Photo of Papilio eurymedon, a Pale Swallowtail foraging on Encelia farinosa or Brittlebush
Papilio eurymedon, a Pale Swallowtail foraging on Encelia farinosa or Brittlebush

As I learn more about the behaviors of butterflies, I am getting a little better at photographing them. Swallowtail butterflies, like many other Lepidopterans are fast moving. At this stage in my education, I can usually observe a butterfly in flight and determine within a minute or two whether, with the requisite patience, I have a reasonable chance of catching a photo.

If a butterfly is repeating a loop in which it returns to the same or a nearby spot to perch or forage, my chance of getting a photo improves.

To approach, I move in slow motion to get as close as possible, then I twist or squat or kneel–whatever I have to do to compose the photo from an angle that optimizes light, foreground and background. If I succeed in completing my initial approach and setup without drawing the attention of an insect whose sharp eyes are attuned to motion, that can detect colors humans can only approximate, and that enjoys a much wider range of vision than we do, I might step away with a good photo.

Cool mornings may produce lucky photos because many butterflies do not fly under a certain temperature. For example, Monarchs cannot fly when the temperature is below approximately 60 degrees Fahrenheit. In the chill of morning, a butterfly will hang from a leaf, motionless, waiting for more warmth to start the day. Butterflies that have recently emerged from a chrysalis or that are very focused on drinking nectar from a long-necked flower tend to be good opportunities as well.

The video in this post includes photos and clips I took on trails in Conejo Open Space and the Santa Monica Mountains in the spring and early summer of 2020.





By S. Felton

S. Felton is a writer, photographer and amateur naturalist.


  1. Swallowtails are so amazing to watch. Recall 1 would fly thru our yard every morning at 930am.
    I found your website while on inaturalist looking up Chia. Had found some yrs ago riding bike along
    Princeton Ave in Moorpark and since city is widening that narrow windy road , wanted to go back and
    save the plants. Cant find them there now. Is Sages, Lemonade berry, Popcorn flower, Narrowleaf Lupin,
    Bladderpod….. Thanks for your writing and photos. My camera is an old digital drug store one and I need
    something to focus better and closer. So many hummers out collecting webs just now.

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