ABOVE: The Queen Butterfly (Danaus gilippus) feeds on milkweed at the start of summer in New York. Although beautiful, these butterflies are quite poisonous to birds.
Every summer I take several trips to the Sweetbriar Nature Center in Smithtown, New York to photograph Butterflies. I use my Canon 40D with a Canon 100mm Macro lens and a 580 EXII flash. While a ring flash would be nice for this type of work, it's not necessary. You can still create wonderful butterfly pictures using a standard external flash. On this visit, I chose to drastically underexpose the busy background and illuminate the butterfly with the flash. One of the keys to making this work is to find a butterfly with several feet between it, and the background. By using my max flash sync speed of 1/250, an ISO of 100, and a small aperture of f11, I was able to render the background black. The milkweed to the right was still lit by the flash since it was closer to the camera. Notice how the flash really highlights the detail around the edges of the wing to provide some separation with the background. To avoid getting an overflashed look, you can also cut the power on the flash slightly. I was shooting with it on ETTL, and occasionally dialed it down to -1/3, -2/3, and even -1. As for the depth of field, f11 served two purposes. It let in less light, and provided greater depth of field so the entire butterfly was sharp including the antenna.
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