Capturing Flying Flash Butterflies

by Steven Smith | Aug 1, 2022 | 0 comments

Meadow fritillaries in flight with Queen Anne's Lace
Meadow fritillaries and Queen Anne’s lace. Photo © Steven Russell Smith.

If you are like me, butterflies were the inspiration and springboard for your pursuit of serious photography. Through the years, we have all captured some amazing portraits of these beautiful creatures on flowers. But why not capture them flying? In my opinion, there is nothing more graceful and beautiful than a butterfly in flight—not to mention the sense of freedom it evokes.

I would like to share with you my “flying flash” system for capturing studio shots of butterflies in flight. Yes, this system can also be set up outdoors, but, if you choose that option, you only get one chance to capture the shot. In the studio, you get to recapture the butterfly and do several takes.

The first thing to do is catch a butterfly and place it in a medium-sized container. I have found it to be a good idea to let the butterfly remain in its container for several hours or overnight, so it will be calm when I photograph it.

You will also need a background photo with beautiful bokeh (out-of-focus) of the area from which the butterfly was caught. This will give you the option of later layering your flying butterfly into a composition representing its natural habitat. I like to photograph the backgrounds I’ll choose from during the last hour of golden light in the evening.

Next, choose a room in which to photograph your butterfly. A room without furniture or appliances behind which a butterfly could get lost/damaged works best. You can cover potential trouble areas with a sheet.

Now, on a table or stand, set up a prop at a comfortable height for focusing, and from where the butterfly will be released. You can use a small flower in a vase, or, easier and better yet, a skinny twig sticking up into the air. This provides a precise point on which to focus, as this is where the butterfly will be released.

Choose an uncluttered backdrop so it is easier to extract the butterfly, if you plan to layer it into a different background. I use a green towel suspended a couple feet behind the prop.

Now let’s talk about equipment. The two key components for success with this method are a moderately wide-angle lens and flashes. The lens needs to be wide, but not too wide. I use a Canon 28mm fixed lens, which is just about perfect. If it is too wide, you will never be able to capture the butterfly large enough in the frame, and the lens will be practically on top of the butterfly. A moderately wide-angle lens gives you greater depth of field than a 50mm (standard/normal lens on full-frame cameras), allowing for a far greater chance of capturing the entire butterfly in sharp focus.

So, I begin by placing my camera on a tripod at the same height as the top of my prop. I know from experience that to capture a small to medium butterfly with my 28mm lens, the end of the lens should be about 13 inches from the prop. You may need to experiment and adjust the distance according to which lens you are using, how large your butterfly is, and how large you want the butterfly to appear in the frame. Keep in mind that your butterfly does not need to fill the frame. It only needs to be sharp.

After your tripod is set at the proper distance, attach a cable release to your camera, and then compose your picture so your prop is centered vertically but favoring one edge. Switch your lens to manual focus and get the prop in sharp focus. You will release your butterfly at this point of focus, facing into your composition. Sometimes the butterfly will fly away quickly, so you may end up capturing it at the far edge of your frame. That’s why you want to leave more space on one side.

I use four flashes in my setup, but you can use only two or even just your on-camera flash if that is all you have.
I position my flashes on stands about five feet away from the prop, one on either side of the prop angled in from the front, and two more angled in from the sides. The side flashes are positioned a little bit behind the prop to produce a touch of back lighting as well. I set all my flashes to 1/16 power and wide-angle. My camera settings are f/16, ISO 100, and shutter speed 100, with the camera’s drive mode set to “continuous.” The lens will remain in manual focus.

Now it’s time to wake up your butterfly and test its flying skills! First, you must wash and thoroughly dry your hands. Then slowly open the lid of the container, and, with your thumb and forefinger, slowly reach in and clamp both upper wings of the butterfly when they are in the closed position.*

With the cable release in your other hand, release the butterfly at your focal point, oriented into your composition. Immediately fire off a series of shots!

The most important thing now is not to rush over and inspect your LCD screen, but to keep your eye on the butterfly and see where it lands. Reclasp its wings, and complete the process a few more times. Then place your butterfly back into its container.

Although you have just achieved tremendous success, there may be more to come, as you may be able to capture some bonus shots outdoors! Bring your camera and your container outside, clasp your butterfly, and place it on a flower or plant in a location with a beautiful background. Maybe, just maybe, he will stay there long enough for you to capture some great portrait shots as well! This is what happened with my Viceroy butterfly, and, in the end, I decided to layer my flying shots on my portrait shot.

*Editor’s note: Stamp forceps have a very lightweight spring and work nicely to hold a butterfly. Grip the stiff lead edge of the butterfly’s forewing near the body. He may flap, but gently come up from the underside with your fingers until you are holding the butterfly from below, with wings folded over its back. Using a forceps helps to save the scales on the top wing surface.

Viceroy butterflies with flowers
Viceroy butterflies. Photo © Steven Russell Smith.

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