches away and it was much harder to get them to sit still. Also, with a long lens you're less likely to block the sunlight.
  • Use flash if you need to stop their motion. I actually don't mind a bit of motion in a butterfly photo because that's what butterflies do--they flutter. But I also like nice crisp shots and if the light is a bit low you can either rasie the ISO or flip on the built-in flash. If your camera allows you to compensate or adjust flash power, try using minus-one-stop of compensation (on the flash output, not the camera's exposure) and you'll get a nice natural balance of flash to daylight. Read your camera or flash manual.
  • Work on calm days. Easy to say, I know, but if you can work or calm days the butterflies will be more still and also less likely to drift around on the breeze.
  • Put a flower in a vase. OK, yes, this is manipulating nature a bit, but so what? Clip an attractive blossom and place it in a water bottle on your picnic table and you can lure the butterflies to your set. It works, I've done it many times.
  • Be patient. Don't give up too soon. Many times just when I've packed up the tripod because the butterflies weren't landing anywhere near the plant that was in the best light, they suddenly get interested. They're not mocking you, they're just being themselves. Be patient, wait, you can get some good flower close-ups while you wait.
  • Read about butterflies. There is a lot about them on the web and there are some nice field guides at your library--the more you know, the more shots you'll get.
Butterfly photos look terrific on homemade greeting cards and they will absolutely draw attention to your Flickr Photostream (don't forget to tag them with the kind of butterfly), so it's worth spending a few hours a week trying to get a great shot. By the way, yes, I blurred the background of this shot in Photoshop with the Gaussian blur tool. Simple to do: I just used the magic wand selection tool to isolate the background (and then reversed the selection to protect the butterfly and flower) and then applied a Gaussian blur to the unprotected areas. It takes some practice to get good at selections, but like any other skill the more you do it the better you'll get.

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