Photographing Monarch Butterflies—Camera Setting Tips

Photographing monarch butterflies as they burst from Oyamel fir trees is no easy feat.  However, if you have the opportunity to travel to Michoacan in search of these regal insects, you’ll likely get the chance to photograph this moment.

Because such a moment can be fleeting and unpredictable, not to mention the fact that witnessing it will leave you breathless, you’ll need to prepare yourself to snap the photo the instant you get the chance.

Monarchs Court


1) Get your camera ready to shoot in burst mode.  Different cameras handle this in a variety of ways, so check your camera’s user guide before you leave for the trip.  Or better yet, take it along with you.  Most cameras can shoot between 3 and 6 photos per second, with very high end cameras capable of shooting 8+ “frames per second” or FPS.

2) Make sure your camera is set for fast motion subjects.  On many point and shoot cameras there is a small logo of a running man to symbolize sports photography.  The settings are one and the same.  If you have a DSLR, or wish to program your camera, you’ll need to set your camera on shutter speed priority, oven denoted by a Tv or S letter on the custom settings wheel of the camera.

Because there is often ample light in the butterfly sanctuaries, you can shoot very quickly.  But how quick is quick enough?  Glad you asked!  I would recommend shooting at least at 1/1000th of a second, often denoted on your camera as just 1000, or 1/1000.

3)  Once setting your shutter speed, check your ISO.  By shooting in this custom setting, your camera now allows you (or more properly, makes you) choose an ISO setting.  To learn more on what ISO means click here.  However, for the sake of this blog, you’ll want to either set it at ISO Auto, ISO Auto High, or dial in a number yourself.  Different camera models yield wildly different results when you test the limits with high ISOs, so my baseline is to not go above ISO 400.  However, if you want to experiment a little, try ISO 800.  Just keep in mind that an ISO 800 photo will have more “grain” in it that could leave the photo a bit less quality than you’d hoped.

If you have a relatively high-end camera, you might be able to shoot at ISO 800 or even higher just fine.  But it’s truly best to be conservative with this, especially since the high amount of light will likely allow fast shutter speeds regardless.

Monarch Court 2

4)  Be patient and wait for that golden moment.  Fortunately, these same settings are ideal for most any photo in the monarch sanctuaries, as the butterflies are moving regardless.  Even a simple wing beat needs a fast shutter speed, so keep your camera on these settings and be vigilant.  Often getting that perfect shot means you have to be ready to take the photo only one or two seconds after they begin to take flight.

Go forward and give it a shot,


Image 1 (c) Karen Amoroso, featured as the Wildlife Photo of the Day on October 2, 2015.
Images 2 & 3 (c) Court Whelan.