A little while ago, I wrote a piece on macro photography and some of the specialized gear and techniques that contribute to success in that field of photography. Unfortunately, a lot of that goes out the window when you’re trying to photograph skittish subjects like butterflies in the field. By “in the field” I mean in their natural habitat going about their business, not pinned to a backboard, chilled, or otherwise tranquilized. So in this post, I’m going to share the setup I use to allow you to move around and still light the subject in a pleasing and natural way.

First off, forget the tripod unless you want endless hours of frustration. There simply isn’t time to position accurately before the subject moves on to another flower. This means you’re probably going to need a setup with image stabilization either in the lens or body. As a Nikon shooter, I use the Nikon 105mm f2.8. I would actually much prefer the 200mm f4 for greater working distance but the lack of stabilization and need for higher shutter speed rule it out for handheld use. For my lighting, I have two requirements: a nice even light that bathes the subject and is balanced to the ambient light and, a direct source to pop some light into eyes and minute shadow areas. To accomplish this, I use a regular Nikon speedlight configured as a Master with a small Lumiquest softbox mounted on the front. This provides the nice even illumination I like without hot spots or harsh shadows. If you don’t have the softbox, the built in reflector card will work pretty well but won’t be as soft or as free of shadow areas. For the direct source, I use a Metz Ringlight Slave. This mounts to the front of the lens via an adapter ring and is triggered by the main flash unit. I typically have this set to about 2 stops below the main light to keep the effect subtle. To keep it all together, the whole kit is mounted on a ProMediaGear flash bracket. This allows for both horizontal and vertical framing while keeping the main light off the camera and directly above the lens. I’ve tried many over the years (mostly for event photography) and this is the best by far in one that rotates.

This is what it looks like all together:

As far as settings go, I’m usually at ISO 400 or higher, minimum f/8 (preferably f/11) and a shutter speed of 1/125 or higher. I set the aperture and shutter speed to what I want and adjust the ISO to get the right exposure. Main flash is balanced to the ambient, sometimes slightly over if I want a darker background, and the ringlight is about 2 stops under. Then, all you have to do is chase the butterflies around or, if you want to improve your chances of getting close, feed them to attract them, or try a butterfly conservatory (but watch out for damaged wings there).

The results look something like this:

A couple of final tips: good camera technique is critical for sharp images at close range, especially with the extra weight of the lighting you’re carrying – wait for the image to fully stabilize and lock focus before squeezing the shutter and, maximize your depth of field by keeping the subject parallel to the focus plane as much as possible. Remember that, even at f/11, from a foot away your depth of field is less than 1/8th of an inch.

So get out, experiment with your own techniques and start capturing those free butterflies.