I’ve spent a lot of time photographing butterflies during the COVID-19 lockdown.
There’s a large butterfly bush in the garden, so it has been very relaxing to sit and watch and photograph its visitors. It has attracted peacock, small tortoiseshell, and red admirals all summer long… and there’s been no social distancing on those blooms!
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So what have I learned that I can share with you?
The first new thing I’ve learned is that butterflies taste with their feet rather than with their proboscis! Their antennae pick up the scents from flowers. While their feet can actually taste the sugar in nectar.
I also found out that a female butterfly lands on different plants, drumming the leaves with her feet until the plant releases its juices. Spines on the back of her legs have chemoreceptors that detect the right match of plant chemicals. When she identifies the right plant, she lays her eggs. 
My Gear For Photographing Butterflies
I’ve also discovered that my Canon EF 100 – 400mm L II lens (affiliate link) plus a 1.4x III extender (affiliate link) combination actually takes good photos of butterflies. The 100-400 f/4-5.6 becomes a 140-560mm f/5.6-8 lens when I use a 1.4 extender. Plus I get a lovely soft bokeh background even shooting at f8. That’s if I make sure I have enough space between my subject and the other shrubs in the garden.
Using the Canon lens even without an extender has meant that I’m far enough away to not scare off the butterflies, or cast a shadow over them.
Photographing butterflies is best done using a tripod. I had a ball head on the tripod and I kept it very loose. As a result, I could follow the butterflies as they flew from one flower to another. But I wasn’t happy with my compositions. The flowers were just too close to the branches and the bokeh was not pleasing. Now if you knew me well you’d know that I am VERY fussy about backgrounds.
Planning is Key To Photographing Butterflies
…well maybe just for me as I don’t want to take a snapshot. It has to be something that’s so much more creative, straight out of the camera.
Firstly, I needed space between my background and the flowers, so I needed to move into a better position.
I wanted to incorporate blur not only in the background but also in the foreground. So I took decisive action – I ditched the tripod.
Secondly, to get the composition I wanted, I leaned into a privet hedge to support myself while I handheld the camera. I wanted the privet hedge to add blur in the foreground.
Attention To Detail When Photographing Butterflies
In addition, there was one particular flower I wanted those butterflies to land on. The other flowers were fading, but this one flower was pristine. Never mind that lots of green leaves had been eaten by caterpillars. The last thing I wanted was to be cloning holes in photoshop later on.
Furthermore, there was a lovely golden Euonymus shrub some distance behind that flower and I knew it would make a great bokeh.
So it became a waiting game. Those butterflies had to land on that one specific flower… and most did. However, the red admiral refused to oblige me with his presence on that flower!
Up until this summer, I’d only ever photographed birds and a few flowers with this camera gear setup. So I’m delighted with the results, as I was able to achieve macro-like images. Plus using the extender enabled me to shoot at longer focal lengths. But there’s an even greater benefit. It means that if I am out and about with the camera I don’t need to carry the 100-200mm plus a macro lens.
Finally, here are my favourite photos. They are handheld, taken on a full-frame camera, f8, and at iso 1600. Enjoy …
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