Photographing Captive Butterflies in Flight

I should state right up front that this article is based on some first attempt experimentation. As a consequence the results are not up to the standard that I would have liked. I certainly don’t mind sharing first attempt results with readers. The experience led to some potential learning to share. Photographing captive butterflies in flight hand-held is an interesting challenge. This article shares a selection of images and some of my initial thoughts about adjusting my technique for the future.

Regular readers will know that I’ve been field testing some Olympus camera gear over the past number of weeks. One of the features that the OM-D E-M1X has is Pro Capture. It occurred to me that this capability could work well when photographing captive butterflies in flight.

NOTE: Click on images to enlarge.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X with M.Zuiko 40-150 mm f/2.8 @ 95 mm, efov 190 mm, f/5.6, 1/1600, ISO-6400, subject distance 1.1 metre

After spending a couple of hours at the Niagara Butterfly Conservatory I came away with a few decent image captures. The experience generated some ideas on what I could do differently with future photography of this nature.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X with M.Zuiko 40-150 mm f/2.8 and M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 190 mm, efov 380 mm, f/8, 1/1600, ISO-1250, subject distance 2 metres

My first lesson was that using a teleconverter for this subject matter wasn’t necessarily a good thing to do. While additional reach was gained, the loss of light penalty was fairly significant.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X with M.Zuiko 40-150 mm f/2.8 @ 125 mm, efov 250 mm, f/8, 1/1600, ISO-4000, subject distance 1.5 metres

Far too many of my images were captured at ISO-6400… and many of those were woefully underexposed. This made working with the images in post quite a challenge.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X with M.Zuiko 40-150 mm f/2.8 @ 90 mm, efov 180 mm, f/5.6, 1/1600, ISO-5000, subject distance 1.2 metres

Another consideration was depth of field. Longer focal lengths bring shallower depth-of-field with them. It is very difficult to anticipate in which direction a butterfly may take flight. Using longer telephoto focal lengths meant that quite often a subject butterfly would quickly go out of focus.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X with M.Zuiko 40-150 mm f/2.8 @ 95 mm, efov 190 mm, f/5.6, 1/1600, ISO-2500, subject distance 925 mm

In the future I would use shorter telephoto lengths and forego the teleconverter. This would give me one more stop of light and some additional depth-of-field. To accomplish this I would need to get closer to subject butterflies. In a captive environment this is not an issue as the butterflies are typically accustomed to people.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X with M.Zuiko 40-150 mm f/2.8 @ 120 mm, efov 240 mm, f/8, 1/1600, ISO-4000, subject distance 2 metres
Olympus OM-D E-M1X with M.Zuiko 40-150 mm f/2.8 @ 120 mm, efov 240 mm, f/8, 1/1600, ISO-4000, subject distance 2 metres

Another lesson was to pay a lot more attention to backgrounds. I had a number of decent images that suffered from distracting backgrounds… as we can see in the two photographs above.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X with M.Zuiko 40-150 mm f/2.8 and M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 210 mm, efov 420 mm, f/8, 1/1250, ISO-6400, subject distance 1.7 metres

At the start of my experiment I wasn’t leaving nearly enough room for butterfly flight movement. Trying to photograph butterflies too close up makes capturing them in flight, even when using Pro Capture, more difficult.

Finding a good shooting angle, then waiting for the anticipated action to begin, takes patience but often yields better results.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X with M.Zuiko 40-150 mm f/2.8 @ 85 mm, efov 170 mm, f/8, 1/1600, ISO-6400, subject distance 875 mm
Olympus OM-D E-M1X with M.Zuiko 40-150 mm f/2.8 @ 110 mm, efov 220 mm, f/8, 1/1600, ISO-6400, subject distance 1 metre
Olympus OM-D E-M1X with M.Zuiko 40-150 mm f/2.8 @ 110 mm, efov 220 mm, f/8, 1/1600, ISO-6400, subject distance 1 metre
Olympus OM-D E-M1X with M.Zuiko 40-150 mm f/2.8 @ 130 mm, efov 260 mm, f/8, 1/1600, ISO-6400, subject distance 1.2 metres
Olympus OM-D E-M1X with M.Zuiko 40-150 mm f/2.8 @ 110 mm, efov 220 mm, f/8, 1/1600, ISO-6400, subject distance 1.1 metres
Olympus OM-D E-M1X with M.Zuiko 40-150 mm f/2.8 @ 110 mm, efov 220 mm, f/8, 1/1600, ISO-6400, subject distance 1.1 metres

In the future I would be much more selective choosing subject butterflies. It is also important to study the movements of various species of butterflies and moths as they can behave differently.

Waiting for interactions between butterflies can also produce some interesting images.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X with M.Zuiko 40-150 mm f/2.8 @ 73 mm, efov 146 mm, f/8, 1/1600, ISO-6400, subject distance 1.7 metres
Olympus OM-D E-M1X with M.Zuiko 40-150 mm f/2.8 and M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 210 mm, 420 mm, f/8, 1/1250, ISO-6400, subject distance 5.4 metres

The final consideration is something that affects all photography that we do. Lighting.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X with M.Zuiko 40-150 mm f/2.8 @ 125 mm, efov 250 mm, f/5.6, 1/1000, ISO-5000, subject distance 1.5 metres
Olympus OM-D E-M1X with M.Zuiko 40-150 mm f/2.8 @ 142 mm, efov 284 mm, f/5.6, 1/1000, ISO-3200, subject distance 1.2 metres

Choosing subject butterflies in good light creates more drama in our photographs, and allows us to use lower ISO values which contributes to better image quality.

My first attempt at photographing captive butterflies in flight hand-held with the Olympus OM-D E-M1X using Pro Capture mode taught me some lessons…

1) Be more selective when choosing subject butterflies. Avoid busy backgrounds and find good light. Use a good shooting angle.

2) Forego the use of a teleconverter. Get in closer to subject butterflies and use a shorter focal length to help with depth-of-field.

3) Frame images to allow for flight room.

4) Study various species to learn more about their flight habits.

5) The Olympus Pro Capture Mode is simply awesome to use for this type of subject matter.

Technical Note:
All photographs in this article were captured hand-held using camera gear as noted in the EXIF data. All of the photographs displayed in this article were produced from RAW files using my standard process. All images were cropped to varying degrees.

Use of Olympus Loaner Equipment
All of the photographs in this article were captured using Olympus Loaner Gear which was supplied by Olympus Americas Inc. on a no-charge basis. We are under no obligation what-so-ever to Olympus Americas Inc. in terms of our use of this loaner Olympus camera equipment. There is no expectation or agreement of any kind with Olympus Americas Inc. that we will create and share with readers any images, articles or videos, or on what that content may be.

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6 thoughts on “Photographing Captive Butterflies in Flight”

  1. Dear Tom,
    Your work is always refreshing and inspiring. I began my macro photography journey with your blogs using Nikon 1 J5, the nikkor 1 30-110 and extension tubes. After a short time, I migrate to Olympus and stay there since then. The photos here are wonderful and I am wondering if Olympus loaned you the 60mm macro f2.8. I simply love this lens. Maybe the autofocus is not fast enough for photographing fast-moving subjects, but I believe that it will do wonders in your hands!!!

    Thanks a lot for all your wonderful articles.

    Cesar

    1. Hello Augusto,

      Thank you for your supportive comment… most appreciated!

      I did not get the 60 mm macro lens as part of the Olympus loaner gear. From what I have read about that lens it certainly appears to be a excellent lens. Should I decide to buy into the Olympus system, that lens would be one I would consider purchasing.

      Tom

  2. Tom,

    It’s one thing to photograph butterflies on leaves and flowers and another entirely different thing to shoot them in mid-flight so kudos to your painstaking efforts. As usual, your sharp shooting skills and the Oly’s Pro Capture feature collaborated to produce this exquisite set.

    Oggie
    http://www.lagalog.com

    1. Thanks Oggie… I’m glad you enjoyed the images!

      It is always a learning experience when each of us tries something new or different. Hopefully my next attempt with this subject matter will produce some improvement. Ideally I would like to capture captive butterflies in flight at ISO-3200 or lower.

      I will likely use the M.Zuiko 40-150 mm without the MC-14 teleconverter with an aperture of f/5.6 to have a bit more light and the depth of field needed for this subject. Using f/8 may have been a bit of overkill. In terms of shutter speed… I haven’t made up my mind completely… but I think 1/1250 should be fast enough to freeze wing positions well enough. The biggest thing will be to choose my subjects and shooting angles much more carefully. If I do that successfully f/5.6 should be a sufficient aperture.

      The Pro Capture Mode on the E-M1X and E-M1 Mark II has lots of potential and experimenting with it is worth the time investment.

      Tom

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