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Butterfly Watching Tips

The Making of Butterfly Watching

"Butterfly Watching" is a TV presentation for Oregon Public Broadcasting's popular show Oregon Field Guide.  It began as an idea I shared with the producer, Vince Patton.  He liked the concept, so from March through October 2013 I was suddenly busy like I've never been before.  There were three outings with his crew to record footage, and I made around 20 more trips to prime locations in Oregon and Washington to take still photos and record my own video.  It was the first time I've recorded for broadcast TV, and I learned a lot from the process.  The biggest challenge was the butterflies themselves.  It's one thing to take video footage of a gorgeous landscape, but quite another thing entirely to chase after a moving subject that won't stay still and get it in focus with a macro lens, where the depth of field is only about 1/8 inch (3 mm), and to keep the camera steady.  

Fortunately, we had an excellent diversity of species at the sites we chose and good wildflower blooms to attract them.  It was a drier year than normal, which made the late summer a bit more difficult to capture as much footage of tortoiseshells as I wanted.  Things worked out fine, though.  

Over the course of the production I recorded a total of 78.5 minutes of video in 117 separate clips.  There was roughly an extra third of material that was discarded in the field.  Vince's editing team then distilled those shots down to the 7 minute, 18 second final version and added interview and explanatory footage to make it a complete story.  I also took 200 or so digital still photos from which we chose 24, plus an additional seven from film to provide 31 high definition closeup shots of butterflies to give the viewer more time to appreciate their beauty and incredible detail.  These photos were all edited to fine-art quality in approximately 90 hours spent in the studio to balance color, contrast, and sharpness and proof for monitor viewing.  

Here are some suggestions and another video from OPB for successful butterfly watching.  It's an activity that nearly anyone can enjoy.  With good binoculars, even people with limited mobility can watch from a wheelchair or just sitting in a field, picnic spot, or trailhead parking area.  If you're interested in photography, a garden with butterfly nectar plants is a good place to start.  Photographing in the wilderness does demand some physical activity as it's necessary to get low to the ground and walk on uneven ground while avoiding falls.  

I'm passionate about butterflies because they are beautiful, but they also have great value to humans.  Why do butterflies matter?  See why they are important.  

Butterfly Watching Tips Video

Oregon Field Guide "Butterfly Watching" Segment

Oregon Public Broadcasting's Oregon Field Guide February 20, 2014 segment "Butterfly Watching" (click above to play) Become an OPB member 
Both videos ŠOregon Public Broadcasting, used with permission

If the window above doesn't display the video, try this link.  


What to Bring

Binoculars that focus up close (5 or 6 feet), a point-and-shoot camera with good macro focusing, or a digital SLR with a long (120-200 mm) macro lens, with a tall flash that mounts in the camera's hot shoe (when focusing up close the lens will cast a shadow that makes pop-up flashes useless.)  Also have along plenty of water, a hat, and sunscreen.  Bring a notebook for recording observations and a field guide such as Robert Pyle's The Butterflies of Cascadia.  

Where to Go

Butterflies are easiest to find outside of cities.  Urban areas have too many pesticides and non-native plants to support a diverse butterfly population.  Seek out roadsides with flowers, or any meadow in bloom.  In northwest Oregon, try High Prairie near Mt. Hood's Lookout Mountain or Lolo Pass Road.  In southwest Washington, good places are Silver Star Mountain and the roads leading to it, and the Swale Canyon Trail of the Klickitat River.  Along roadsides, be careful about safety:  park off the roadway, watch for vehicles, and step carefully near ditches or anywhere off trail.  Choose a sunny, calm day.  

How to Watch

Reduce glare with a hat and a good pair of sunglasses.  Get an up-to-date vision prescription if you need it.  To approach butterflies step quietly, don't talk.  They can hear and sense vibration.  Don't cast your shadow across a butterfly.  Avoid insect repellent and strong fragrances.  Use unscented soaps and sunscreen.  Pay attention to behavior and look for patterns, as many butterflies will loop along a trail or roadside and seek out hilltops.  If your quarry flies off, stay in place and watch to see if it returns.  Meanwhile, watch in the distance and if you see a number of them in another spot, move there.  The novice will have best success starting out with binoculars to reduce the chance of startling them.  Watch your step to avoid trampling flowers; butterflies need them to survive.  If trying to approach butterflies, wear drab clothing in greens or browns.  

How to Photograph

Turn on image stabilization if available.  Remember that image stabilization corrects for camera shake, but not the movement of the butterfly.  Try to time your shot for a moment when the butterfly is still.  Shutter speed of at least 1/125 second and a small aperture (high f-number) give best depth of field.  For point-and-shoot cameras, f/8 works.  For digital SLRs, choose f/22 or greater.  Autofocus is the best unless you have a subject willing to stay still a long time.  For most digital SLR cameras, good starting settings with flash are ISO 200, f/22, and 1/125 second.  Turn on the camera's histogram feature and learn to use exposure compensation to get the best results. 

Depth of field is shallow for macro photos.  Keep the back of the camera parallel with the desired plane of focus (usually the butterfly's wings) in both the vertical and horizontal directions.  Paradoxically, a smaller camera sensor will give better depth of field while sacrificing overall resolution and is more suited for butterflies that want to hold their wings in a V shape.  Don't be afraid to open the lens and use a shallow depth of field for more creative compositions.  The faster shutter speed can help to freeze moving wings or impart a sense of motion if flash isn't used.  

Photographing butterflies in motion takes patience, luck, and a lot of trial and error.  Remember to pan the camera while shooting to minimize blurring of the butterfly.  Some of the most interesting shots are of butterflies on the wing or moving in some way.  Experiment with video too if butterflies are not interested in staying still.  

If picture backgrounds are dark when using flash, do one or more of the following:  

 Increase a digital camera's ISO sensitivity. 
Open the aperture (select a smaller f-number.) However, doing so will decrease depth of field. 
Photograph in direct sun, not in the shade. 
Choose your composition so the butterfly is close to the background, such as when it's on the ground or on a low-growing flower.

Check your images frequently in the field and adjust settings if problems are noted.  

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