Have you ever tried taking butterfly pictures only to have them flutter away? Have you ever wondered if these bugs develop throbbing headaches from their little brains being rattled around as they fly erratically through the air, bouncing around with the faintest breeze?
Obviously it wouldn’t be easy to capture them in flight. And by “capture,” I mean photograph of course and not catching them for your personal collection. We are talking about butterfly pictures after all. The easiest way to photograph these colorful bugs is when they are sitting still. In this article I’ll give you a few tips and talk about my experience shooting these little buggers. And yes, by “shooting,” I mean photographing them using only the fixed lens Fujifilm X100f.
Where did I find the most butterflies?
Butterflies are all over, sure, but the best places to maximize your exposure (pun intended) are conservatories. I recently visited Butterfly Wonderland in Scottsdale, Arizona. With over 3,000 colorful bugs fluttering around, it is the largest of its kind in the United States. While you’re in Scottsdale by the way, consider visiting the Phoenician Cactus Gardens too, especially in blooming season. For butterflies though, there are just no alternatives to conservatories where you can walk through swarms of thousands of bugs. You just can’t beat the photo opportunities and the varieties of butterflies.
Shooting butterfly pictures with a fixed lens camera
Equipped with my trusty Fujifilm X100f, I started firing away. Even though I crowned the Fuji Best Travel Camera, it still performed beautifully in these complex conditions which can only be described as sport macro photography! Although I’m not sure if the “sport” element comes from the speed of the butterflies or the yoga poses required to frame the shots…
The X100f is neither a sport nor a macro camera, however its features make it a joy to use in most situations, including chasing unpredictable bugs. Sure it’s a fixed lens camera, but it can focus close and quickly enough to be useful in macro settings. And its nifty built-in zoom and built-in flash features help light up your subject without having to get too close and without the need of external flash equipment.
There are several challenges when using a camera like the X100f to create butterfly pictures, or photos of other bugs.
First, you have to get close to your subject
As mentioned earlier, this is easiest if you are in a conservatory such as Scottsdale’s Butterfly Wonderland. The best macro lenses for bugs aren’t necessarily the ones that magnify the most, they are usually the ones that give you the most room between the front of the lens and your subject. This is called “working distance” and is often overseen when selecting a macro lens. A lot of wider macro lenses have to get very close to create high reproduction ratios. This changes the perspective of the image, gets in the way of light and scares bugs away. The X100f is no exception, the 23mm lens means that you have to get very close for macro work, often too close for butterflies. That’s when the camera’s built-in zoom feature comes in handy.
My Fuji macro lens suggestions:
My other brands macro lens suggestions:
For Sony, I’ve used the 90mm f/2.8 and it’s beautiful. However the Meike 85mm f/2.8 is also full-frame, cheaper and has higher magnification though it lacks autofocus. Nikon makes the king of macro lenses with their (now older) 200mm f/4. It has the best working distance but it comes at a price. Their 105mm f/2.8 is also a stellar performer and I’ve heard good things of the Tokina 100mm f/2.8. Canon’s 100mm f/2.8 is a great macro lens, however if you really want to have fun, try the Canon MP-E 65mm f/2.8 which can zoom up to 5x (not a beginner macro lens!). I haven’t shot macro on M4/3 cameras, but I imagine the Meike would also perform great at a budget price. There are many other macro lenses out there, just always keep in mind the working distance element.
Second, you want to make sure you hit the focus right
Using single point autofocus on the X100f works relatively well but manual focus is usually the best way to go. With macro work and bugs, it might also be easier to move the camera back and forth to find the focus, rather than turning the focus ring. If you can hold the X100f to your face, the electronic viewfinder with focus peaking ON is your best friend. Using the back screen can be challenging depending on the orientation of the camera (one disadvantage of the X100f is that the screen doesn’t flip). Macro work is usually done at small apertures to maximize depth of field and facilitate focus. But the reality is that you won’t be able to get that close with the X100f anyway so you might as well get creative. Shooting at f/16 will get you more in focus but shooting at f/2.0 will create artistic out-of-focus zones.
Third, expose your subject to create separation from distracting backgrounds
Make sure you expose your shot based on the butterfly and not the rest of the frame. You might want to use additional lights even if there is plenty of light to start with. One of the advantages of the Fujifilm X100f is its ability to flash sync at high speed and its built-in ND filter (learn more about these features in my best travel camera article). Without the need for additional strobes, you can shoot wide open in daytime and use the flash as fill-flash. This really helps lighting up your subject. And since you’ll be exposing on the lit bug, the background will naturally be darker creating separation. However, the use of flash can create harsh shadows. For best results, try to find butterflies that are resting on the end of sticks or plants, where it almost looks as if they were flying.
Last, be patient and have fun taking butterfly pictures
Take your time. It seems that some butterflies like to hang out with their wings open, others close them. Some look absolutely magnificent with their wings spread open but you might have to wait awhile for that to happen. Focus on its head and wait for the wings to open. And of course, have fun! But let’s be real here, if you’re taking butterfly pictures, you’re either out in nature or in a conservatory where you are bound to have fun!