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Capturing a Butterfly Up Close

A Butterfly Up Close - A Colotis Vesta butterfly captured at Langano near Bishangari Lodge

I’m sure I have written this before, but one of my ambitions has always been to photograph nature for National Geographic. Maybe this is why one of my favorite things to do with my camera is to walk out and be alone in the environment.

There’s a real sense of zen when you are slowly moving through the world and searching. In my case, especially on this day, I was searching for animals for photographs. We had just arrived at the eco lodge we were staying at and while the rest of my family were enjoying the beach, I was taking pictures.

A Kaleidoscope of Butterflies

Lo and behold in the grass ahead of me, I spotted a kaleidoscope of butterflies dancing around in the wind. With insects in general, not having a macro lens means it can be challenging to make them interesting enough as a subject. However, I personally think that butterflies are by far one of the most beautiful insects you can photograph.

However, I personally think that butterflies are by far one of the most beautiful insects you can photograph.

A Butterfly Up Close - A Colotis Vesta or Veined Golden Arab butterfly captured at Langano near Bishangari Lodge with it's wings open and flat
A Butterfly Up Close – A Colotis Vesta or Veined Golden Arab butterfly captured at Langano near Bishangari Lodge with its wings open and flat

Even better, you usually don’t have to go too far to find a butterfly. They are everywhere. Grab your camera and go out into your backyard and you’ll probably be able to grab a shot of a butterfly.

However,  butterflies are still a tricky subject and can be difficult to photograph in an aesthetically pleasing way. Without a macro lens, it can be even more challenging as you need to get up close. They are incredibly sensitive to movement and by their very nature akin to a toddler that has just learned to walk, they don’t stop moving.

Stalking a Butterfly

So I walked over slowly, making sure to be patient and not spook the delicate acrobats. I needed them to stay still so that I could take their picture.

There’s nothing worse than a blurry butterfly up close. There’s also a real challenge in trying to capture macro style pictures without macro equipment. Without a dedicated macro lens, you need to get a lot closer to the butterfly you are photographing. This can mean you disturb the insects you are trying to photograph.

Another challenge is that when you are using a zoom lens at its maximum and you’re filling the frame with your subject, your focus has to be dead on. One of the features I love with the Fuji XT-1 is that on manual mode I can set a precise focus point. Add to that the quick focus using the AF-L lock button and you get a nice sharp image.

That’s the theory at least.

In practice, nothing you do can really force your subject to stay still long enough. Your brain, fingers, and vision all need to work in the perfect harmony to get the shot. I think after 15-20 minutes of shooting, I got a total of 3 pictures that were decent.

An African Queen or the Plain Tiger butterfly up close with its wings open
An African Queen or the Plain Tiger butterfly up close with its wings open

At the end of the day, the key things to remember are:

  • that you need patience when taking pictures of a butterfly up close
  • try not to cast a shadow over the butterfly as that will spook them
  • stalk the butterfly and don’t chase it; think about where it will be and be ready to take a bunch of pictures quickly
  • and lastly, if you can, buy a dedicated macro lens so that you can put some distance between you and the butterfly

If you can get a few of the above right, you’re going to come away with some great pictures.

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