Tips for Lepidoptera (Caterpillars, Butterflies and Moths)

Tips for Caterpillars, butterflies and moths

Daytime and night time shooting methods will differ and will dictate the kind of shot you will aim for. Butterflies generally rest at night and so this is the best time for closeups of eyes, and scales. However, they are not at their best compositionally. They usually hang out during these times on the undersides of leaves, not against the bright flowers of the day. A greater diversity of moths can be seen at night from their attraction to their lights however they often rest against the lights and human made structures, contributing to an unnatural environment and the reverse is true, that these are best shot during the day when they sleep on the bark of trees or on the undersides of leaves. Caterpillars can be shot day or night. Day is probably preferable to get the nice background colours.

Look at the key features of the caterpillar and let that determine your shot. Some are spiky others have eyes or flash/threatening markers, get the shot that shows these to greatest effect. One generality is that shooting from below and getting a ‘rearing’ caterpillar usually makes for an interesting pose. Like that seen below. However it can be difficult, so don’t lose courage. I took probably a couple hundred shots before I was happy. I maneuvered the leaf around, the caterpillar would climb to one end, rear up for  a second, decide where to go and then spend a minute traveling to the other end of the leaf where it would do the same. I had a guide hold the leaf and the flashlight focusing on the caterpillar while I tried to maneuver into position. Lots of out of focus shots, lots of almost shots, be patient and you will be rewarded.

It took a while and many out of focus shots, but finally got this caterpillar rearing up for ‘the shot’. Here the contrast of the reds/oranges and greens are shown to good effect. The most important part, the face is in focus, but so too are the legs and the spines.  Turtle mountain, Guyana.

Below, the colours take centre stage. And even though there is no view of the eyes or head, the spines show such detail that they essentially become the focal point and are pleasing to the eye.

Coloured spiky caterpillar. Here the complementation of the background colours with those of the subject make for a pleasing composition despite the lack of a conventional head shot. Manu national park, Peru.

In my experience water droplets usually add a very pleasant quality to any image. Here they collect on the fine urticating hairs of the caterpillar. They add a real dynamism to the image because they render part out of focus or they magnify other parts. They cause diffraction and so can change the expected colours. It really adds interest to the image. So if you go early in the morning to get those dew shots or immediately during or after a rain, you might get some real magical shots.

The colours and drops together with the frontal portrait make this one of my favourite caterpillar shots. Iwokrama, Guyana.

Caterpillars as you know are very slow moving insects. So they have been required to evolve defenses. These include urticating hairs, aposematic colours, mimicry, etc…They also have a love/hate relationship with ants. At times they are farmed by ants at other times they are attacked and eaten. These behaviours are particularly interesting to capture if you can.

The relationship between the ants massaging the caterpillar for the excreted honey dew works in conjunction with the colours to make this a nice shot. Pantiacolla lodge, Manu national park, Peru.

Despite being beautiful butterflies and moths are quite hard to shoot well. It isn’t that the subject isn’t nice or in focus or doesn’t have pretty colours, but the angle is usually the same in most shots, a shot of the wings in one plane so that the butterfly ‘market’ is overrun with these kinds of shots. So, how do we make it better? Tricky! Because as soon as we start to stray away from the side portrait and get unconventional angles, we are also not displaying the wing markings to their best effect. So it relies chiefly on the external composition ie. the background and colour complementation. Below is a comparison of 2 shots. One is your standard shot displaying a butterfly with nice markings but otherwise a forgettable photo. The second uses lighting complementation and water drops to make for a beautiful presentation.


Your typical open winged butterfly shot that is very ho-hum, nothing special. Looking around 95% of shots are like this. Yeah, nice colours but it really isn’t a standout! Manu national park, Peru.


The soft yellow background complements the subject and the water drops add that little bit extra. This shot is miles ahead of the above. Manu national park cloud rainforest, Peru.

I don’t feel that butterflies benefit from closeups as well as a lot of other insects. The beautiful iridescent scales taken at high mag. is a notable exception. But headshots I don’t feel offer that same beauty as other groups. But maybe I just haven’t found the right cooperative subject.

Butterfly eyes taken at 4x mag. Cute but not really of great interest. I personally prefer full/near full body shots for butterflies/moths. Iwokrama reserve, Guyana.

Flying insects have the distinct benefit of being able to get that difficult in-flight shot. Now as most of my macro is taken at night I haven’t been able to experiment with this as extensively as I would like, but I plan on focusing on this more. For some sensational in-flight shots you can visit Linden G.’s  photostream on flickr seen here: A  beautiful example is here:

Better than my attempts it is wonderfully composed, shows behaviour and the colour reproduction is great. Taken with permission from Linden.G’s flickr photostream.

Though note that he has special equipment helping him to get these shots so don’t feel disappointed if your efforts don’t yield the same quality. My limited attempts have produced this serviceable shot:

An in-flight shot regardless of what it is always has something special about it! Iwokrama reserve, Guyana.

Moth tips coming soon


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