Photographing Dragonflies Revisited – Terry Thormin
I wrote a short blog about photographing dragonflies in flight a while back, but after my recent post on Vancouver Island Dragonflies I had so many responses commenting on the photography and questions about how I get the photos that I decided I should expand my original post.
First a brief note about what equipment I use. Up until a little over a year ago I was using a Canon super zoom point and shoot, the power shot SX1 IS, and even with that camera I occasionally got decent in-flight shots of dragonflies. Here is one of those photos.
My camera now is the Panasonic micro four/thirds DMC G3. Most of my photos are taken with the 100 to 300 mm lens, but for close head shots of perched dragonflies I will attach the Canon D500 close-up lens using stepping rings to the front of the zoom lens.
For in-flight shots this is a nice light camera, easy to hand-hold, and it produces quite good results. Any DSLR with a good quality lens in the 400 mm range should do quite well though.
For perched shots I prefer to use a tripod whenever possible. This often allows me to shoot at a slower shutter speed thus increasing my depth of field and getting more of the dragonfly in focus. The real trick to getting good perched shots is to isolate your subject from the background. Getting as much of the dragonfly in focus as possible while still having a nice out-of-focus background is often a real challenge. I regularly pass up opportunities to shoot subjects just because I know that there is no way I will get the separation of the background I want. Often just getting down to the level of the dragonfly will help solve this problem. Insect photos with messy backgrounds just don’t look good in my opinion, and dragonflies, with their large, clear wings are particularly bad. I think the following shot illustrates this point quite well.
Compare the above shot to the following one and I think you will see what I mean.
I am constantly keeping in mind where the sun is as in most situations I want the sun behind me when I shoot dragonflies. This eliminates harsh shadows and over exposed highlights. I also look for nice perches; a dragonfly perched on a nice seed head is far more attractive than one perched on a bare stem.
Many dragonfly species will defend a specific territory and will use the same perch over and over again to do so. Sometimes it is possible to substitute a more attractive perch if the original is not great.
So sun behind me, nice perch, a balance between good depth of field and good separation of the dragonfly from the background, and if all else fails use photoshop to fix the problems as best I can.
Shooting dragonflies in flight is quite different, and far more challenging. I would have to say that the most important thing you need for this type of photography is patience. There are a number of tricks and hints that I can give you to increase your odds. First your best chance of getting these shots is to get the dragonfly when it is hovering. Getting shots of dragonflies in full flight is next to impossible. I say next to impossible because I have seen shots where the photographer said the dragonfly was not hovering, and I choose to believe the statement. The reality is that you will have enough of a challenge when they are hovering and that is much easier than when they are not hovering. I will talk more about hovering in a bit.
I never use a tripod when taking in-flight shots. Most dragonflies hover so briefly that it is hard enough to get on them without a tripod, and a tripod will slow that process down considerably. Next, I pick my places. This generally requires some scouting around. You need a place where the dragonflies hover regularly, where the sun is at your back, where there are good site lines and where there is a decent background. I avoid cattail marshes unless there is a gap in the cattails or I can get above the cattails. Generally I end up at marshes or ponds with low, sparse shoreline vegetation or in the middle of a bog with low vegetation. One of my favorite places, Little River Pond, has a spot where there is a good gap in the vegetation and I can set up my camp chair and spend hours waiting for the right opportunities to come along. Many dragonflies will regularly patrol the edge of a small pond and waiting patiently often pays off.
When shooting perched dragonflies I shoot on aperture priority at 200 ISO, but shooting in-flights is quite different and I use two different settings. The first is shutter priority at 1/1000 of a second and ISO 400. I would go to a higher ISO except that my camera becomes too noisy above 400. If you have a camera like the Nikon D700 then push your ISO as high as you feel comfortable and shoot at a faster shutter speed. It is a good idea though to leave some room for an increased depth of field, and I find that 1/1300 of a second does a pretty good job. I know everyone is different but I am not a big fan of perfectly sharp wings right to the tip, at least not with dragonflies. I think that the blurred tips give a better sense of motion. I also use single area focusing as I find that when using multiple areas the camera is more likely to focus on something in the background. This setting is ideal for places where the background is a uniform colour and shade. I use it when I am in a bog or an open field with uniform green vegetation. It then allows the camera to automatically adjust the exposure should you get some cloud cover.
A quick note on cloud cover, I do not go shooting in-flights on days that are completely overcast as that drops my shutter speed down too low to get good shots. In fact I prefer completely sunny days as even occasional clouds can complicate things as you will see in the next setting.
My final setting is totally manual, ISO 400, shutter speed 1/1000 and f5.6. I use this in places where I am shooting against water with lots of reflections or against vegetation that is not a uniform shade. As long as it remains sunny the whole time this usually works fine. The sun going in and out behind clouds can complicate things and then I dial the shutter speed down and back up as needed.
One of the biggest challenges is getting the dragonfly in focus. Some cameras have a feature called auto focus with manual override. This allows you to manually focus on your subject and when you are close you hit the shutter and the camera fine tunes the focus before taking the picture. It isn’t perfect, but it a lot better than what my Panasonic has which is straight auto focus. I find that the best way to lock onto the subject is to have the camera focused just this side of the dragonfly. If the camera is focused the other side of the dragonfly then it searches out and often locks on the background. If it is focused too much on this side of the subject then as it searches out it often just goes right past the subject. So I try to guess where the dragonfly is likely to appear and pre focus on something that is slightly closer to me. This is not as difficult as it may seem because if you watch the behavior of dragonflies they often follow the same flight pattern.
Be prepared for a long session though. If you think that you can go out for an hour and come back with several good photos, you are probably going to be disappointed. I will give you one good hint though, if you live in western North America and are familiar with the Paddle-tailed Darner. That is the most cooperative darner I know of. It will often hover for quite long periods of time and quite close to the photographer, in fact sometimes too close to focus on. Here is a photo to prove it.
Common Green Darners on the other hand usually hover for very brief periods of time and are much more difficult to photograph, and some darners like the California do not hover at all, at least not that I have seen.
Many other species of darners hover at least occasionally, as do a few other groups of dragonflies. You will have to learn which ones are likely to do so in your area. Then there are all the species that only hover under very specific circumstances. In many species of dragonflies, like the Four-spotted Skimmer, the male will hover over the female when she is ovipositing, and this may be the only time you will catch him hovering.
Females of some species like Common Whitetails will often hover briefly when ovipositing into the water.
Some species like the Cardinal Meadowhawk that lay eggs while flying in tandem will hover while doing so.
If you are not that familiar with the dragonflies in your area you might want to talk to a local entomologist who is, as he or she might be able to suggest what species occur in your area, where they occur and perhaps even which species might be the easiest to photograph. One thing is for certain, the more time you spend photographing dragonflies the more you will learn about these fascinating creatures and the better your photographs will become.