Denver Butterfly Pavillion: Photographing Butterflies

| May 25, 2012
butterfly at denver butterfly pavillion

Canon 100mm f/2.8L Macro, 1/320, f/3.5, Handheld with No Flash

Denver Butterfly Pavillion Tripod Photography Opportunities

I recently visited the Denver Butterfly Pavilion to take some up close and personal photographs of butterflies. The Denver Butterfly Pavillion has five immersive exhibits, including a rainforest filled with 1,600 free-flying tropical butterflies. On select days for a $15.00 fee, photographers are admitted an hour before the Pavilion opens to take photographs with flash and tripods. It was overcast the morning I arrived, which actually worked in my favor. The conditions made the butterflies less active, which kept them relatively still and in prime form for some fun close-up photography.

While at the Pavillion I took both handheld and tripod-supported shots as well as some with and without flash. For equipment, I used my Canon 5D Mark III and Canon’s highly regarded 100mm f/2.8L macro lens. For flash, I used a handheld Canon 580EX II Speedlite with wireless radiopoppers for off-camera activation.

butterfly at denver butterfly pavillion

Canon 100mm f/2.8L Macro, 1/50, f/5.6, On Tripod with Flash

A bit about the influence of aperture on macro photography

One of the challenges but creative aspects of macro photography is the extremely shallow depth of field at wide apertures (small f numbers). What does this mean? Wide apertures, f/2.8 for example, allow only a small sliver of the image to achieve focus and acceptable sharpness. The rest of the image is rendered into a beautiful sea of blur, known as bokeh. To give you an idea of how extreme  depth of field can be in macro photography, I once took a picture of a ladybug and was shocked to find that although the body was in focus, the head was not!

To demonstrate, look at the shot directly above. As you can see, even at f/5.6, only the eye, head, and a small portion of the butterfly’s body are in focus. This is because the butterfly is somewhat perpendicular to the image plane, causing it to go out, in, and out of focus from near to far. When shooting this way, it is a good idea to double check the accuracy of your focus to make sure the part of the body that you want in focus is dialed in. I used the Live View feature on my camera to magnify the butterfly on the camera’s rear LCD so I could focus on the eye manually with a high degree of accuracy. I only do this when using a tripod because the slightest body movement when hand holding a camera will cause the target area to move out of focus too easily. We will cover hand holding technique later.

Now compare the shot of the butterfly on the orange flower directly above to the shot of the white butterfly at the very top of the post. Even though the white butterfly is shot at an even wider aperture of f/3.5, it is rendered in pretty good focus and detail across its entire body. This is because the butterfly is relatively parallel to the image plane, which keeps it within the sliver of focus despite the wider aperture. Basically, just remember that if the subject is parallel to the camera, the more likely it will be in focus at wide apertures. If you want as much of the butterfly in focus as possible and have to shoot at wide apertures due to low light conditions, try moving to an angle of view that puts it more parallel to the image plane. The shot directly below is also a good example of this advice in action. The wing is perfectly parallel to the camera and therefore in sharp focus.

butterfly at denver butterfly pavillion

Canon 100mm f/2.8L Macro, 1/160, f/6.3, On Tripod with Flash

Adding flash to create macro drama

Using a flash for macro work can add creative flair to your macro photography. Take a look at all of the photos in this post. Some are shot with a flash and some are not. The two shots that were handheld with no flash are somewhat flatter from a lighting perspective, meaning the butterfly does not appear as separated from the background as those in the flash-assisted shots.

What’s nifty about using a flash is that I can dial in the lighting for the subject and the background in a single shot by carefully selecting my flash and shutter speed settings. In this series, all of the backgrounds of the flash-lit scenes are darker relative to the subject than those taken with no flash. This is because I used the flash to light the subject and then used the shutter speed to dictate the brightness of the background. The faster the shutter speed, the darker the background will be. If I want a brighter background that is closer in value to the subject, I just pick a slower shutter speed so that more ambient light reaches the sensor while the shutter is open.

To use this technique with your own speedlite, you will need a way to fire your flash off camera. It can be a radiopopper like mine or a simple and inexpensive flash cable. I basically set my camera up on a tripod, chose my aperture, manually focused on my target, and then shot while I handheld the flash in various places and distances at 1/64th or 1/32nd power until I got the look I wanted.

butterfly at denver butterfly pavillion

Canon 100mm f/2.8L Macro, f/9, On Tripod with Flash

Hand holding technique that worked for me

Once our hour was up and the doors of the Pavilion opened to the public, the tripods had to go away for public safety reasons. This gave me an opportunity to see if I could get interesting shots of the butterflies while hand holding the camera. Piece of cake! If I was going to hand hold the camera, I knew I would need a faster shutter speed to eliminate camera shake. To get a faster shutter speed, I needed to use a wider aperture and a higher film, or ISO, setting. I put my ISO at 1600 and dialed in f/2.8 for the shot directly below. Now here is the trick. To get the head of the butterfly in focus, I had to make sure I did not waver back and forth after the auto focus got head in focus. Remember, just the slightest movement of my camera can cause the head to go out of focus and kill the shot. I had the best luck when I fired the shutter as quickly as possible after the the focus locked in. Once I had the shot composed, I half released the shutter to lock focus and immediately fully depressed the shutter to take the shot. This allowed me to capture the image before my body wandered to and fro with the camera in hand.

butterfly at denver butterfly pavillion

Canon 100mm f/2.8L Macro, 1/320, f/3.5, Handheld with No Flash

Although the depth of field is razor thin in the shot above, I still think it is interesting to view with its dreamy feel. Think of every shot as an opportunity to make a nicely composed picture, not just a picture of a butterfly. If you think of everything in the photo as abstract forms that play off of each other to make a pleasing whole, your images will take on a whole new dimension. In the image below, there was something about the white highlights in the background that played nicely with the white wings on the butterfly. See what I mean?

butterfly at denver butterfly pavillion

Canon 100mm f/2.8L Macro, 1/50, f/7.1, On Tripod with Flash

I hope you like the photos and find something useful in the post. I love making the most of every picture I take and hope this post inspires you to try something new with your camera to capture the beauty around you!

Canon 100mm f/2.8L Macro, On Tripod with Flash

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Category: Photography, Tutorials

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  1. S. T. George says:

    These are great photos! Beautiful butterflies in great detail. I would love one of these as a painting challenge.

  2. Terry says:

    Next best thing to being there! Just gorgeous.

  3. Lee says:

    Thanks Terry and S.T.! Glad you enjoyed the shots. Take care!

  4. Your work is so inspirational, Lee! GREAT photographs here, and many thanks for sharing some really fabulous tips and tricks!

  5. A.Barlow says:

    Those are awesome man. I tried using tripods when doing most macro and found it almost impossible. Where I live it’s just to darned windy!

    What I did though is I made a rigging out of random parts from a company called MAC. I was able to screw these parts into a Wimberly bracket and create a sort of arm for my flash.

    The whole set up is huge but I can move the flash anywhere I need it and keep both hands on my camera. It also lets me shoot at like f16 for nice DOF when needed. (although personally I like the sliver of DOF look)