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Butterfly Photography Tips – Working With Natural Light

Cameras have undergone a world of development in the last few years. They now feature advanced metering systems, auto focus systems, image stabilization systems, better low light performance, have better response times, faster frame rates and also more pixel count than you’ll probably ever need.

With all these advancements they do a much better job than their predecessors at producing proper exposures under varying lighting conditions. You only have to step in once in a while when you realize that what the camera is recommending may not be the right exposure for the job. You could either do it after reviewing your shot or be proactive and adjust settings anticipating camera error so that the one shot you take will be more or less spot on with only minor corrections if any required. 

how to photograph butterflies
Photo By Carlos

But in order to do that one should have a thorough understanding of the various kinds of light one might encounter while working outdoors. Here in this article we will look into these various lighting conditions with special reference to photographing butterflies so that as a photographer you are aware of both the advantages and the occasional pitfalls of the various types of light.


The most common lighting situation you will ever encounter photographing butterflies will be direct sunlight. This is partly because you are working outdoors and it is the only source of light and partly because butterflies are cold blooded insects and they depend upon the sun’s heat for their metabolism to function and so are most active when the sun is up.

Direct sunlight is great lighting for photographing butterflies for a number of reasons, since it is bright it allows you to use fast shutter speeds in combination with narrower apertures and lower ISO’s. Thus improving your chances of getting sharp pictures with sufficient depth of field and without any camera or subject blur. Sunlight also really brings out the colours in the butterflies wings. On the downside you will have too much of contrast and harsh shadows to deal with.

Depending upon the time of the day, the position of the butterfly and the camera in relation to the sun, daylight could produce any of the following lighting conditions.

Top Lighting

butterfly photography tutorial
butterfly photography tutorial

The kind of lighting seen during mid-day with sun shining directly overhead. Very bright, hard light falling at a 90 degree angle to the butterfly produces very dark shadows to deal with. Also chances are more that the background might come out brighter than the subject. The surface in which the butterfly is perched, a leaf or flower could act as a natural reflector bouncing light back and illuminating the butterfly’s underside. This could make a great effect if you are shooting at a parallel or lower angle to the butterfly.

Tips to work with top lighting

Use a reflector or flash to fill in the shadows a bit, adding details and reducing contrast. In this situation a reflector is preferred over flash because if you are using a flash you will have to limit your shutter speed to the cameras sync speed and to compensate might have to use narrower exposures. It might bring most of the background into focus and might be distracting. Also if you could reflect enough light to the butterfly and expose for the added light you could make everything else in the background underexposed by a small margin. This would enhance your images.

Front Lighting

photographing butterflies in the wild
Photo By Vicky De Loach

Front lighting is when you have the sun behind you. Front lighting could produce great images but most of the time the image will appear flat, without texture or fine detail. 

Tips to work with Front Lighting

While working in front lit situations be very careful so that any shadows, either of you, or of your camera does not fall on the butterfly. If it happens chances are that it might immediately take off.

Side Lighting

butterfly photography india
butterfly photography

One of the best lighting conditions available for photography is during sunrise or sunset when the sun is near the horizon. Sunlight during those times have a golden hue to it and it is also coming at an angle and is great as it reveals the texture in the butterfly’s wings.

Tips to work with side lighting

Light during the golden hours have a natural yellow tint to it. If you have set your camera to Auto White Balance the camera would take away the gold tint and render neutral colours. So it might be a good idea to take it out of Auto and shift to Shade or Cloudy mode which enhances yellows a bit more.


photographing butterflies
photographing butterflies

Back lighting occurs when the butterfly is positioned in between the camera and the light source, in this case sun. Backlighting generally produces a nice rim lighting effect (highlighting along the edges) and looks great on butterflies which has spots on its wings that permit light to pass through them.

Tips to work with backlighting

Adding fill light either using a reflector or flash will help bring details on the side facing the camera.

Cloudy Day Light. 


One of the best lighting conditions to photograph butterflies is when there are clouds in the sky. They act as a giant diffuser making the otherwise harsh sunlight soft. As a result there are no harsh shadows, less contrast and it is ideal lighting to capture saturated colours and very fine detail.

Tips for shooting in Cloudy Day Light

The comparatively lower light levels will call for slower shutter speeds, wider apertures or higher ISO’s. Also if there are rainclouds and chances of rain then most butterflies seek out shelter and will not be active. So be prepared for some low light/high ISO shooting.


butterfly photography
butterfly photography

Some butterflies prefer sunny areas whereas some prefer shade. It’s just their nature; moreover even butterflies who like sunlight will take refuge in shade when conditions become too hot.

Tips for shooting in Shade

Photographing butterflies in the shade is a tricky task. Be prepared to supplement available light with flash or a reflector.

Dappled Light

butterfly photography tips
butterfly photography tips

Dappled light occurs in shaded areas where sunlight streams in through portions of scene. It is one of the most challenging lighting conditions to work with requiring much technique. Often the contrast difference between the light areas and the dark areas will be too big for the camera to handle.

Tips for shooting in Dappled Light

You best chances of making a good photograph in dappled light is when you have a reflector or flash to throw in light to the shade and balance it with the bright areas. The trick is to set the flash to a low power setting (just enough to match the brightness of the lighter areas) and even out the lighting.

butterfly photography ideas
butterfly photography ideas

This article is intended to give people who are beginners in butterfly photography a fair idea of what it is like shooting in the open. Although it might be difficult at first to deal with different lighting conditions, as you grow in experience your mind automatically stores formulas that worked and also the ones that did not work and so later on when you encounter a particular lighting condition your decision will be backed with numerous examples shot in similar conditions and so chances are you will get what you want without much effort. But to reach such a stage it is necessary to acquire the much needed shooting experience.
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