How to Photograph Butterflies in Close-Up

In order to photograph butterflies in their natural surroundings, you need patience. Butterflies make great photographic subjects, especially if you can get near enough to take some close-up shots using your camera’s ‘macro’ setting, which enables very close focusing. If you’ve ever tried to photograph butterflies, you’ll know that that’s easier said than done, though. As soon as you approach most butterflies will take off, flutter about a bit and land somewhere else, further away and less accessible.

Orange lacewing butterfly

Orange lacewing butterfly

Photograph Butterflies in Stages

When you see a butterfly has landed in an accessible spot, approach it from behind in stages and take a photo at each stage. If you don’t take it in stages, the closer you get before taking any shots, the higher the chances are that it will take off and you’ll get nothing for your efforts. So don’t walk straight up to it and expect it to hang around. Take it in stages. You’ll at least get some shots even if they’re not close as you’d like. You’ll also be less intimidating and it may let you finally get closer. The problem is that you don’t know how close you can get without scaring the butterfly off. Only the butterfly knows that, so taking shots at each stage as you approach will at least get you something and might get you closer.

orange lacewing underside

Orange lacewing underside view

If you can’t get any closer to the butterfly because of a fence or some other obstacle, you can use your optical (not digital) zoom control if you have one. That will help enlarge the subject without any significant loss of quality, provided you don’t overdo it. Keep in mind, though, that nothing beats the clarity of detail you get from being up close, so don’t use zoom as a substitute for getting closer if you don’t have to.

Common tiger butterfly

Common tiger butterfly

Side View and Underside of Wings

Another annoying habit that butterflies have, although they probably don’t see it that way, is that they like to fold their wings back (upright), more often than they like to stretch them out. With wings folded back, they don’t look so good from above or behind as you can’t see their wings. So you need to approach from the side – preferably the side receiving most light. When you photograph butterflies from the side, the underside of the wing shows. Underside wing patterns are usually less vivid and striking, but they can be quite different from the top side in design and interesting in their own right. There are also advantages to be had if you photograph butterflies from directions other than the classic straight down shot.

Photograph butterflies from the side for face profile

Wings upright position needs a side-on or side-angled view


One advantage of shooting from the side is that you can get the face and eyes – or at least one eye in the shot. They have very interesting eyes. Another advantage is that the background will be nicely blurred and the butterfly will stand out more. When you photograph butterflies from above, the background foliage will often also be in focus which can be distracting.

Photograph butterflies like this common 4 ring in close up

Common four ring butterfly


 If you like butterflies and never tried photographing them before, I hope these tips and pics will inspire you to have a go. You don’t need professional equipment to photograph butterflies or other insects and bugs and get satisfying results, just a camera and a lot of patience. 

All images by chasmac

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  1. Ed Walker
    • chasmac
  2. Ruth B.
    • chasmac