Butterfly photography PAGE 1
PAGE 1 - Digital cameras and lenses
PAGE 2 - Film cameras and lenses
PAGE 3 - Shooting techniques by flash or daylight

Digital cameras

Choosing a camera body

For most people, the best choice for butterfly photography is a digital DSLR camera. These have optical viewfinders which provide a larger and brighter view of the subject than is possible with the electronic viewfinders of "point & shoot" compacts or "megazoom" cameras, making it much easier to track the subject from a distance, and to judge sharpness. Furthermore the lenses of DSLRs are interchangeable, enabling you to fit special "macro" lenses that can focus close enough to fill the picture with even the smallest butterfly.


The most popular brands are Nikon and Canon, who constantly vie for pole position, striving to produce the ultimate DSLR. Both market a very extensive range of camera bodies suitable for beginners, enthusiasts and professional users. Both also offer a vast range of lenses, flashguns and accessories to cover every purpose. Not far behind are Sony. They have several bodies in their range, covering novice, enthusiast and professional markets. Their range of lenses, flashguns and accessories is not as extensive as that of Nikon or Canon, but they offer everything that most users will ever need, and will accept almost any Minolta-fit lens or flashgun without compatibility issues.


Panasonic and Olympus produce a range of DSLRs, and also a range of mirror-less compacts that feature electronic viewfinders. Both types of camera accept lenses from the "four-thirds" system, including macro lenses. These cameras and lenses are much smaller and lighter than those from other manufacturers, so are particularly useful if you are back-packing.


Nikon, Canon, Sony, Olympus and Panasonic cameras rely on special rechargeable batteries, but some Pentax DSLRs accept ordinary AA batteries - a point worthy of consideration if you are likely to spend any amount of time in remote areas where recharging facilities are unavailable.


Any of the current DSLRs from any of the manufacturers mentioned above will be perfectly capable of producing high resolution close up images of butterflies suitable for making A4 size prints or viewing on High Definition HD monitors.


Specification and design


The specification of DSLRs varies widely, as does the build quality. It's all too easy to be swayed by advertising and gimmickry, but it's far more sensible to base purchasing decisions on the basis of build quality, meter accuracy, optical quality, lens choice, and ergonomics. A camera which feels good in your hands, with well positioned controls and a high quality viewfinder will be quicker and more enjoyable to use, and is far more likely to produce the results you seek than a gimmick-laden but less well designed model.


So which features are essential, and which are gimmicks ?


Camera manufacturers make impressive claims about the accuracy of their metering systems, but in truth there is no camera that is capable of getting the exposure right every time. Consequently experienced photographers always "bracket" their exposures by half a stop ( or more ) either side of the settings suggested by the camera. All DSLR cameras offer a way of bracketing a series of exposures automatically - in some cameras this is achieved by simply pressing an "auto-bracket" button, but in others the function has to be accessed by scrolling through menus.


Autofocus is a standard feature on all DSLRs, and its speed and accuracy are generally very good when photographing in bright light and with subjects more than a metre in front of the camera. It is important to realise however that there will be occasions, particularly with close-up photography, when the autofocus will fail to lock on to the subject. At such times it may spend several seconds "hunting" back and forth, and it's often quicker and more reliable to switch to manual focus.


When photographing butterflies by natural light it is usually necessary to use a fast shutter speed of at least 1/250 sec to freeze wing movement, in combination with an aperture of about F16 to ensure that the subject retains good front-to-back sharpness ( depth of field ). In anything but the brightest sunshine the only way to achieve this combination is to use a high sensitivity setting of 400 or even 800 ISO. At such sensitivity settings the image sensors in DSLRs are being stretched to the limit of their capabilities, and often suffer from image "noise" which manifests itself in the form of a fine peppering of green, red and blue dots which are particularly prominent in shadow areas or on out-of-focus backgrounds. It is important therefore to read test reports and compare the noise levels of cameras that you are considering to purchase.


Currently most camera manufacturers are involved in a "megapixel race" to produce models with higher and higher resolution, as this is seen as a major marketing feature. Note however that a 15 or 18 megapixel camera will not necessarily produce a sharper or more detailed photograph than one with only 10 or 12 megapixels - in fact the picture quality may even be lower, as a result of the increased "noise" levels associated with high megapixel counts. Again, it is important to study test reports and reviews, rather than be swayed by advertising hype.


"Live-view" is a feature that may appear useful, enabling you to compose a photo with the camera held at arms length rather than having to peer through a viewfinder. This can make it much easier to approach a nervous butterfly without throwing your shadow across it, but in practice there are several drawbacks, e.g. autofocus is much slower and less reliable in live-view mode, and you are likely to have difficulty in seeing the image on the screen in bright sunlight. Holding a camera at arms length also induces high levels of camera shake, necessitating the use of high shutter speeds.


"Scene" modes, whereby you chose between options such as "landscape", "portrait", "sport", "night scene" and "macro" are essentially gimmicks aimed to impress novice customers. In practice most novices set their cameras permanently to "green auto" mode where the camera adjusts everything automatically. More experienced users usually prefer to set "shutter priority" mode, whereby they chose the shutter speed and ISO settings themselves, and the camera automatically sets the aperture to match the lighting conditions.


"Movie" mode may have some value for still photographers who wish to capture short video clips of butterfly activity, but in current cameras it is not possible to autofocus while shooting movies, which imposes severe practical limitations.


Image stabilisation ( also known as "anti-shake" or "vibration reduction" ) is a method whereby the camera instantly moves the image sensor or the lens elements to counteract the affects of camera movement such as that caused by a trembling hand or a shaky tripod. It is totally ineffective in combating SUBJECT movement - the only way to arrest the motion of a butterfly's wings is to use a fast shutter speed or to "freeze" the movement by using flash ( strobe ) illumination.


Each type of image stabilisation has its own advantages. Lens-based stabilisation is used by Canon, Nikon and Pentax. It has the advantage that the image in the viewfinder is very steady, which aids composition. The disadvantage is that the lenses are bigger, heavier and more expensive than their non-stabilised counterparts. Body-based stabilisation is used by Sony. It has the advantage that it works with ANY Sony / Minolta fitting autofocus lens ever made, including independent brands.


Tests carried out by various photography websites prove conclusively that both systems are equally effective, and in normal circumstances reduce the affects of camera-shake by up to 3 stops. i.e. a photograph taken at 1/125 sec without image stabilisation, could be taken at about 1/15 sec with either the lens or the image sensor stabilisation switched on. Note however that at very close working distances both systems are much less effective. My own tests indicated that at the sort of distances typical of butterfly photography, there is only a 1 or 2 stop advantage.


Any DSLR, even the most basic budget model is more than capable of producing an image as sharp as this. The most important thing is to choose a model that feels comfortable in your hands, and has well positioned controls and a clear viewfinder.


Timing your purchase


New "essential" features are always just around the corner, so in some ways it is tempting to delay purchase until the last possible moment to be sure of getting the most advanced features, but it often makes far more sense to buy an established model. If a camera has been on the market for a year or so, it is likely that any early design problems will have been ironed out. Another advantage of buying late in the model's market life is that shortly before the introduction of a new model, the remaining stock of the outgoing model is often sold at discounted prices. So before purchasing the "latest and greatest" it is worth asking yourself whether you actually need the features they offer, or whether it would be wiser and more economical to buy an end-of-line model.

Lens availability / compatibility

BEFORE deciding on camera brand, always check lens availability. Canon and Nikon produce lenses suitable for every conceivable situation, including a wide choice of macro lenses of various focal lengths. Sony, Pentax, Olympus and Sigma offer a more limited choice of lenses which cover most situations adequately, but unlike Nikon and Canon do not currently offer internal-focussing 100mm or 105mm macro lenses.


Each camera manufacturer only produces lenses to fit it's own camera bodies - e.g. you can't fit a Nikon lens on a Sony body, or a Canon on a Pentax body.


The two top independent manufacturers Tamron and Sigma produce several versions of each of their lenses to fit various camera bodies. Every model they produce is available in Canon and Nikon fittings, but not all are produced in Sony, Pentax or Olympus fittings.


Most camera and lens manufacturers produce 2 ranges of lenses - those designed for "full frame" cameras ( these also fit 35mm SLR film cameras ); and those designed specifically for DSLRs with APS-sized sensors. You can fit a full-frame lens on an APS format camera, but if you use an APS format lens on a full-frame camera it will cause severe vignetting ( darkening of the corners of the photo ).


Before buying any lens, always check the compatibility charts on the lens-maker's websites and in your camera's user instruction book, as certain models may not be compatible with all the functions of the camera body, e.g. older designs of Nikon lenses will not autofocus on "budget" Nikon bodies such as the D40, D60 and D5000. To the best of the writer's knowledge all Canon DSLR bodies are fully compatible with all autofocus Canon lenses. Sony cameras are fully compatible with every Minolta autofocus lens ever made, as well as current Sony models. Pentax DSLRs will accept any K-mount lens, but certain features will only operate with the latest generation of lenses.


In terms of optical quality there is very little to choose between similarly priced lenses from Sigma, Tamron or the various camera manufacturers.  Canon, Nikon & Sony lenses are renowned for their image quality. Sigma lenses arguably produce higher resolution images than Tamron, but tend to be more prone to flare, which lowers the contrast of the image in certain lighting situations.


Marsh Fritillary Euphydryas aurinia, Sony A100, 18-70mm zoom set at 70mm at closest focus

Zoom lenses

Standard kit lenses, typically 18-70mm zooms, offer a reasonable working distance, and focus close enough to fill the picture with a medium sized butterfly. Most manufacturers also offer longer zooms such as 18-125mm or even 18-250mm. These versatile optics are able to cover a huge range of subjects - butterflies, birds, sports, portraits, landscapes and almost anything else. This means they can be left permanently fixed to the camera, preventing the ingress of dust, which can play havoc with the image sensor.


One major disadvantage of zoom lenses is that they usually have a fairly small maximum aperture. By way of example the Sigma 18-125mm macro-zoom has a maximum aperture of only F5.6 at the 125mm setting. Compare this with the Sigma 105mm macro lens, which has a maximum aperture of F2.8, providing a much brighter viewfinder image.


Zoom lenses never focus as closely as true macro lenses. Using the same examples, the smallest image size possible with the Sigma 18-125mm macro-zoom is 84x56mm, close enough to fill the picture with a medium sized butterfly such as a Peacock. The smallest image possible with the Sigma 105mm macro ( when used on an APS format DSLR ) is just 24x16mm, good enough to fill the picture with even the smallest butterfly.


Another disadvantage of zooms is that they suffer more from optical problems such as chromatic aberration ( colour fringing ) and distortion. Also, because their front elements are larger than those of prime lenses, they are more prone to "flare" when shooting towards the light. Flare manifests itself in 2 forms - as multi-coloured spangles of light radiating from the light source, or as a general lowering of image contrast and saturation.


Many people find it difficult to approach nervous butterflies, and prefer to use long telephoto or tele-zoom lenses which enable them to shoot from a greater distance. There are several disadvantages in this method however. Firstly the lenses are long and heavy, making it harder to hold them steady when composing a photo. Thus it is best to use them in conjunction with a monopod or tripod, which is cumbersome and slow in operation. They are also usually limited to a maximum aperture of F4 or F5.6 which gives a darker viewfinder image. Worst of all is the fact that they limit your choice of viewpoint, making it very difficult to produce a pleasing composition.


If you are really enthusiastic about close-up photography, particularly if you want to photograph caterpillars, chrysalises, anatomical details etc, you will need a proper macro lens, i.e. one that will focus continually from infinity down to life-size or half-size without having to resort to fiddling with switches or adding supplementary lenses / extension tubes.

Brimstone Gonepteryx rhamni, 105mm macro lens, 50% cropped image

The major manufacturers, Nikon & Canon, produce 60mm macro lenses. Sigma produce a 70mm macro, and Tamron produce a 60mm macro. The latter focuses down to 1:1 scale and has a wide maximum aperture of F2 which makes focussing and viewing very easy, even in low light.


Lenses in the 50-70mm range are just about usable for the more approachable species, but most butterflies are quite nervous, so ideally you need something longer. Most users feel happier using something in the 90-105mm range such as the renowned Tamron 90mm or the very popular Sigma 105mm, both of which focus down to 1:1 scale. Both have a maximum aperture of f2.8 giving a bright crisp viewfinder image in most lighting conditions.


Certain macro lenses e.g. Canon 100mm, Nikon 105mm VR, Sigma 150mm and Tamron 180mm feature internal focussing, which keeps the length of the lens constant regardless of focus distance, and makes auto-focussing much faster. Focussing is achieved using virtually silent linear motors housed within the lenses.


The latest Canon EF 100mm f2.8 macro IS and Nikon 85mm ED AF-S VR micro lenses also feature optical image stabilisation. At "normal" focussing distances these can drastically reduce the effects of camera-shake, e.g. enabling a shutter speed of 1/30 to be used in a situation that would normally require 1/125 or 1/250.


To get really close you need a macro lens that provides a magnification ratio of 1:1. These pics were taken with a 105mm macro lens at closest focus distance ( 0.22m ), and enlarged sections were made from about a quarter of the image area.

If you are considering buying one of the longer macro lenses such as the Sigma 150mm or Tamron 180mm, beware that these are heavier, far more difficult to hold steady, and slower to focus than shorter lenses. There are times when they can be useful to photograph a distant butterfly, but if you approach your subject carefully you should have no difficulty getting close with a 105mm macro.

Ultra close-ups

The Brown Hairstreak egg illustrated below is about the size of a pin head. It was photographed at 1:1 scale using a Sigma 105mm macro lens, and the resulting image was then heavily cropped and sharpened. To photograph subjects this small however it is more sensible to mount the macro lens on the end of a set of extension tubes, or on a bellows unit. These allow the 105mm lens to focus down to magnifications of about 2x or 4x respectively. Unfortunately there are 2 major problems when using extension tubes or bellows. Firstly the amount of light reaching the sensor is greatly reduced, making it very difficult to see the image in the viewfinder. Secondly, bellows in particular are cumbersome, and virtually impossible to use without the aid of a strong professional tripod.


Another option, although frowned upon by many photographers, is to mount a 10 dioptre close-up lens on the front of a normal macro lens. This method allows much more light to reach the sensor and viewfinder, so composition and focussing are much easier. It is also considerable cheaper than using extension tubes or bellows. The disadvantage is that optical resolution is reduced, but if you use an aperture of about F16 this is minimised, and the results are usually perfectly acceptable for small / medium prints or for internet use.

Brown Hairstreak egg Thecla betulae, actual size about 1mm diameter.

My gear

People often ask me what equipment I use to produce the images used on this website. Almost all of the images have been photographed with my Sony a700. Most shots are taken using fill-in flash supplied by a Sony twin-macro flash unit. The vast majority of photos are taken with a Sigma 105mm macro lens, although I sometimes carry an ancient Sigma 180mm F5.6 macro for less accessible species such as hairstreaks, and use a Sigma 28mm F2 for habitat shots. Why did I choose Sony ? Mainly because I was already tied into a system of Sony-Minolta lenses, having used Minolta film cameras for many years previously. The a700 however is a superb camera, well built, confidence-inspiring, and devoid of gimmicks.

And if I could choose my dream outfit ?

If I was lucky enough to be able to afford any camera system I wanted, I would base my choice on the lens and flash system, rather than the camera body. The Canon 100mm F2.8 IS, Nikon 85mm F3.5 VR and Nikon 105mm F2.8 VR are among the best macro lenses available, featuring superb resolution, internal focusing, silent focusing motors and optical image stabilisation. My choice of body would be a secondary consideration, but the Canon EOS 7D and Nikon D300s would be the top contenders.



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