How to photograph butterflies – a guide

Continuing my “how to photograph…” series, this month I thought I would get you ready for the up coming spring and summer months with: How to Photograph Butterflies. After all it won’t be long till these wonderful, delicate creatures, are once again on the wing in good numbers.

Marbled white butterfly - How to photograph butterflies
How to photograph butterflies

How to photograph butterflies: Where to Look

Like all good guides on wildlife photography (probably) it is important to start with where to look for butterflies. Knowing their locations, both geographically and on a plant, will help you capture the shots you want.

Butterflies, like many insects, have preferred habitats, some are woodland dwellers like White Admirals or Purple Emperors; Others you’ll find in grassland, Meadow Brown, Small skipper to name but two. So picking the right habitat for the desired quarry is the only way to go. t’s something I’ve learned while photographing butterflies in Milton Keynes

Some species depend on specific plants to feed as caterpillars, Small Blue for example rely on Kidney Vetch, so if there isn’t any in the area the likelihood of a small blue being there is pretty small.

Orange tip


Continuing the preparation stage timing is key! In order to photograph butterflies at their best you need to capture them as soon after they emerge (from their cocoon stage), so studying what times of year this occurs is vital, miss it and you could miss out till the next year!

Timing also affects your sleep. The best butterfly images (and I don’t mean mine) are usually shoot at the bookends of the day. The golden light helps, but also butterflies require heat to get moving so the cooler hours mean you are more likely to find them resting and this is when the best photos will be found.

Slow and Steady Wins the Race

Butterflies spook easily. Any movement can send them fluttering off, and away from your lens, so learning to move slowly really helps. Patience is, as always, key. Slow measured movements are your friend here.

Different butterflies respond differently to movement, sound, and light as well, just to make life complicated. I have found Speckled woods hate flash (almost all close their wings as your camera flashes), they are also not fans of the shutter sounds. I have to shoot them in “silent”. Others like Orange tips, will often sit (closed wing) on bluebells and allow really close work. It all depends, so get to know the species and it will help your work.

How to photograph butterflies - Speckled wood
How to photograph butterflies – Speckled wood

How to photograph butterflies: Choosing Your Lens

I prefer to photograph butterflies with a macro lens, I like the close up aspect, usually with a buttery smooth background. But Other photographers will prefer to be further away, and get a more holistic image (a bit like my bird photography). Your choice will determine the type of lens (and focal length) that you choose.

Macro lenses allow 1:1 ratio, they focus very closely and allow for great close up work. Anything between 85 and 105mm is the usual, although there are extremes like a 35mm macro (although I do wonder how you could ever get that close to something). If you use an 85mm you will need to get closer than if you were to use a 105mm lens, it’s a small amount, but with butterflies this can be important.

Longer lenses allow you to take photos of the butterflies in their habitat, and at a distance that doesn’t require such slow, careful movement.

Tripods or No tripods

It’s tricky, most of my butterfly photos are on the hoof. I need to move quickly (but not that quickly) so using a somewhat cumbersome tripod doesn’t fit my style. However…

Using a tripod allows you to get your focus right, allows a stead image, and leaves you able to use things like reflectors to dissipate any shadows you don’t wont.

personal choice comes into effect here I guess (sorry a bit woolly there).

How to photograph butterflies – Clean backgrounds

In my opinion clean backgrounds usually work best when photographing butterflies. This means that a low aperture is best in order to really clear out the background, but this does mean that focus depth becomes an issue. It’s one reason that people stack their photos for butterflies.

Peacock - Not so clean background
Peacock – Not so clean background

If you enjoyed How to photograph butterflies, or found it useful, please consider sharing with your friends or family.

Some of these images, and my other butterfly images are available as prints on my photography site – Urban Lake Photography

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