Photographing butterflies with a minimum of gear

There is something inherently liberating about photographing butterflies with a minimum of gear. As they flit about I can easily follow them without being bogged down by a ton of gear.

Being able to stick a camera body, one lens, and a small set of extension tubes in a cargo pants’ pocket is about as ‘bare bones’ as I get when it comes to gear. This article highlights a selection of butterfly images captured with a Nikon 1 J5, 1 Nikon 30-110mm f/3.8-5.6 zoom lens, and a couple of MOVO extension tubes.

NOTE: Click on images to enlarge.

Nikon 1 J5 with 1 Nikon 30-110mm f/3.8-5.6, 21mm and 10mm MOVO extension tubes attached
Nikon 1 J5 with 1 Nikon 30-110mm f/3.8-5.6, 21mm and 10mm MOVO extension tubes attached

There are, of course, tradeoffs when using a smaller, lighter camera system like Nikon 1 that utilize smaller-sized sensors. The new 20.8MP BSI 1″ sensor in the J5 is a marked improvement over the Aptina sensors in previous Nikon 1 models but physics being as they are a small sensor can only do so much.

Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikon 30mm-110mm @ 110mm, efov 297mm, f/5.6, 1/200, ISO-2200
Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikon 30mm-110mm @ 110mm, efov 297mm, f/5.6, 1/200, ISO-2200

Sensor performance in terms of dynamic range and colour depth lags behind APS-C and full frame cameras and low light performance would certainly not be considered a strength.

Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikon 30mm-110mm @ 110mm, efov 297mm, f/5.6, 1/200, ISO-1800
Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikon 30mm-110mm @ 110mm, efov 297mm, f/5.6, 1/200, ISO-1800

In return for those shortcomings there is the freedom that comes from using a smaller, lighter, and much simpler system.

Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikon 30mm-110mm @ 110mm, efov 297mm, f/5.6, 1/200, ISO-360
Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikon 30mm-110mm @ 110mm, efov 297mm, f/5.6, 1/200, ISO-360

When photographing butterflies I typically use Manual settings and Auto-ISO 160-3200. This allows the ISO to ‘float’ to acquire proper exposure, while allowing me the freedom to adjust shutter speed and aperture as needed.

Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikon 30mm-110mm @ 110mm, efov 297mm, f/5.6, 1/200, ISO-2000
Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikon 30mm-110mm @ 110mm, efov 297mm, f/5.6, 1/200, ISO-2000

I almost always shoot my Nikon 1 gear using single point auto-focus. My J5s or V2s allow me to position that single AF point virtually anywhere in the frame. When I see a potential image I typically preset my single AF point even before I look through the viewfinder of my V2s or at the rear screen of my J5s.

Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikon 30mm-110mm @ 110mm, efov 297mm, f/5.6, 1/200, ISO-2500
Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikon 30mm-110mm @ 110mm, efov 297mm, f/5.6, 1/200, ISO-2500

Depending on the subject butterfly and its position relative to me I typically place the single AF point on its head, or more specifically, on one of its bulbous eyes. Some species of butterflies tend to be quite docile and stationary, while others are fidgety. This can necessitate some adjustments to shutter speed.

Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikon 30mm-110mm @ 110mm, efov 297mm, f/5.6, 1/200, ISO-160
Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikon 30mm-110mm @ 110mm, efov 297mm, f/5.6, 1/200, ISO-160

I typically shoot my Nikon 1 gear at f/5.6 but lately I have been pushing that a bit to f/8 or so when I need a bit more depth of field. There is some risk of diffraction when moving to that aperture with a smaller sensor camera.

Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikon 30mm-110mm @ 110mm, efov 297mm, f/4.5, 1/250, ISO-2800, MOVO extension tubes
Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikon 30mm-110mm @ 49mm, efov 133mm, f/4.5, 1/250, ISO-2800, MOVO extension tubes

Regardless of the camera used, one of the most important factors is to chose appropriate image subjects from the hundreds of butterflies fluttering about in a facility like the Niagara Butterfly Conservatory. I look for decent separation from the background and whenever possible try to find subjects that are perched in more open areas so I can easily adjust my shooting angle.

Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikon 30mm-110mm @ 44mm, efov 119mm, f/8, 1/250, ISO-3200, MOVO extension tubes
Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikon 30mm-110mm @ 44mm, efov 119mm, f/8, 1/250, ISO-3200, MOVO extension tubes

I also tend to avoid areas of the facility that are subject to strong air currents from the internal heating/cooling system as they can cause too much subject movement or agitation of surrounding foliage. Another factor to consider when photographing butterflies in this type of facility is the width of the aisles.

Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikon 30mm-110mm @ 49mm, efov 133mm, f/9, 1/160, ISO-1000, MOVO extension tubes
Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikon 30mm-110mm @ 49mm, efov 133mm, f/9, 1/160, ISO-1000, MOVO extension tubes

If the aisles are narrow bringing a zoom lens that has a long minimum focusing distance will be problematic. A zoom like the Nikkor 200mm-500mm has a minimum focusing distance of 2.2 meters, or about 7.2 feet. Given the narrow aisles at the Niagara Butterfly Conservatory a lens like the 200mm-500mm would be pretty much useless.

Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikon 30mm-110mm @ 49mm, efov 133mm, f/8, 1/160, ISO-3200, MOVO extension tubes
Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikon 30mm-110mm @ 49mm, efov 133mm, f/8, 1/160, ISO-3200, MOVO extension tubes

The minimum focusing distance of my 1 Nikon 30-110mm is about 1 meter (3.3 feet). This lens gives me an equivalent field of view of 81mm to 297mm. This comparatively short minimum focusing distance is well suited to the narrow aisles at the Niagara Butterfly Conservatory.

Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikon 30mm-110mm @ 57mm, efov 154mm, f/8, 1/250, ISO-1000, MOVO extension tubes
Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikon 30mm-110mm @ 57mm, efov 154mm, f/8, 1/250, ISO-1000, MOVO extension tubes

By comparison an F-mount full frame Nikkor 70-300 f/4.5-5.6 has a minimum focusing distance of 1.5 meters (4.9 feet) and my 1 Nikon CX 70-300 when fully extended has a minimum focusing distance of 1.6 meters or 5.2 feet. The differences in minimum focusing distances between these three lenses may not sound like much but when shooting in tight aisles having a shorter minimum focusing distance is definitely preferred.

Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikon 30mm-110mm @ 51mm, efov 138mm, f/5.6, 1/80, ISO-720, MOVO extension tubes
Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikon 30mm-110mm @ 51mm, efov 138mm, f/5.6, 1/80, ISO-720, MOVO extension tubes

Photographers who like using extension tubes will have their own preferred lenses and technique. I have never liked using prime lenses with extension tubes, and I have always preferred to shoot hand-held. It comes as no surprise then that my favourite 1 Nikon lens to use with extension tubes is the 30-110mm f/3.8-5.6 zoom.

Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikon 30mm-110mm @ 53mm, efov 143mm, f/8, 1/80, ISO-720, MOVO extension tubes
Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikon 30mm-110mm @ 53mm, efov 143mm, f/8, 1/80, ISO-720, MOVO extension tubes

Using extension tubes comes with a penalty of losing light. I often will change extension tubes to get the degree of magnification effect desired while still trying to maintain as much light as possible.

Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikon 30mm-110mm @ 51mm, efov 138mm, f/4.5, 1/250, ISO-3200, MOVO extension tubes
Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikon 30mm-110mm @ 51mm, efov 138mm, f/4.5, 1/250, ISO-3200, MOVO extension tubes

Since I was out for some casual butterfly photography in terms of this article, I stacked the 21mm and 10mm MOVO tubes for many of the images in this posting and did my best to deal with high ISO noise in post.

Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikon 30mm-110mm @ 62mm, efov 166mm, f/4.5, 1/250, ISO-900, MOVO extension tubes
Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikon 30mm-110mm @ 62mm, efov 166mm, f/4.5, 1/250, ISO-900, MOVO extension tubes

While you can certainly use more sophisticated and higher quality gear than I did to photograph butterflies, it is possible to have a lot of fun and capture some decent images with a minimum of gear.

Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikon 30mm-110mm @ 53mm, efov 143mm, f/5.6, 1/125, ISO-1400, MOVO extension tubes
Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikon 30mm-110mm @ 53mm, efov 143mm, f/5.6, 1/125, ISO-1400, MOVO extension tubes

Technical Note:
All images in this article were captured hand-held in available light using a Nikon 1 J5, 1 Nikon 30-110mm f/3.8-5.6 lens, and MOVO extension tubes as noted in EXIF data. All photographs in this article were produced from RAW files using my standard process of DxO OpticsPro 11, CS6 and Nik Suite.

Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikon 30mm-110mm @ 110mm, efov 297mm, f/5.6, 1/200, ISO-1400
Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikon 30mm-110mm @ 110mm, efov 297mm, f/5.6, 1/200, ISO-1400

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2 thoughts on “Photographing butterflies with a minimum of gear”

  1. Very nice photos. I know you are taken with the J5 but it is a no go for me. I am old fashioned and only use cameras with viewfinders. Got a great buy on a V3 with viewfinder and it is so fast. I am hoping Nikon still comes out with a viewfinder Nikon 1 or my 2 V2’s, 1 V1 and one V3 will suffice. Nothing against your choice of J5, just not my cup of tea. 🙂

    Vern

    1. Hi Vern,

      I also prefer using cameras with a viewfinder. If there was a Nikon 1 camera that had a viewfinder and the new 20.8MP BSI sensor I would have bought it instead of the J5…but such a camera does not currently exist.

      Tom

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