The Challenge of Butterfly House Photography

Photography and Text © 2008 Michael Lustbader
Butterfly World, established in 1988 in Tradewinds Park, Coconut Grove, Florida, was the first “butterfly house” in North America. Since then, there has been a proliferation of similar facilities, where a variety of exotic butterflies and moths hatch and flourish. There are species from Asia, Africa, and South America—little flying jewels that most of us could not hope to photograph during the course of one lifetime, for reasons of both time and finances. You would think that, with such controlled subjects, it would be a simple matter to produce unique and creative images. There are, however, challenges to be met if you don’t want your photographs to look just like everyone else's. These generally involve the following issues: Small subjects Moving subjects “Sameness” of butterflies and plants Difficult lighting Cluttered backgrounds Above Right: Blue Glassy Tiger (Ideopsis vulgaris) Left: Green Jay (Graphium agamemnon)

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Small Subjects


a $500-$1200 specialty lens, check out the multi-element close-up lenses, such as the Canon 500D or Nikon “T” series. These are accessories that fit on the front of your normal lenses like filters. They are reasonably inexpensive and any optical distortion is usually seen at the edges of the frame. If you keep your subject fairly centered and stop down at least one stop, you can generally achieve decent results. Avoid the single element close-up filters — their optical quality is poor. Extension tubes and bellows units increase magnification by increasing the distance between the subject and the eye/film/sensor plane. They are less expensive than macro lenses, but involve a “fumble factor”—an accessory to attach to the camera while the subject flies away. The better ones preserve all the automatic functions of the camera, but your lens can no longer focus at infinity with the extension attached.

The challenge of small subject size is met by increasing magnification. Butterflies are fairly large subjects (for a macro photographer), and magnification from 1/4 to 1/2 life size is usually quite adequate. If you don’t do this type of photography often enough to justify the purchase of

Close-up lens Extension Tubes


Moving subjects

Sometimes, breaking the rules enables us to achieve an unexpected result-Here is an effective abstract of a hovering butterfly using a slow shutter speed and fill-flash. We accept the subsequent blur as a part of the composition.

to maintain their own body temperature. Their level of activity increases with the temperature of their surroundings, so be there in the morning when they are cool and sluggish.

If you wish to photograph butterflies in flight, go with high-speed flash units, infrared beam triggers, and lots of patience. Otherwise, your best bet will be to photograph these lovely creatures as they rest. Butterflies are cold-blooded—they rely upon the temperature of their surroundings

The best (and costliest) option remains the dedicated macro lens. These lenses are optically corrected for close-up imaging and focus from 1:1 (life-size) or 1:2 (half life-size) to infinity. I prefer the 180-200 mm lens because it provides the same magnification with a bit more subject-tolens distance, a helpful characteristic when photographing snakes, bees, and scorpions. The longer focal length also keeps you out of your own light as you photograph smaller subjects, and compresses depth-of-field, to give you a “softer” background. For most photographers, however, the 85-105 mm range macro lens is a good compromise, and can double as a good landscape or portrait lens.

THE CHALLENGE OF BUTTERFLY HOUSE PHOTOGRAPHY You can use the unique characteristics of the butterfly as part of your composition. The glasswing on the left posed in front of a colorful blossom, drawing attention to the transparency of its wings. The “twins” below present a more interesting composition than a single animal. They only stayed in this pose for a minute, but I walk with my equipment already set for the desired exposure and magnification. When I spot a worthy subject, all I have to do is frame, focus, and press the shutter.


Sameness of butterflies and plants

are relatively similar, therefore, from one facility to the next. (To the point that John Kaprielian, nature editor of the stock agency Photo Researchers Inc., pleads, “Please, no more heliconid butterflies on lantana or bougainvillaea”.) Since we have no control over the subject matter to make our images unique, we must look for behaviors, angles, or poses that are interesting, different, and/or aesthetically pleasing.

Most butterfly facilities do not maintain their own breeding stock, but rely upon the same group of breeders and importers. Butterfly and plant species

Difficult Lighting

Lighting within butterfly facilities may pose several challenges. It may be uneven or contrasty, actually not much different from lighting in the rainforest. The absolute level of light may also be quite low. Butterfly houses are established with the general public (not photographers) in mind, and because of space and safety issues, many do not allow tripods. If you wish to come home with exceptional images, be prepared to shoot hand-held. This gives you two main options—high ISO or electronic flash. (Use your tripod if you can, but always ask first). Increasing the ISO allows you to use a faster shutter speed. Digital imaging has a clear advantage over film in this regard–the ability to change ISO in mid-stream to adapt to different lighting conditions. Before you begin to gloat, however, be aware that when you boost the ISO, you also increase the level of “noise” (the digital equivalent of film grain) especially in areas of shadow. Most modern digital cameras will provide a “reasonable” noise structure up to ISO 400, with many of the newer ones providing very fine noise structure well above that range. You can also decrease noise during post-capture processing. Dealing with low light levels:

Behaviors such as egglaying, feeding, mating, territorial challenges, hovering, and emergence from chrysalids are all grist for the macrophotographer’s mill. As you walk around, you will also become familiar with the butterfly’s habits. Some will repeatedly return to the same flower, allowing you to set up and prepare yourself and your camera for image-making.

THE CHALLENGE OF BUTTERFLY HOUSE PHOTOGRAPHY This Leopard Lacewing (Cethosia cyane) was photographed in bright contrasty light, which was “softened” with a diffuser. Diffusers are inexpensive and easy to use. The light passing through them is uniformly soft and even. I find the 12” to 18” size quite adequate. Just be careful to open the diffuser when you are still at a good distance from your subject. Reflectors are a bit trickier to use, as they can overexpose and “burn out” highlights, even as they direct the light to bring out hidden detail in deep shadows. Use the histogram as your guide.

4 The Inverse Square Law (liberally paraphrased) states that the intensity of light decreases in a predictable fashion as it travels from the source to the subject and beyond. The Inverse Square Law is thus responsible for the black backgrounds that were so prevalent in macro-flash photography 20 years ago. By the time the light has traveled two flashto-subject distances behind the subject, it has lost about two stops of intensity. As you may recall from your study of the Zone System, two stops below middle tone (your “perfect exposure”) is almost black. Let’s say that your flash-to-subject distance is 12 inches. If there is no background from which your light can reflect, your subject may be perfectly exposed, but everything 24 inches or more behind your subject will be black. The practical application of this is that for each flash unit, there is one particular aperture (f-stop) that will yield a “perfect” exposure at a specific subject distance. In the “old days”, finding that magic combination was a trial-and-error process. It involved several rolls of film and several weeks waiting for the processed slides to return. Today, because of the magic and instantaneous feedback of digital capture, the same testing can be accomplished painlessly, in minutes. You can do your testing for several power levels, allowing you to vary the amount of fill-flash used. You can place something behind the subject to act as a reflecting background or use a second light source to illuminate the background.

Dealing with contrasty light:

If you’ve ever photographed in a rain forest or tropical jungle, you’ve experienced the frustration caused by deep shadows alternating with bright highlights as sunlight filters down through the canopy. Your meter seems schizoid as it bounces back and forth, trying to measure light intensity that can vary over a ten-stop contrast range in an area measured by inches. Dealing with this type of lighting may involve the use of diffusers, reflectors, flash, and constant awareness. The screen on the back of your digital camera shows a fairly low quality image with a limited contrast range (more contrasty than the actual image) and is usually not very helpful in the evaluation of image quality. However, its low contrast range exaggerates and actually helps you identify potential problems.

and unpredictable overexposure. Good flash technique can make an image “pop”. Poor technique can make it look like a grade C monster movie, with heavy shadows and black legs or antennae disappearing into black backgrounds. These effects are caused by light obeying the Inverse Square Law (See sidebar).

The use of Electronic Flash is somewhat more complicated, and requires some pre-planning, but is capable of solving many of these low-light problems. However, If you think that in the electronic TTL age, flash is a no-brainer, think again. Not all TTL systems can handle the super-short flash durations required for close-distance photography. The result—gross

I use a slower shutter speed which allows natural light to play more of a role in the exposure. Watch out for “ghosting”--a double image caused by both ambient light and flash making separate exposures on the same file.

THE CHALLENGE OF BUTTERFLY HOUSE PHOTOGRAPHY Effective Close-up Flash Photography with Manual Flash One of the older but still reliable techniques involves the use of a lowpowered inexpensive manual flash (no automation, no TTL). Once you have done some initial trial-and-error testing, your results are accurate and predictable, with minimal fussing. The ultimate object is to use the flash to “fill” shadows and to use ambient light to provide the main exposure (including the backgrounds).


Procedure: First, choose a model that has both texture and color and is about the same size as the subjects you will be photographing . (I used to use a small clown doll about 3” tall). Find a manual flash unit that allows you to vary the power setting. (Older Sunpack and Vivitar units are ideal for this purpose). Then, select an f-stop and take a series of images, varying

One of the older but still reliable flash techniques involves the use of low-powered, inexpensive manual flash units

the flash-to-subject distance, or select a flash-to-subject distance and vary the f-stop. When you review your series of images, look for the combination of f-stop and distance that yields the “perfect” exposure. You may need to compensate for subjects that are very light, very dark, or highly reflective, but you will find that your results are quite consistent. Result—perfectly exposed images using a $30 manual flash unit. Using a Sunpack 444 at 1/4 power, f16-f22 would yield a perfect exposure tune the exposures. between eight and fourteen inches. Your histogram will help you fine-

TTL flash

All TTL flash units have a minimum working distance. A subject closer

than this minimal distance will usually be quite over-exposed. The workaround for this is to simply handhold the flash or use a bracket that will hold the unit the appropriate distance from the subject so the TTL function will function correctly. This minimal distance will be found in the flash instruction book, and is generally about 18-24 inches. Another work-around involves decreasing the intensity of the flash by placing a diffuser over the flash head. Some manufacturers include one. If not , a piece of white handkerchief and a rubber band works fine. Just make sure that the material you use is white or your image will have a color cast. (This doesn’t always work, as the automatic flash may try to compensate). When using flash on an adjustable bracket, consider how and where the light will strike the subject and where the shadows will fall. You can vary the direction of the flash head so the shadows you invariably create at least appear real. For instance, a butterfly hanging upside down from a leaf will not normally have shadows above it. Aim for believability. Catchlights in the eyes also should be unobtrusive and believable.

Fill-flash brings out the detail in this predominantly black Scarlet Mormon (Papilio rumanzovia) without burning out the reds. RGB histograms are very helpful with colors that may go out of gamut or lose detail even though the B&W histogram looks fine.

The Wimberley Bracket in action

THE CHALLENGE OF BUTTERFLY HOUSE PHOTOGRAPHY Ring Flash These are lower powered flash units manufactured specifically for close distance photography. Traditionally, there have been several schools of thought regarding ring lights: One group feels that straight-on lighting along the lens axis obliterates shadows. This “flat” lighting eliminates texture and yields an image with decreased dimensionality and/or detail. A second group feels that the ring light is such a large light source compared to the subject size that it acts more like the large body-length light boxes or “soft boxes” that portrait photographers use, and provides a soft, diffuse light. I suspect that the truth of the matter lies somewhere in-between. At one time, I was absolutely opposed to any bracket that held the flash directly along the lens axis. Now, however there is a new generation of ring flashes that utilize independent flash heads (or lamps within the ring itself) that can be adjusted to add directionality to the light. Ultimately, if you can’t see the difference, you probably shouldn’t worry about it. The bottom line is


Nikon R1C1 Ringlight

trial and error, simplified by the immediate feedback provided by your histogram. Note that ring lights are low-powered units, and rarely able to freeze motion. They are not generally useful for flight photography.


Most butterfly facilities are essentially large greenhouses, consisting of translucent panels and screens interspersed with beams, railings, and

signs. Trails and paths within wind back and forth, and the colorful Hawaiian shirts of other visitors will find their way into your photographs if you are not alert. You must constantly be aware of your surroundings and use camera angle and shallow depth-of-field to tone down background clutter and other distractions.

A soft muted background picking up the colors of the foreground flowers. The butterfly is a Golden Helicon (Heliconius hecale).


Butterfly photography involves stalking. Pre-set everything you can. Preselect your f-stop, shutter speed, flash settings, and ISO, so all you have to worry about is composition, focus, and following the action. Choose an aperture according to the depth-of-field you desire, and use your depthof-field preview button often! Pre-set the focusing range according to distance and size of image desired, and adjust shutter speed for correct ambient (natural) light exposure. Aim for an accurate available light exposure by ISO, shutter speed, and f-stop. Begin to photograph when you’re further away than you would ideally like to be, gradually drawing closer, avoiding abrupt, jerky movements. Within limits, you can always crop down to make your subject larger in the final image.

The plastic walls of the greenhouse become part of the composition, accentuating the delicacy of the Citrus Swallowtails (Papilio demodocus).

THE CHALLENGE OF BUTTERFLY HOUSE PHOTOGRAPHY Your technique will vary according to the desired result—textbooks or guidebooks usually require tack-sharp f22 images with huge depth-offield. On the other hand, I use a shallower depth-of-field for more “artsy” images, where the gestalt (general feeling) is more important to me than the absolute detail. One approach is not necessarily better than the other—a different purpose calls for a different aesthetic.


Euiedes isabella, a South American butterfly, poses on a palm frond. The solitary butterfly makes a nice counterpoint to the repeating rhythm of the fronds, even as the wing bars seem to repeat the pattern.

Cruiser (Vindula dejone), a native of SE Asia. By holding the camera plane parallel to the subject plane, you can use a shallow depth-of-field and keep your subject sharp while maintaining a soft, out-of-focus background.

THE CHALLENGE OF BUTTERFLY HOUSE PHOTOGRAPHY The kite butterfly (Idea leuconoe), also known as paper kite, tree nymph, Japanese kite butterfly, is a native of SE Asia.


Vignetting is an effective technique which focuses attention on the subject by photographing it “through” its foreground. Use your depth-of-field preview button to confirm that the foreground remains out-of-focus. If there is no foreground, but you feel as though the subject might benefit from this technique, you can sometimes create a foreground by holding leaves, grass, or flowers in front of the lens. Make sure that your chosen materials are out-of-focus by holding them close to the lens. Choose a color that does not “fight” with the subject. In this photograph, the vignette is provided by the lower pink blossom. The upper one is in the background, but has the same degree of softness as the lower one. The two together frame the butterfly effectively.

This Archduke (Lexias dirtea) is visually isolated by the vignetting technique. If the viewer feels like a voyeur, you’ve succeeded!



A native of Central and South America, the Blue Morpho butterfly (Morpho peleides) is most often seen as a flash of electric blue, flitting through the undergrowth of deep jungle. When alarmed, it folds its wings and seems to disappear, as its brown underwings blend perfectly into the dappled light of the forest. This behavior confuses birds which are zoned into the bright blue.

THE CHALLENGE OF BUTTERFLY HOUSE PHOTOGRAPHY You can also be on the look-out for interesting poses or behaviors, such as head-and-shoulders portraits, egg-laying, caterpillars, and mating.


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