Ever Try to Photograph a Butterfly in Flight?


I like a challenge but have to say it will take some practice. Not that many butterflies other than Cabbage Whites fly around the yard in the first place, but getting them focused is really difficult with their jerky motion. This post is not how to do it, but just to give it a try. I have photographed them in flight before, but never so close. One day I hope to get really nice shots. Practice, practice, practice…


I am not talking about landing and feeding, but them fluttering around the garden. I have great photos of them sitting and feeding… but I could not get one photo in flight that was really sharp and clear.

TigerSwallowtailSee, better when they sit still, even if they are far at the tree top.

This Swallowtail never landed on the carrots but looked like he might, that is why I have the closeup shots. I should have had the camera shutter speed a bit faster. In case you are wondering, it was 1/1000 sec.  f5.0  ISO 400. It really needed 1/1250 sec. at least to keep the wings from blurring. Note to self.

HummingbirdStopAction1/1000 f5.6  ISO 800 taken 7-25-13

Hummingbirds I can stop the wings at 1/1000 sec. I have images of the hummingbirds using my feeder finally. It took cutting down all the Monarda for them to take a gander at the feeders. The wind ravaged the plants, so it was cut back hard to rebloom later.

HummerMonardaThis image taken today by the Monarda that bloomed again is if you lower the shutter speed. 1/320 sec. f5.6 ISO 400. Many prefer the blur to show the motion. I like seeing the light through the wings.

You will see hummingbirds in free flight coming up. Again, much harder than hovering at a flower or feeder, like shown above.


The Swallowtail seemed very attracted to the carrots, so I kept the camera framing them and just waited for the flyby. I have parsley, fennel and basil growing and flowering, but he wanted carrots. He also ignored the Butterfly Weed. Oh well, just glad to have something that interested him.

Maybe him is a her! I can’t tell the difference. The carrot family is a good place for some butterflies to lay eggs. Who knows, maybe some caterpillars soon.


I did notice against a darker background the camera could focus a bit better through all the fluttering and weaving back and forth. You really have to give this a try. I did have fun chasing him around.


Between them and erratically flying dragonflies, it pushes one’s photographic limits.

Exposure is hard to determine. In the hummingbirds coming up, I sat and waited until a hummingbird flew into the garden and captured him on entry to land in the pear tree. I was not happy with either the Swallowtail or the hummingbird shots, but with practice these panning shots will become more easily executed. Practice is the key…


This is a flying Black Saddlebags Dragonfly above. Also hard to photograph…


Unless of course they are resting.


It is funny, but my Swallowtail flew right in front of my NWF sign but I did not get a very focused shot. The best one was right before he got there. Thought he might like to do a little conservation promotion…

Well, my little exercise proved harder than I thought. I hope a few more fly in so I get some practice.

Garden tour next! We are off to….


About Garden Walk Garden Talk

I love to photograph, paint, draw, design, garden, travel the world, and pass on a few tips and ideas that I learned through experience as a Master Gardener and architect. I am highly trained in my field and enjoy my work each and every day. I garden in Niagara Falls, NY in zone 6-B. Find me at: http://gardenwalkgardentalk.com
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70 Responses to Ever Try to Photograph a Butterfly in Flight?

  1. lucindalines says:

    Great shots!! You have way more patience than I do.

    • Thank you Lucinda. It really does require patience when shooting things that are little and on the move. If I was far back from it, the images would have been much more in focus. The aperture would have been at f11 or f16 which would have helped. I like blurring background closeup.

  2. what a great post and I love the photo that is above this line: See, better when they sit still, even if they are far at the tree top.

    The cardinal photo is wonderful too!


  3. ginnietom says:

    thatś professional…beautiful shots…:-))) which camera or equipment ?

    • Danke Werner. Ich verwenda ein Nikon D7000 mit einem 3oomm Objectiv. I am guessing you are German. Forgive me, my German is very rusty. I had many years of study, but little chance to really speak the language. I try to write in German on occasion, but usually get it wrong.

      • ginnietom says:

        schön gesagt…

        D7000 or updated D7100 were top ranged on my wishlist, before I decided to catch the OM-D, cause I used OM-Systems analog in my youth and had MFT Equipment at least…

        no problem, german is not as easy as speaking or reading english or american …
        have a good thursday, dear Donna, in State of NY…if I’m right to look after your location…

        like your great posts….

  4. Brian Comeau says:

    Sorry really beautiful shots Donna. I’m not seeing many butterflies this year. How’s the population near you?

  5. Wow, excellent shots! I can’t even begin to come close to that quality. So I’ll just enjoy them on your blog.

    • Funny, I was just on your blog at this very moment to see your reply to my comment yesterday. I seem to have trouble getting a comment posted for some reason. It has happen previously too. Thanks for thinking the butterflies are good, but I am going to try to perfect this if I get more of them visiting.

  6. All of the images in this post are amazing Donna!

  7. choppy123 says:

    Really good photos hmmmm wonder if anyone took any photos of you chasing the butterfly with the camera 😉

  8. It’s nice to see your photos again Donna, life is indeed beautiful.

  9. you did WELL! there are some great captures here! z

  10. acuriousgal says:

    I have yet to shoot something in motion…..when I do, I’ll use some of your tips!

  11. Oh wow youve absolutely nailed the shots, they are stunning. I managed some bees and dragonflies in flight last year. But I have been desparately trying to get some butterflies inflight the last few days myself…great minds think alike. But your images are just gorgeous, butterflies have the wonderful lazy lolopy flap thats just adorable.
    Great advice from you thank you and your followers so I will put that to good use and keep trying.

    • I wish I had more butterflies in the yard like in previous years. They are timid and don’t usually stick around if I am in the yard. The best time to get them is early morning if they happen to overnight in the garden. If they take flight, they are often very sluggish too. I rarely am in the garden early morning because there is always too much work to do before I take a photo break. This guy gave me a good two minutes to chase him around in early afternoon.

  12. Victor Ho says:

    Excellent post. Shutter speed, f stop, and pre focus fly-by… important tips. Auto focus will usually be too slow. I use the closest focus setting. It focuses upon the nearest subject. That has been working for things slower than insects. There is also a focus button that lets you focus without having the lens on manual. It’s the little button labeled “AF-L AF-E.” Then you then pick the moment to trigger the shutter with another finger. This I learned in sports photography. But it always comes down to a bit of luck. When you’re zoomed in, it’s especially hard to follow a bird or insect in flight.

    • Determining focus setting is great with a tripod, but these guys are usually not very predictable where they fly. I hand hold the camera for all my wildlife, unless I am at the marsh and the egrets are far out in the marsh. Then I take the 400mm and the tripod and it is all manual focus. Hummingbirds and small insects, I let the camera do the focus some of the time. It works on bees. I do focus with AF-L button pretty often though. You hit the nail on the head. It is the zooming all the way in that presents the most problems. It is very difficult to get it right on. I have to check the images because I am not sure at what focal length the lens was set. I doubt I was all the way at 300mm or the butterfly body would be blurrier.

  13. Kane Beatz says:

    Reblogged this on Beatz kane Blog.

  14. I wonder, how much better can you get?!!!!!
    However I wouldn’t think of discouraging you from practice, for very selfish reasons[!]: I’m enjoying these a lot!
    Happy August, Donna!

    • That is very nice of you to say, Marina. I have seen some photos of flying butterflies by pros that are spectacular and I want to get in that league someday. I like my bees and feel I am at least keeping up with the pros with bees. But, like anything creative, one always pushes oneself to betterment. I hope I don’t get frustrated in just trying. That almost happened with bees before I started getting the hang of it.

  15. I forgot to say how much I loved your Swallowtail, they are so rare over here. Apparently they can be found in East Anglia in the UK where I live…….but never Ive never even seen one. You have captured a gorgeous point of view from underneath too. x

  16. I know how hard it is to make a picture of a flying insect !!!! so congratulations !

    • Thanks. I know there are a number of garden photographers that shoot nice butterfly images and I have seen some in flight. They are usually at a distance which makes it easier to focus with an f-stop like f16. Way more is in focus and sharp. I could do that too and just enlarge the image, but no challenge in that for me. Well, making it harder for myself is not always very successful, but I do learn stuff along the way.

      • I wish I could make nice close ups but my camera is not up to it or maybe I am not up to it, I don’t know much about photography, but I am pretty pleased with my digital camera !

  17. Stephi says:

    Beautiful! I’m passing this on the the real photographers in the family. Looks much trickier to do than getting them sitting still. Up in MI on vacation and saw lots of milkweed, but no monarchs.

    • It is if you want to get them closeup. They are not often willing to have a long lens on top of them, but this one was pretty amicable. I should have been more patient and at least took the time to check the photos for exposure. That is my main problem. I set the camera and don’t always check to see if I have it right. Then the big surprise when I get back to the computer. Sometime, I am going to set the camera up to send the images to my iPad so I can glance down and see what I am getting. The small viewer on the camera has tricked me many times into thinking a photo is sharp and it is not. The histogram helps on exposure if I remember to check it out.

  18. Julie says:

    These are wonderful photographs, we have another survey here as well as the Wildflower count and survey, its the Big Butterfly count, this one is easy for everyone to join in with and only 15 minutes spent in a sunny spot and recording the butterflies seen. Your post was a lovely read.

    • Thanks Julie. I have seen butterfly counts here too, but honestly, I don’t see that many this year. Lots of Cabbage Whites, but I saw two Monarchs and three Swallowtail all year, and that includes the meadows at the Falls. Skippers are pretty common, but not Commas or Red Admirals like last year. Dragonflies are really down as well. I saw three here in my garden, and only less than ten at the meadows. I have a beauty coming up. I never saw this dragonfly before and it is really pretty. I got some great closeups too.

  19. A-maaaaaazing shots!! Great instructions too on how we could do it… I may just be inspired to take my DSLR off AUTO 🙂
    Plus I’m jealous of all the hummingbirds and butterfly’s, my hours of research and efforts have amounted to fruitless attempts. I ended up attracting every bee in the neighborhood (wasps actually) ugh!

    • I am glad to get another manual convert. I keep telling people how much more fun they will have. Sure, a lot more will be sent to the trash at first, but I found that over time I shoot less and less because the photos will “just come out”. You get a sense of what settings are going to work. Since shooting flying butterflies was new to me, I just made a determination and should have made another choice. But know I now for these conditions, make sure shutter speed is faster. I mostly have the camera set to 1/125 sec. f8 and ISO 200 if I am just outside snapping landscapes. Auto settings for the camera are at 1/100sec. f5.6 ISO 100 for general conditions, so auto is not always so bad.

  20. Skeeter says:

    Great job with beautiful photos! I find them difficult enough to photograph while on a plant but to get them in flight is just beyond my patience level….

  21. Maybe the swallowtail was making sure you are “certified”. If not, it’s off to the next yard! Anyhow, I love these shots, including the ones that you say are not sharp. We have had few butterflies this year. and Judy has not taken a butterfly picture since early spring. Hummingbirds have been more frequent. I’ve toyed with the idea of getting a video camera to capture the hummingbirds, butterflies, and other insects. I’ll make sure Judy sees this post, may give her some ideas.

  22. Denise says:

    There are no butterflies in my garden. Because there are very few flowers. But even if there were I would probably not be able to photograph them. I admire your skills.

  23. Pat says:

    Great shots of those flighty critters!

  24. LOL no problem.

    Mine was all over the Cat’s Catnip 🙂 not a lot in bloom here 😦

  25. Kevin says:

    I couldn’t help but laugh out loud when I saw this headline — because that’s how I spent the other day. I noticed a butterfly making regular visits over the past few days, so I was ready with my camera. Well that guy flitted and fluttered and I was treated to either a blur or an exit from the frame or nothing at all. So, my answer is to your question is, “Yes, but not successfully.” And I know that butterfly was laughing at me the whole time. I’m glad you were able to capture so many amazing photos.

  26. Donna, I keep trying but I am never satisfied with my motion shots! Hummers are even more challenging for me than butterflies although I am not proficient at any of them. Yesterday I was in a meadow looking for monarchs and was trying to capture other butterflies in mid air without success. Sigh!

  27. Great job. I was trying to photograph a butterfly nectaring on clematis on the tour with Jean. When I downloaded the photos, i found lots of frames where the buterfly had just left and no good shots, practice is right.

  28. luiselotte says:

    Great shots!!
    Great shots!!
    Great shots!!
    Great shots!!

    ♥ Luiserl

  29. Brieuse Bernhard Piers-Gûdmönd says:

    I shall return!

  30. A.M.B. says:

    Wow, beautiful pictures! I absolutely love the third one from the top of the swallowtail (is that a crape myrtle?).

  31. Just fabulous Donna…I am still trying to get a steadier hand with the new camera…not there yet and not ready for anything moving around…but it is fun to chase and just try and get a shot…these are amazing.

  32. Gorgeous shots! The third one is perfect in terms of light. The creamy flowers (look sort of like Red Elderberry?) both brighten and soften the light which set off the beautiful butterfly wings exquisitely. And the angle he/she is at gives the shot a delicate precariousness. Love it. The seventh and eighth ones are great for an insect in flight. As you say, not at all easy! Sometimes I wonder if they’re playing with us as we try to catch them looping through the flowers. At least, I like to think they are.

  33. sharonftaylor says:

    Spectacular! …but my favorite photo was the yellow one sitting still on the cream colored flower!

  34. Between Butterflies and Birds in flight usually looks like a hot mess of a blur when I try to capture – ha!

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