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How to Photograph Butterflies and Host Plants

Updated on June 12, 2016
LuisEGonzalez profile image

I enjoy photography and have been doing so professionally and independently for over 30 years.

This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.
This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license. | Source

Photographing butterflies

My favorite photo project: butterflies has been one of the best photography projects that I have undertaken.

Waiting to photograph butterflies tested the limits of my patience but were well rewarded at the end. I made it a point to do so with the least expense, so I concentrated on local gardens, local nurseries, botanical gardens and my own backyard.

I had done some prior research to identify the best plants to attract butterflies and several species were readily available in my hometown of Miami Florida. One interesting plant was milkweed (Asclepias family) a hardy perennial.

This particular garden plant is commonly available at many local nurseries and it is a favorite of monarch butterflies as well as other species and its seed pods are easily collected for future stocks. Both milkweeds and monarchs are common to most of the south but do your own research into plants and butterflies for your particular area of the country.

Other useful plants:

Other butterfly plants suggestions are: Indian Hemp (Apocynum cannabinum), Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa),Goldenrod (Solidago sp), and Red Clover (Trifolium pratense).

Strongly suggested is fire bush (Hamelia patens) not only does this hardy bush attract butterflies, bees and a host of nectar loving insects, but it is excellent if you want to attract hummingbirds.

Monarchs not only use the flowers for nectar but they readily lay their eggs on it as the milkweed is a host plant. The plant also provides a chemical protection in its milky white sap that is ingested by the monarch's caterpillars and most birds have recognized that eating the monarch butterfly can be poisonous or at least distasteful, although most adult monarchs lose this chemical protection some time after adulthood.

Plant the milkweed in bunches and watch monarchs flock to it in droves. To photograph butterflies a long lens in the range of 100mm to 300mm should be sufficient. Consider using fill in flash or discretely using reflectors to bounce back light and pre-positioned near selected plants.

Photo tips:

Do your photography early in the morning when the ambient temperature is still in the cool side. This will make most butterflies likely to sit in one place for a longer time period.

Other species that regularly feed on milkweed are the common yellow swallowtail (Papilionidae) and the zebra swallowtail (Eurytides marcellus) and many a bumble bee (Bumbus terrestries).

Photograph these butterflies while feeding, laying their eggs and mating. Also look for their colorful caterpillars as they feed on the milkweed. Once the caterpillar is ready to pupae, they form a sort of "J" and can be removed from the plant, placed in a well ventilated container and you can watch as they hatch.

Be careful not to disturb the caterpillar before they naturally get ready to metamorphose by attaching themselves to some portion of the plant, doing so will more than likely kill the caterpillar by not being allowed to reach maturity.

Once they morph into a butterfly, they will be easily handled and photographed for several minutes until they warm up and take flight. This is excellent for a biology project or just to provide an interesting and instructive way of exploring nature and it's cycles.

If possible take macro shots (close up) to show wing patterns, colors and textures. Include shots that show their environment also. Note: when you are ready to release a newly hatched monarch female, watch it carefully if there are other monarchs around as they will quickly latch on and mate,an event that can last several hours.

Try capturing the various stages of a butterfly's lifecycle

Monarch cocoon
Monarch cocoon | Source
Monarch Caterpillar getting ready to form a cocoon
Monarch Caterpillar getting ready to form a cocoon | Source

Butterflies photos

 Shooting at a low angle makes the subject less apt to flee
Shooting at a low angle makes the subject less apt to flee | Source
Shooting in strong midday Sun is not advisable but often you have to grab the opportunity when it is offered to you
Shooting in strong midday Sun is not advisable but often you have to grab the opportunity when it is offered to you | Source
This file (Butterfly in Louisiana) is in public domain, not copyrighted, no rights reserved, free for any use.
This file (Butterfly in Louisiana) is in public domain, not copyrighted, no rights reserved, free for any use. | Source

© 2011 Luis E Gonzalez


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    • Denise Handlon profile image

      Denise Handlon 6 years ago from North Carolina

      Hi Luis-I love butterflies and I love photography. Unfortunately, I'm just an amateur, but I love to take photos just the same.

      One year I visited the Norfolk Botonical Gardens b/c there was a butterfly exhibit. I got half a dozen very cool photos. My avatar is actually one of the photos I took.

      Thanks for the great tips. I was disappointed I didn't see any of the photos you took. Am I incorrect?

    • LuisEGonzalez profile image

      Luis E Gonzalez 7 years ago from Miami, Florida

      For most animals, specially birds, the most important element to get sharp are the eyes.

      Thanks, glad to be able to help

    • WhiteOak profile image

      Eva Thomas 7 years ago from Georgia

      That is very interesting, I would have never thought about photographing butterflies in the morning. And oh, my goodness I am trying to learn patience when it comes to photographing things such as Birds!! Just yesterday I got the courage up to start working with my larger lens, and although out of 30+ pictures I only had one real crisp come out, it made me happy. You posted some good tips here, butterflies is one of my favorite things so I am really looking forward to Spring this year.

    • FaithDream profile image

      FaithDream 7 years ago from (Midwest) USA

      Beautiful photos. I love the butterfly... Transformed beauty.

    • mannyrolando profile image

      mannyrolando 7 years ago

      Beautiful photos and great hub, I love to photograph flowers among other things, but never quite got into butterflies or other small subjects that tend to move away right at the worst time, I guess I just don't have the patiences! I'm glad that you do, butterflies are so beautiful!

    • profile image

      Luis Enrique Gonzalez 7 years ago

      Thank you, insect photography(specially butterflies) is what got me into photography.

    • profile image

      cmaree 7 years ago

      Interesting hub! It's well set up and looks beautiful :)

    • imfljunior profile image

      imfljunior 7 years ago from East coast United States

      Those are awesome specimens! I used to be really into lepidoptera's! I admire the persistence in capturing these shots. I think these are really cool shots.

      Nice work! Brought me back a few years when I was truly into butterflies the most.

    • tnderhrt23 profile image

      tnderhrt23 7 years ago

      Stunning photography, lovely hub!