Photographing Butterflies In-Flight

This article discusses some of the factors that can be considered when photographing butterflies in flight. While some people use tripods for this type of photography, this article discusses photographing butterflies in-flight handheld using Olympus Pro Capture H.

NOTE: Click on images to enlarge.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm with M.Zuiko MC-20 teleconverter @ 300 mm, efov 600 mm, f/11, -0.7 step, 1/1600, ISO-1250, Pro Capture H mode, subject distance 1.4 metres

It wasn’t that many years ago that photographing butterflies in-flight was deemed by many photographers to be a pretty futile endeavor. For those who were intent of getting some in-flight images, people would dutifully set up tripods with their camera gear focused on a individual blossom… then wait for a butterfly to land/depart from it. For those willing to make the time commitment, their efforts were often rewarded with some very good images.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm with M.Zuiko MC-20 teleconverter @ 300 mm, efov 600 mm, f/5.6, 1/2000, ISO-640, Pro Capture H mode, subject distance 1.8 metres

Imaging technology has made significant strides over the past few years. The Olympus Pro Capture feature represents a game changing advancement for this type of photography. A few years ago it often would take many hours of patience to capture a handful of tripod based images of butterflies in-flight, Pro Capture H makes creating these photographs much less complicated as it can be done handheld, and with absolute confidence.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm with M.Zuiko MC-20 teleconverter @ 300 mm, efov 600 mm, f/11, -0.3 step, 1/2000, ISO-2500, Pro Capture H mode, subject distance 1.8 metres

To help illustrate the wonderful capability of the Olympus Pro Capture H function, I went out to Urquhart Butterfly Garden on the morning of July 19th. Spending a total of 37 minutes photographing butterflies in-flight that morning, I was able to capture all of the images displayed in this article. I returned home with over four dozen keeper images for my investment of 37 minutes of photography time.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm with M.Zuiko MC-20 teleconverter @ 300 mm, efov 600 mm, f/11, -0.3 step, 1/2000, ISO-2500, Pro Capture H mode, subject distance 1.8 metres

For those of you who may not have read some of my previous articles on Pro Capture, they can be found listed in the subject index on the right-hand side of this website. There is also a YouTube video that I created on this topic. If you are not familiar with how Pro Capture operates these references may be helpful.

Let’s look at a few considerations when photographing butterflies in-flight…

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm with M.Zuiko MC-20 teleconverter @ 300 mm, efov 600 mm, f/11, -0.7 step, 1/1600, ISO-1250, Pro Capture H mode, subject distance 1.4 metres

Shutter Speed

When photographing butterflies in-flight I used shutter speeds that ranged from a low of 1/1250 to a high of 1/2500. The shutter speed that you choose depends on how much wing blur you may want in your images. I found that a shutter speed of 1/1600 worked well for larger butterflies like Monarchs, with slightly faster shutter speeds often being preferred for smaller butterflies.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm with M.Zuiko MC-20 teleconverter @ 300 mm, efov 600 mm, f/11, -0.7 step, 1/1600, ISO-2000, Pro Capture H mode, subject distance 1.4 metres

Aperture

As we know, the choice of aperture has a direct impact on the amount of depth-of-field in an image. During my visit to Urquhart Butterfly Garden I used apertures ranging from f/5.6 through to f/11.

When photographing butterflies in flight the depth-of-field can be quite limited. For example, when I was positioned 1.8 metres away from a subject butterfly, using a focal length of 300 mm (150 mm plus M.Zuiko MC-20 teleconverter) with my Olympus gear, and an aperture of f/5.6… the depth-of-field was slightly over 1 centimetre. Even moving my aperture up to f/11 only gave me a little over 2 centimetres of depth-of-field.

Most of my images were captured using an aperture of f/11 as I decided that I would risk some potential diffraction for the additional depth-of-field.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm with M.Zuiko MC-20 teleconverter @ 300 mm, efov 600 mm, f/11, -0.7 step, 1/1600, ISO-2000, Pro Capture H mode, subject distance 1.4 metres

Subject Shooting Angle

When using Pro Capture H, the first frame locks focus and exposure for the balance of the run. In order to capture the highest number of in-focus images I tried to photograph butterflies that were flying parallel to the focal plane of my camera. While this was my intent, the subject butterflies did not always cooperate and would often take flight at unanticipated angles. I was usually able to get at least a couple of frames with the butterflies in focus.

There was some wind that morning which caused subject butterflies to move from my pre-focusing points as the blossoms they were perched on swayed in the breeze. As a result I did have some runs that did not produce any usable photographs.

Whenever possible I tried photographing butterflies in-flight with the sun at my back, or with side lighting.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm with M.Zuiko MC-20 teleconverter @ 300 mm, efov 600 mm, f/11, -0.7 step, 1/1600, ISO-3200, Pro Capture H mode, subject distance 3.1 metres

Frame Rate and Pro Capture Settings

As mentioned earlier, I used Pro Capture H for all of the images in this article. I used a frame rate of 60-fps as I wanted to capture as many photographs showing discrete differences in wing and body positions as possible.

As is my standard practice when photographing smaller sized subjects, I set my Pre-shutter Frames to 15, and my Frame Count Limiter to 15. This meant that my Olympus OM-D E-M1X would spool 15 images in temporary memory while I half-dressed my shutter release. It would record them once my shutter release was fully depressed. It also meant that my camera would not capture any additional images once the shutter release was fully depressed.

Shooting at 60 frames-per-second with Pro Capture H settings of 15/15 gave me a response time of 1/4 second from when a butterfly would first take flight until I fully depressed my shutter release. Previous experience has shown that my reaction time was sufficient for these settings.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm with M.Zuiko MC-20 teleconverter @ 300 mm, efov 600 mm, f/11, -0.7 step, 1/1600, ISO-3200, Pro Capture H mode, subject distance 3.1 metres

Auto-focusing

I always use single point auto-focus when shooting with Pro Capture H. When photographing butterflies in-flight I would try to place the single auto-focus point on its head or body.

Often the butterflies would move around on the blossom so I would have to continuously reset my single auto-focus point. For very active butterflies I would often change it as quickly as I could say “thousand one” to myself. Since my depth-of-field was so shallow it was critical that I reset my auto-focus point constantly as the butterflies moved about.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm with M.Zuiko MC-20 teleconverter @ 300 mm, efov 600 mm, f/11, -0.7 step, 1/1600, ISO-2500, Pro Capture H mode, subject distance 3.4 metres

Use Fast Memory Cards

When using Pro Capture H it is critical to remember that Pre-shutter Frames are being spooled in temporary memory, and are not written to your memory card until the shutter release is fully depressed. Then, all of that data is released to be written to your memory card. If you use a slow memory card it may cause your buffer to clear slowly and you could miss additional opportunities.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm with M.Zuiko MC-20 teleconverter @ 300 mm, efov 600 mm, f/11, -0.7 step, 1/1600, ISO-5000, Pro Capture H mode, subject distance 2.4 metres

Composition considerations

Photographic composition is always a personal decision. Some photographers like to show a lot of background around a subject to give it context. Other photographers prefer to get in close to their subject. I mixed up my compositions… but typically I like to show a blossom in the photograph to add some context and scale.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm with M.Zuiko MC-20 teleconverter @ 170 mm, efov 340 mm, f/11, -0.7 step, 1/1600, ISO-2000, Pro Capture H mode, subject distance 1.8 metres

Eye/Hand Coordination

Practising eye/hand coordination with our camera gear on an ongoing basis pays big dividends when having to respond to fleeting image opportunities like photographing butterflies in-flight.

During my visit I had one opportunity to photograph the swallow tail butterfly in the image above. I watched it flit about for a couple of minutes before it momentarily landed on a white flow quite close to me.

I had about 2 seconds to get the butterfly framed in my viewfinder, change the focal length of my lens, position my single auto-focus point, then fire off my Pro Capture H run as it took flight. Luckily it moved in a parallel direction and almost all of my 15 Pro Capture H images were in focus.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm with M.Zuiko MC-20 teleconverter @ 300 mm, efov 600 mm, f/11, -0.7 step, 1/1600, ISO-3200, Pro Capture H mode, subject distance 3.7 metres

Learn by Watching Subject Butterflies

It is important to watch the movements of subject butterflies, as well as to take note of the flowers that various species prefer. This helps a photographer anticipate the flight paths that a specific butterfly may take. For example, I noticed that most of the butterflies would fly slightly upward when leaving a blossom. To allow for this I set my single auto-focus point to centre position, then down two notches.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm with M.Zuiko MC-20 teleconverter @ 300 mm, efov 600 mm, f/11, -0.7 step, 1/1600, ISO-2000, Pro Capture H mode, subject distance 3.8 metres

The Olympus Pro Capture H function takes photographing butterflies in-flight to a completely different level. I simply cannot imagine trying to photograph this subject matter without my Olympus gear.

Technical Note

Photographs were captured hand-held using camera gear as noted in the EXIF data. Photographs were cropped to taste, then resized for web use. Images were produced from RAW files using my standard process.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm with M.Zuiko MC-20 teleconverter @ 170 mm, efov 340 mm, f/11, -0.7 step, 1/1600, ISO-2000, Pro Capture H mode, subject distance 1.8 metres

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6 thoughts on “Photographing Butterflies In-Flight”

  1. Hi Tom – – Great examples of ProCapture capability !

    A question: When discussing your aperture and shutter speed settings, you noted: “Even moving my aperture to f/11 only gave me a little over 2cm of DoF” …

    How did you know DoF was then at ~2cm – Was that just experience on your part ?

    John TKA

    1. Hi John,

      I used an online depth-of-field calculator and put in various shooting scenarios. This allowed me to better understand some of the potential depth-of-field challenges with which I would be working.

      Tom

    1. Hi Jack,

      The only cards I use with my E-M1X cameras are 64 GB UHS-II V90. I find the 64 GB size sufficient for my needs, and the V90 speed works well for both video and for modes like Pro Capture H.

      Tom

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