Ethereal butterflies

Now’s the best time of year to capture beautiful butterflies in all their glory. Add a touch of Photoshop to create a dreamlike image…

Ross Hoddinott

Camera: Nikon D800E

Lenses: NIKKOR AF 200mm f/4 Macro

Software: Photoshop CS5

NO SUMMER’S countryside walk would be complete without a few butterflies flitting about. Even those not keen on bugs and little critters can’t help but like ‘flutterbys’. They add grace, beauty and a splash of colour to our gardens, meadows and woodlands — they also prove irresistible to outdoor photographers! However, being small, active and very mobile, capturing good butterfly images can prove challenging. Thankfully with a little know-how and good technique, blurry butterfly close-ups will soon be a thing of the past…

First things first — you need to find a habitat that is good for butterflies and visit at the right time of year. From May until September, a variety of species will be on the wing. Grassy meadows, heath land, woodland and chalk downland are all good locations. Gardens full of nectar-rich plants are another good environment for insects. Butterflies like warmth, so sunny days are best. Morning and evening are good times to look for butterflies, as they grow less active.meaning they’ll be easier to photograph, and the light will also be richer.

Your choice of equipment is also important as you need to employ a relatively high level of magnification. A close-up filter, extension tube or macro lens are the best options for enabling you to get close enough. Each will do the job, but of the three, a macro lens is the best. You will often have to work handheld when shooting butterflies, so if your lens has image stabilising technology, switch it on. Keep your elbows tucked into your body to improve your stability. Focusing manually will often prove a more reliable and precise method than autofocus. In terms of aperture selection, you want an f/stop that is going to provide enough depth-of-field to keep your subject sharp,but not so much that background detail grows too much of a distraction. An aperture off/8 is a good starting point, but you may require more or less depth-of-field, depending on the subject, situation and the result you desire.

A Locate your subject

Butterflies are most active around nectar-rich flowers, but can also be found basking on low vegetation, paths and walls. I favour a telephoto-macro lens (with a focal length exceeding 100mm). It allows me to shoot further away from my subject, reducing the risk of disturbance or my shadow falling across the subject.

Look out for shake

At high levels of b magnification, even small movements are enhanced. When butterflies are resting during early morning and late evening, it can be possible to position a tripod. More often, though, you’ll have to shoot handheld so, if necessary, increase ISO to generate a fast enough shutter. In this instance, I used ISO 400.

Stay parallel to your subject

With such a shallow depth-of-field, maintaining a parallel plane of focus is important to ensure that your subject is rendered sharp throughout. For instance.if the butterfly rests wings-open, shoot from overhead; if it rests wings-closed, shoot from one side so that the camera is parallel to its under wing.

Mind the background

Check for distracting out-of-focus vegetation or highlights that might ruin your final shot. Try to keep backgrounds simple and diffused, so that your subject stands out nicely. Choose a wide aperture or change your position slightly, if required. In this instance, a wider aperture of f/6.3 throws the background nicely out of focus.

Swap the red and blue channels

In the Layers palette, click on the Create new fill or adjustment layer button and select Channel Mixer. In the Adjustments palette,set the Red Output Channel to Red 0%, Green 0% and Bluel00%. Then set the Blue Output Channel to Red 100%, Green 0%and Blue 0%.

Reduce saturation

Add another Adjustment layer, this time selecting Hue/ Saturation. In the Adjustments palette, reduce the Saturation of the Master channel to suit your image. I found the blues in my image too vibrant for the effect that I was looking for and so reduced the saturation to -36 for a more subdued, pastel tone.

Tweak the blues

Next, add a Curves Adjustment layer. In the Adjustment palette, select the Blue channel and drag the top-right point directly downwards. Then click on the point in the bottom-left corner and drag it upwards, judging the effect by eye. Use the Brush Tool to mask the adjustment from the wings if the effect is too harsh.

Boost highlights selectively

Add a final Adjustment layer, selecting Levels. In the Adjustments palette, drag the white slider to the left to brighten highlights, then select the Brush Tool and set Black as your Foreground Color. Use a soft-edged brush at 75-100% opacity to roughly brush over your image, isolating the Levels adjustment to the edges.

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