Photography...

Nature - Photographing Dragonflies & Damselflies

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Copyright Ashley Beolens http://www.fatphotographer.net

Copyright Ashley Beolens http://www.fatphotographer.net

Bright colourful and alien looking, dragonflies (and damselflies) are some of the most unusual creatures you or I are likely to come across, moving at seemingly impossible speeds and always seeming to be on the go, these insects can be a challenge to even the most experienced photographer, but there are ways to increase your chances of getting the wall perfect shot. Hopefully here you will gain a much better understanding of how you could achieve these shots yourself.

Equipment

Now while you won?t need hugely expensive gear to get an OK shot of one of these flying monsters, if you follow my tips a point and shoot will get you something, it is unfortunate that the best photographs are most likely to be achieved with good quality photography kit.

So it follows that the better your equipment the more it will allow you to get really good photographs. An SLR (Digital or not really) will allow you more control which is great, but it will be your lens choice that will be most important. There are two schools of thought on this: One (and this is what I currently use) is to use a good macro lens, and get in close to your subject, this requires patience and a fair bit of luck (A stabilized lens will really help here as well). The other choice is to use a much longer lens (300-500mm) but use extension tubes in order to reduce the minimum focal distance in order to allow you to get frame filling pictures. This second option allows you to keep at a distance and therefore you are less likely to spook the insect. (If you already have a long lens this can be a very cheap option, I have provided links below to extension tubes on amazon, they really are cost effective).

Southern Hawker flightshot

southern Hawker in flight

Male Southern Hawker in flight İAshley Beolens http://beolens.redbubble.com/

Whilst using natural sunlight is preferred by many, you may also find it useful to have a decent flash unit, this will help make sure you get decent fill light on your subject and prevent movement blur, while also allowing you to maintain high shutter speeds with a large depth of field (a ring flash or ring light is ideal for this in macro photography but any flash helps, and using a flash extender will work very well with longer lenses).

Another area to consider with photographing Dragonflies is what you will be using as a support for your camera. Hand holding your camera will be OK if you have a good technique, a stabilized lens and a flash, but you may find you require a tripod, mono-pod or beanbag in order to get the sharp shot with depth of field you really need (Remember larger depths of field will require slower shutter speeds).

Equipment Checklist

* Point and shoot set to Macro
Or
* (D)SLR
* Macro Lens 100-150mm is best (Preferably stabilized)
* Flash unit (Ring flash best but anything helps)
* Sturdy tripod, mono-pod or support means

Understanding

Once you have your photography gear ready the first and most important step (and I can?t emphasize this enough) is that you must learn the subject, on your first attempt at photographing dragonflies you are likely to fail if you have not spent time watching them first. They are flighty creatures that take skill to approach or they will vanish before you are anywhere near them.

To increase your likelihood of capturing these insects at rest it helps to learn a few tips about their behaviour.

Most dragonflies (especially the bigger species) follow set feeding and flight routes, or have favourite perches or hover points. If you study them, and watch what they do and where they go you will be able to set yourself up in a position to photograph the dragonfly most often when at rest, but with this technique also while in flight (a very difficult job see Southern Hawker Flight shot to the right). Knowing your subject is vital to achieve what you want.

One thing it should be worth remembering is that Dragonflies love the warmth of the sun. Sunny days will always out perform non-sunny days in finding numbers of dragonflies to photograph. Odonata also dislike wind and rain, so on days with these elements you may struggle to find any. For the best chance to capture great shots plan your dragonfly photography days around the weather.

I have also noted that the time of day affects dragonflies. I struggle to see many before 10-11am (in the UK at any rate). I assume (and it is an assumption) this is to do with liking the warmth, but they do tend to hang around late into the evening.I'd be interested to hear other peoples observations.

Stealth

When photographing dragonflies it is, like with all wildlife photography, advisable to dress in drab colours. Insects (which dragonflies are remember) are sensitive to UV (Ultraviolet) and bright colours tend to reflect UV more.

The best defence for a dragonfly comes in their ability to detect movement (It is all to do with their multifaceted compound eyes allowing them to see in all directions at once), so in order to get close to a dragonfly it is vital to keep your movements slow and even. Fast, juddery movement will put your prey subject to flight. Move carefully and have your camera ready (it is no good sneaking up on a resting dragonfly only to jerk your camera up at the last second, you will have wasted your time).

Migrant Hawker (Female)

Migrant Hawker head shot

Head shot of female migrant hawker İAshley Beolens http://beolens.redbubble.com/

Composition

When composing a dragonfly or damselfly photograph you need to think of a few things prior to pressing the button; what is your photograph for?

Are you looking to achieve a photograph for identification purposes (either for other people to use as an aide or to help you identify it later on) if so you need to make sure you are focusing on the salient points, again knowing your subject matter here will help you know how to compose. For British photographers Britain?s Dragonflies by Dave Smallshire & Andy Swash is a great book to help - Reviewed here.
I'm on the lookout for similar from other countries if you know of any please let me know and I'll pop some links up.

If, on the other hand, you are looking at aesthetically pleasing photos for display purposes (Print, books etc.) you will likely want to change your compositional approach. Trying to keep backgrounds uncluttered and keeping the subject on a level will make a much nicer picture. For damselflies this often means getting down in amongst their habitat (knee protectors of some kind can help so can wellington boots or waders as dragonflies can often be found around water), for the larger species you will likely be looking to photograph them on an isolated post, twig or similar.

Composition for Odonata is really like any other subject though, following the usual rules, eye contact, keeping things in focus all help for appealing images.

Depth of field

Female Southern Hawker

Female Southern Hawker

A close up of a female Southern Hawkers Face. İAshley Beolens http://www.flickr.com/photos/fatphotographer/

When you are photographing small objects of any kind at a close distance focal plains come much more to the fore. You will want to decide on how much of your subject is in focus.

With insects you will likely want as much of the subject as possible to be sharp and in focus, this will require you to use small apertures and create a great (large) depth of field. The downside of this is that unfortunately it will make for slower shutter speeds, and whilst stabilising your camera becomes important (and unless you have incredible light and a really good hand holding technique it is advisable to use a tripod or other support here), you may find you have to compromise in order to get shutter speeds at an acceptable level that for freezing the subject. This may help dictate your composition, the more perpendicular (side on) you are to the subject the less likelihood these is of finding out of focus areas.

Hopefully with time, patience and practice you will be able to take some amazing images of dragonflies that really show off their lacelike wings and unusual features. I would certainly love to hear if the tips here help you to achieve this.

Photographs

To the right you can see a few examples that I have achieved using the techniques talked about here:
Pic One (f/8) is down low in the grass.
Pic Two (f/9) shows a nice flight shot. (This particular dragonfly was circling around me which was a wonderful experience, it almost landed on my knee at one point).
Pic Three (f/8) is down on the ground. (This particular species was really tricky as it was incredibly flighty and on open mud so hard to approach without being seen by the darter.)
Pic Four (f/11) is a close up head shot which show that with good stalking techniques you can get really close.
Pic Five (f/9) another close up.


All images were shot with a 100mm f2.8 macro lens with the apertures listed above.

For more of my dragonfly images have a look at my Flickr set: Odonata or some can be purchased from Ashley Beolens Red-bubble. The photos used on this page are all part of my project to photograph the dragonflies of Milton Keynes.

If you are in the UK and looking for a book to help ID the dragoinflies than I would like to recomend you read: Britain?s Dragonflies by Dave Smallshire & Andy Swash - Review

Ashley Beolens