Butterflies and us, how we can interact for superior photographs

A viceroy butterfly rests on grass with water in the background.

With the coming of spring, color bursts forth as the greyscale of winter subsides. Soon, the butterflies, the most beautiful of all insects, will return to brighten our world. They do not bite, but rather fly around and alight, seemingly to delight us. Of course, their more important purpose is to act as pollinators. But that does not mean we should not enjoy and photograph them.

A Variegated Fritillary feeds on nectar.

So why just watch them from afar? Butterflies are insects that will interact with us, and photographing butterflies is a great way to get to know these creatures better. With some knowledge of their behaviors, photography of butterflies can be engaging and fun. Here, I want to share with you some of my observations on their behavior which will help you learn to interact with them and photograph them.

Butterflies are prayed upon mercilessly by birds and other insects. So it is reasonable that they will fly away on our approach with camera in hand, as we invade their personal space. However, if the approach is made slowly and only to a distance of 2–3 meters, some initial photographs can be taken. Then, while moving slowly closer, the butterfly will likely take to flight.

A comma butterfly rests on a leaf.

This is when the interaction begins. The butterfly will commonly fly toward the observer and upward. It’s almost as if they are checking us out to assess the threat. After a few circles in the air, they are likely to return to the same spot. This is especially so for males when obtaining minerals from the soil needed for reproduction. At this point, we can move in closer for better photos, as the game begins again. After a few additional circles, the butterfly will return and at this point we can get within one meter or less. It is as if they have judged us to be friend not foe.

Four male tiger swallowtail butterflies consume minerals from the soil.

But the interaction does not stop there. Butterflies open and close their wings while alighted to control body temperature. On a bright sunny day, they may not open up for a good photo. So, by very slowly moving one’s hand to block the sun, they will open their wings. They will stay this way for a second or two after the sun returns. This is enough time to get some additional photos.

This general approach works well for the larger species. The medium size Cabbage White butterflies and their ilk, however are much more skittish and they generally will not play. The little butterflies such as the Gray Hairstreak or Eastern Tailed Blue will respond well to a deliberate and slow approach without much of the game having to be played.

An eastern tailed blue butterfly rests on a blade of grass.

Male butterflies tend to be the most photographed as they have more reason to spend time near the ground. The females tend to stay higher up in the trees except for feeding and ovipositing. During egg laying, they flit from leaf to leaf, not stoping long enough to compose a photo.

A buckeye butterfly eats necter from a flower.

I have been photographing insects for many years and have learned much about their species dependent behaviors. Most insects will just fly away when they feel threatened, however, some will interact, although to a lesser extent than the butterflies. For example, some damsel flies are very curios and will fly around us before again landing on a nearby leaf. Dragon flies on the other hand generally will fly away. However, even with dragon flies, there is a commonly observed behavior we can use. While flying out over a lake eating, they will routinely land on a stick or rock at the shore. Usually each time they land, it will be on the same perch. So, this allows us get closer while they are away flying. All that said, the butterfly remains the most interesting and engaging in the mutual interaction.

I have used many lenses for photographing insects from prime macro lenses to zoom lenses. I prefer the prime macro lenses and commonly use an 85 mm tilt-shift lens. The tilt feature is useful to keep the entire insect in focus given the generally acute camera angle. The low cost 50 mm macro lenses are not great for use with insects as they require to close of an approach for a reasonable image size.

Even in the sun, I typically use a fill-flash. This lets me stop the lens down for better depth of field while maintaining fast enough shutter speed for hand photography. Yes, a tripod can be used, but it generally just gets in the way.

So, as summer approaches, get your camera and enjoy interacting with the most beautiful of all insects, the butterflies.

Finally, a note on the location. These butterflies were photographed by the author in South Western Michigan and Northern Indiana.

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