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