Capturing close-ups of butterflies requires careful attention to the technical aspects of photography: focus, lighting, sharpness, depth of field, exposure and composition. I was thinking about all those things when I photographed this dagger wing butterfly with Canon 1Ds Mark II, Canon 50mm macro lens, set at f/22 and MR-14EX Ringlite. (I took this picture in my kitchen. More on my kitchen photography and adding a background in just a bit.)
For newcomers to the fascinating, fun and rewarding aspects of close-up photography, here are a few basic techniques.
For true macro photographs, you need a macro lens, as opposed to the macro/close up setting on a zoom lens. Macro lenses let you get much closer to a subject than zoom lenses. This picture of a newly-hatched butterfly was taken with a Canon MP-E 65mm macro lens, which offers tremendous magnification – much like a bellows system for SLR cameras. It’s a specially designed, manual focus macro lens that actually lets you fill the frame with subjects as small as a grain of rice.
The remaining photographs in this quick how-to were taken with more commonly used macro lenses: 50mm and 100mm. The main difference between these two lenses is the 100mm lens provides a greater camera to subject distance, so you don’t frighten skittish subjects, such as butterflies.
Okay, let’s move on to some macro shooting tips.
Steady your shots
Macro lenses exaggerate camera shake, as do telephoto lenses. To reduce the chance of a blurry picture caused by camera shake, which is most noticeable in natural light pictures, you need to use a tripod. I used the tripod with the ball head (for easy positioning) when I took this natural light photograph of an atlas moth with my 100mm macro lens.
The background can make or break a close-up picture. Try to compose a picture so the background compliments the main subject and does not detract from it.
Also notice how the butterfly is off-center. In most photography, placing the subject (or the subject’s head) dead center in the frame is deadly.
Add a background
If the background is too distracting, you can change it. Photograph a leaf, make an inkjet print, and use the print as a background. For more creative control, try blurring the leaf in the digital darkroom (using Photoshop’s Gaussian Blur filter) to simulate the effect of using different f-stops.
This series of pictures shows:
• End-result shot
• Inkjet prints
• My kitchen setup
•Close-up using my kitchen set-up
When adding light, a ringlight is a good choice. A ringlight fits on a lens and can provide ratio and shadowless lighting. The light from a ringlight also adds contrast to a picture, making it look sharper than a natural light photograph. I used a Canon MR-14EX Ringlite on my 50mm macro lens for this picture of a cabbage white butterfly.
You could use a camera’s built-in flash, or an attached accessory flash for close-up flash pictures. If you do, you will probably get a harsh shadow in your picture, caused by direct light or because the lens or lens hood is shading the subject from the flash.
A coil cord is another option. It lets you position the flash-off camera for more creative lighting than on-camera flash photography. However, harsh shadows may be undesirable.
In close-up photography, as with telephoto photography, focus is extremely critical. You need to focus on the most important element in a scene: the eye of the butterfly. It’s also important to shoot at a small aperture (f/11 or f/22) for good depth of field (unless you want the area in front of and behind your subject out of focus. I set my 50mm macro lens at f/22 for this photograph. ***There is a parentheses missing somewhere within these last 2 sentences. Not sure if he wanted both or just one within***
When using a ringlight as the main light source, set the white balance to Flash.
When the light is mixed (daylight and flash), set the white balance to Auto.
For the very best quality image, set the image quality to RAW. The RAW setting gives you a little more exposure latitude (is more forgiving) than the Fine or High JPEG setting. What’s more, with a RAW file you’ll have less chance of getting banding in solid color and dark areas, such as the black area in the opening image for this article
It’s important to be aware of how different angles and different shooting distances can greatly affect a picture. In close-up photography, moving just a few inches, or a faction of an inch for that matter, can provide a completely different view of the same subject.
For example, sometimes a straight-on shot, with no foreground element, is nice. At other times, using a foreground element, such as the blurred leaves, may make a picture look more creative.
Wide-angle close-up photography has an advantage over macro lens close-up photography: much more depth of field.
Wide-angle lenses usually focus closer than zoom lenses with wide-angle settings. With both types of lenses, it’s important to set a small aperture, focus carefully and to consider the applicable aforementioned tips ringlights can’t be used for close-up wide-angle photography, unless you want a very bright area in the center of the frame).
I photographed these monarch butterflies in Mexico with my Canon EOS 1Ds and 16-35mm zoom lens set at about 24mm.
Try a telephoto
Another lens option for photographing butterflies is a telephoto lens or a telephoto zoom lens.
I photographed this humming moth with my Canon 100-400mm IS zoom lens set at 400mm. This image is greatly cropped from the original image, in which the humming moth was relatively small in the frame.