For as long as I can remember I have always had an interest in nature. Even as a young child I enjoyed observing birds, reptiles, amphibians, and mammals. Birds were and continue to be my passion, but in recent years my fascination with butterflies has grown exponentially. I think part of this fascination comes from the fact that we have such a variety of beautiful butterflies throughout Southwestern Ontario and I seem to encounter a different species almost every time I am out.
Depending on the weather, butterflies are typically observed in our area from April to November with different species being observed at different times of the year. As the seasons progress, new species appear providing variety throughout the year. This continued influx of species adds to my fascination and makes every outing different. In many ways it is very similar to bird migration knowing that there is the potential to see something new every time I am out in the field.
Observing and photographing butterflies throughout the summer months and into early fall is a great way to spend time in the outdoors. I find it a nice change of pace from photographing birds and to be honest less challenging. Compared to birds, butterflies move slower, are less wary, and when nectaring on a flower often provide unobstructed views. Also, butterflies can be quite predictable regularly landing on the tallest flower in a group or the one with with a clear flight path to it, which allows me to prepare myself for the shot long before it presents itself.
When it comes to butterflies, the Monarch is by far my favourite followed closely by the Black Swallowtail. Perhaps the fact that the Monarch Butterfly is a species at risk in Ontario combined with its impressive fall migration spanning thousands of kilometers is why I am so intrigued by this species.
Butterflies are plentiful in Southwestern Ontario and can be found in a variety of habitats. I like to concentrate most of my time searching fields and meadows with an abundance of wildflowers. Meadows containing a few small trees and shrubs adjacent to a forest edge are particularity productive as this offers the most diverse habitat and provides a location for butterflies to feed, seek shelter, and roost.
Since butterflies roost at night and during cold, wet weather, the best time to locate them is from mid-morning to late afternoon on sunny days. This is when daytime temperatures are the highest and consequently so too is butterfly activity. During the summer months, getting out during the midday sun in the hot humid conditions is the best time to locate butterflies. While birds and mammals may be less active during the heat of the day, butterflies are quite the opposite.
When photographing butterflies I like to use similar camera settings as I would when photographing birds. If you are comfortable shooting in manual mode I would recommend doing so and adjust your ISO and aperture to give you a shutter speed of around 1/1000 of a second. This may seem like a fast shutter speed for butterflies, but has become my benchmark shutter speed for all nature photography. Butterflies may not move as quickly as birds, but a fast shutter speed is equally important for several reasons. First, butterflies will almost always give a slow wing flap when nectaring on a flower. This motion may not appear like much, but can result in a significant amount of blur on your final image if your shutter speed is too slow. Second, on windy days the flower or other object that the butterfly is resting on will move back and forth in wind. Having a fast shutter speed will help to freeze this action leading to a sharp image. Finally, a fast shutter speed will help compensate for any camera shake encountered while trying to steady the lens. If you are not comfortable shooting in manual mode than I would recommend aperture priority mode and again adjust your ISO and aperture to give you give you a shutter speed as close to 1/1000 of a second as possible. I prefer to photograph all nature including butterflies on sunny days as the bright sun really brings out the colours and contrast of an image, so achieving this fast of shutter speed under these conditions is never a problem.
During these sunny conditions one issue that is readily encountered is excessive highlights in your image. Often times flower petals and/or the buttery’s wings will be overexposed resulting in a loss of colour, contrast, and detail. I recommend turning your camera’s highlight alert on and paying close attention to your histogram to watch for this. These extreme highlights can be easily corrected by adjusting your camera settings to slightly underexpose the image if you are shooting in manual mode or by making use of exposure compensation in aperture priority mode. I find that on most sunny days I underexpose by 1/3 to 2/3 of a stop to compensate for these highlights. Making these simple adjustments will result in a better final image as it will capture the true colour, contrast, and detail of both the butterfly and the flower.
When out photographing butterflies during summer conditions there are a few things I do to protect myself while out in the field. Wearing sunscreen is a must. It doesn’t take long these days to get a sunburn and the damage to your skin caused by the sun is not something to take lightly. I also make sure I stay hydrated and nourished by drinking lots of water and taking a snack. I prefer energy bars as they are quite filling and fit nicely into my pocket. Dehydration and hunger can sneak up fast on hot days and by being proactive both are easily avoided. I also choose to wear a lightweight long sleeve shirt and pants rather than shorts and a T-shirt not only to protect against the sun’s harmful UV rays, but also protect me from insects including mosquitoes and ticks. I also apply insect repellent for added protection. When searching for butterflies in areas where I have encountered ticks in the past, I tuck my shirt into my pants and my pants into my socks to prevent access to my skin. These simple measures make sure my time spent outside is enjoyable despite the conditions.
If you avoid getting out and enjoying nature during the summer months because it is too hot and humid or you find conditions slow, give searching for butterflies a try. I think you will agree that there is always plenty of action and will quickly forget about the heat, humidity, and undesired insects as you get lost in the beauty of not only the butterflies themselves but also the colourful summer blooms they are attracted to.