Stalking Winged Beauties


The Common Mormon, a jet-black butterfly, is widely distributed across Asia. This butterfly uses ‘mimicry’, to protect itself from predators. It visits gardens abundant in food plants like oranges and limes. Photograph/Isaac Kehimkar

The Common Mormon, a jet-black butterfly, is widely distributed across Asia. This butterfly uses ‘mimicry’, to protect itself from predators. It visits gardens abundant in food plants like oranges and limes. Photograph/Isaac Kehimkar

Naturalist and photographer Isaac Kehimkar shares some basic tips and photographs on the art of shooting butterflies, with Samira Pillai.

One great thing about photographing butterflies is that they are easily approachable subjects, unlike birds or animals. All it requires is a lot of patience and the art of ‘stalking’. No amount of the best equipment can guarantee great pictures, if you lack the determination to attempt them several times. A lush garden or a good woodland patch is the perfect starting point for chasing butterflies with your camera.

Approaching Butterflies
Most butterflies are sensitive to movements and flee at the slightest sign of intrusion. This makes them quite elusive, which at times makes going after them frustrating. You will need a lot of patience and determination, in order to photograph great pictures of butterflies. If you wish to capture a shot with intricate details, you will need to step closer to the butterfly. Approach them slowly and steadily, so that it is not conscious of your movements.

Attracting Butterflies
Though most butterflies are attracted to flowers, some do not visit them at all! Instead, they prefer overripe fruits, bird droppings, animal dung and urine, oozing tree sap or even a dead crab. You can place some of these—or even beer, toddy or fermented jaggery—to attract these butterflies, and then try capturing close ups. Planting butterfly food plants will also provide opportunities to photograph butterfly life cycles.

Using Natural Light
Because of their frisky personalities, butterflies will give you little time to compose and shoot. With available light, you can work with wide aperture and fast shutterspeeds—choose a shutterspeed that will help you ‘freeze’ on a hovering butterfly with ease and avoid camera shake. A wide aperture means limited depth of field, which results in the subject being only partially in focus. To deal with that, keep most of the subject parallel to the film or sensor plane and focus carefully. Try experimenting with the aperture range to make the butterfly standout against a pleasant background.

Overcast conditions provide soft and even light that makes the colours come out more vividly. Though, bringing out the true colours of some butterflies can be tricky. Tilting the camera slightly helps in getting the colours right. The best way is to keep trying, till you get it right.

When the available light is too poor to shoot anything, it can make hand-held photography almost impossible. In such situations, you can use a flash. In direct light, use a white paper-card or a metal foil to reflect light into dark shadows.

Flash or No Flash?
Most photographers prefer to shoot butterflies using natural light. However, if you are photographing butterflies for identification, then it is important to get sharp and brilliant pictures. Using a flash eliminates camera shake and helps freeze the movement of the subject. A ring flash will help shoot shadowless images. Remember that using a flash creates a dark background, which is often disliked. But, it gives the appearance of sharpness because it defines the edges of the butterfly.

Flattering a Butterfly with Good Composition
Framing a butterfly is vital, as it has to be aesthetic and easy to identify. Experiment with different angles. It is important that you compose carefully—fill the frame with what is essential and eliminate distractions. Also, there is not always time to manually focus images. Autofocus cameras are therefore perfect for capturing once-ina- lifetime shots. In close ups, everything cannot be sharp; therefore choose the point of focus carefully. Ensure that crucial features like the head are perfectly sharp.

Include a background only if it enhances the composition. Develop patience with changing light and your subject’s willingness to ‘pose’. Be prepared to go after the butterfly over a long distance until it finally settles. Get down on the ground, wade across the water or crawl through bushes, but learn to remain motionless when the situation demands it.

Choosing the Right Equipment
The SLR camera is a versatile option. Smaller cameras lack the necessary sophistication, however the macro mode is worth a try. For close ups of butterflies, the 100mm macro lens is an ideal option because the minimum focusing distance is not too small. Thus, it gives enough working distance between the photographer and the subject.

The cheaper alternative is a supplementary close up lens that can be screwed on to the standard lens. However, the final results may not be as good as those taken from an actual macro lens. The choice of equipment, though, finally depends on cost and personal preference.

Ultimately, just getting pretty pictures should not be the only aim. Once you get your basics right, you can add dimensions to your body of work by photographing butterflies while courting, laying eggs, emerging from the pupa or feeding. Good butterfly pictures need investment in time, patience and perseverance.

Looking for Butterflies

  • Best Season: Butterflies are seen just after the rains till early November. This is when there is plenty of lush greenery, which attracts caterpillars and influences butterfly activities like egg laying. There is also another butterfly season around March to May, when several trees and shrubs flower and get new leaves.
  • Best Time of Day: An hour after sunrise, most butterflies tend to bask in the sun to raise their body temperature. Once warm enough, butterflies actively feed on flowers or chase each other through the vegetation. They are more alert when the sun is high, but by midday they retreat into shade and undergrowth.
  • Best Places: During hot days, thirsty butterflies will gather aroung damp patches near streams, rivers and waterfalls. You may be lucky to click away several hundred butterflies ‘mudpuddling’ on damp soil. You can also try for some great shot around their preferred flowers.
Tags: Shooting Technique, Nature, Flower, framing, close up, september 2008, butterfly