Photographing Dragonflies (by Blair Nikula)


This page was updated on 13 September 1997.


In response to the overwhelming demand (well, a couple of people have expressed a mild curiosity), I am sharing some of my ideas on photographing dragonflies. Although far from an expert on the subject, I have spent many hours over the last few years pursuing these delightfully photogenic creatures, and may have a few helpful insights. I have assumed that the reader has at least a basic understanding of photography. There are many good books on nature photography available, but two in particular I would recommend for those interested in insect photography are: How to Photograph Insects & Spiders by Larry West (1994, Stackpole Books) and John Shaw's Closeups In Nature by John Shaw (1987, Amphoto).

Browse through the article below, or click on your area of interest:


Equipment:

Most nature photography, and all of mine, is done with 35mm SLR equipment, with TTL (Through the Lens) metering capabilities; thus, all of my comments pertain to that format. Most of my gear is Canon, but the make is largely irrelevant. However, Canon's exceptional assortment of lenses make it a popular choice among nature photographers.

Today's do-it-all camera bodies have a bewildering array of features and functions, many of which I find of little or no use. A few basic functions, however, are very helpful. Auto film advance/rewind, which is standard in virtually all new cameras, is a great time-saver (and film burner!), and although certainly not essential, I would hate to be without it. Working at close range, the ability to preview the depth-of-field is also very helpful but, regrettably, few new cameras offer this feature.

Most new cameras and lenses have autofocus capabilities. While autofocus provides considerable advantages in many types of wildlife photography, and I use it extensively when photographing birds, I find it virtually useless in close-up work. However, autofocus cameras typically have an in-focus indicator in the viewfinder which is very helpful when manually focusing at any distance.

The most important piece of equipment is the lens. To effectively photograph small subjects such as insects, a lens must be able to produce a decent-sized image on the film, yet do so at a reasonable working distance from the subject. Although there are a number of high quality macro lenses on the market, most are in the 50mm - 105mm size range, which require the lens be within a few inches of the subject to provide a decent image size. A few damselflies may allow such a close approach, but rare is the dragonfly that is so cooperative!

Much more suitable are lenses in the short telephoto range of 200mm to 300mm, as they provide magnifications of 4 - 6 power and provide good-sized images at working distances of 2-4 feet from the subject. Zoom lenses of this size are particularly advantageous as they allow for precise framing of the image and variable magnifications. The most common zoom lenses in this size range from 70-210mm to 100-300mm. These, I believe, are the most suitable for use with odonates. I first started photographing dragons with a 90mm macro lens, then switched to a 70-210mm zoom, and for the last couple of years have used a 100-300mm Canon zoom almost exclusively. This lens has a minimum focusing distance of about 5 feet, which is very close for a lens of this size. Sigma makes a 70-300mm lens that focuses down to an amazing 3 feet! Jackie Sones has had excellent results with this lens. It is compact (for its focal length), seems to be of very good optical quality, and is moderately priced. Despite the close focusing abilities of these two lenses, they do not provide sufficient magnification for any but the very largest dragonflies. To get adequately sized images of most bugs, it's necessary to use one or more of the various accessories that are available to increase magnification. These include diopters, extension tubes, teleconverters, and bellows.

By far the simplest and easiest to use of these magnification accessories, and the only that I have much experience with, are the screw-on close-up lenses, sometimes referred to as "diopters". These are nearly identical to filters in size and shape and, like filters, simply screw on to the end of the lens sort of like attaching a magnifying glass to your lens. They are compact, lightweight, extremely easy to use and, unlike all of the alternatives, do not cause a reduction in the amount of light reaching the film. Their only drawback is that they put another layer of glass between the subject and the film which inevitably leads to some degradation of the image quality. However, this can be minimized by using only high quality dual element (vs. single element) lenses. Dual element lenses have two pieces of glass sandwiched together which greatly improves the optical quality. They are made by Nikon, Canon, and Minolta among others. Their prices range from $60 - $100 apiece, but they are worth every penny! Most manufacturers offer at least two magnifications and two or more thread sizes. For example, Nikon makes four such lenses which they designate the 3T, 4T, 5T, and 6T. The first two have 52mm thread diameters, the latter two 62mm threads. The 3T and 5T are +1.5 diopters, while the stronger 4T and 6T are +3 diopters. (The larger the diopter rating, the greater the magnification; the amount of magnification achieved varies depending on the focal length of the lens.) The weaker +1.5 diopter provides sufficient magnification in most cases. I have used the 5T extensively with excellent results. I am unable to detect any differences in the quality between slides taken with or without this diopter in place. When the 5T is attached to the Canon 100-300mm lens, the minimum focusing distance is reduced from 5 feet to 26 inches, while with the 6T it is reduced to 20 inches. Although my 100-300mm lens has a 58mm filter thread size, I can easily attach the 5T (or 6T) by using a 58-62mm step-up ring. I highly recommend these dual element diopters for anyone seriously interested in any type of close-up photography.

I have minimal experience with teleconverters, and none with either extension tubes or bellows, so will refrain from commenting on these options to increase image size, except to point out that all result in a loss of light reaching the film, and that bellows are quite cumbersome, particularly when chasing highly mobile subjects.

One piece of equipment that will vastly increase the number of sharp, usable photos you obtain is a good, sturdy tripod. While it is possible to get good hand-held shots using flash, the slow shutter speeds necessary in natural light photography require very sturdy support. Additionally, when your subject is only a couple of feet or less away, the depth of field, even at small apertures, is extremely small, mere millimeters at best. The smallest movement of the camera or subject will result in an out-of-focus image, even when using flash. (You can not appreciate just how much movement there is in this world until you've attempted close-up photography!) Tripods are a frustrating burden in the field (no piece of equipment is more annoying or engenders more cursing!), but since I started using one consistently, the quality of my insect flicks has improved noticeably. A good tripod significantly reduces the number of slides that end up in the trash can.

So far, I have little experience with flash, but expect to use it more frequently in the future. Flash increases your photo opportunities by permitting picture-taking under low-light conditions. It can also, when used properly, improve the quality of pictures taken under even the best of natural lighting. Because dragonfly photography is done at fairly close range, a small, inexpensive flash unit will provide sufficient output for most work. When considering whether or not to become involved with flash photography, keep in mind that despite the fully automatic operation of today's flash units, the bottom line is you are adding another layer of complexity to your photography, as well as increasing the load you must carry into the field! If you are interested in flash, David Westover from Wisconsin has posted an article detailing his methods: How To Photograph Dragonflies With Flash.


Film:

Photographers today are blessed (or cursed, depending upon your point of view) with a rich and somewhat bewildering array of film choices. The first choice is between slide or print film. I shoot slide film exclusively for several reasons: 1) I occasionally give slide programs; 2) slides are preferred by most publishers; 3) the color in slide film tends to be somewhat more vivid; and 4) slide film is less expensive to process. There are so many good slide films on the market today you really can't go very wrong. In general, any of the films produced by Kodak or Fuji will provide excellent results. Film speed is an important consideration: as a rule, the slower the film speed the better the quality. Film speeds in the range of 50-100 ISO provide the best results, but because of their slow speed are more difficult to work with, in most cases requiring the use of a tripod or flash to provide sharp results. For the past couple of years I have been using Fuji Sensia (100 ISO) almost exclusively. However, Kodachrome (64 ISO), Kodak Elite (50 & 100 ISO), Kodak Lumiere (100 ISO), and Fuji Velvia (50 ISO) are all superb films. Once you find a film you like, it's a good idea to stick with it, as over time you will develop a feel for its nuances.


Field Techniques:

Once you have chosen your equipment and film, it's time to head into the field and start exposing some film. The first step, of course, is to find some bugs a relatively easy task if the sun is shining. Cloudy days provide more of a challenge, for not only are odonates much less active, but light levels are reduced as well. However, a high, thin overcast affords a soft, even light that can be very attractive. Some of my most appealing dragonfly images were taken in the diffused light of a bright overcast.

One of the easiest groups to photograph are the skimmers (Libellulidae). These are generally large dragonflies, the males of which are often brightly colored and tend to perch in the open on emergent vegetation, exposed branches, logs, or sandy shorelines. Additionally, the males are often territorial and even when spooked will frequently return to the same or a nearby perch, permitting the patient photographer multiple opportunities. Most of the other dragonfly groups are very difficult to photograph, although you will, on rare occasions, come across unusually cooperative individuals. Clubtails (Gomphidae) often sit in the open on sandy beaches, rocks, or shoreline leaves, but tend to be quite skittish and when flushed, almost never return to the same perch. Darners (Aeshnidae) and Emeralds (Corduliidae) spend considerable time on the wing, often at altitudes of 10-30 feet, and when they land it is usually hanging from a branch high in the shadows of a tree, far out of the range and generally out of sight of the frustrated photographer. Most damselflies are relatively cooperative, but because of their small size, require a very close approach: in most cases two feet or less. Even the most cooperative subject will become jittery when a potential predator lurks within two feet!

Once you have located a subject, there are several considerations to take into account before beginning your approach. First, what type of photograph are you after? Do you simply want a picture of a dragonfly? Or are you interested in a more artistic rendering of the subject? Perhaps you wish to obtain an identifiable portrait of a particular species. This latter has been my primary objective over the past couple of years. (As most of our readers will readily attest, the biggest frustration facing the aspiring odonatist is the paucity of illustrations available in any one source. Field guides, with a couple of notable exceptions on the regional level, are lacking and it's very difficult to learn what some of these magnificent creatures look like. In hopes of overcoming this obstacle, I have undertaken a concerted effort to photograph all the 175+ species found in New England.)

Another important consideration, as in any photograph, is lighting. If you're trying for a recognizable image of the species, you'll want the light at your back so that the subject is evenly and well-lighted and the exposure relatively straightforward. For an artistic approach, side-lighting or even back-lighting may produce a more interesting image, although you'll have to be very careful of the exposure. Backlighting will often result in underexposed images if you rely on your camera's automatic exposure capabilities; it's safest to adjust your exposures manually.

Before beginning an approach, you also need to decide whether you want to photograph the insect from the side or above (or perhaps even head on), as this, in combination with the direction of the light, will determine the angle at which you approach. Most damselflies, with the possible exception of the spreadwings (Lestidae), are best photographed from the side. Dragonflies, on the other hand, are most often (and in many instances most attractively) photographed from above, although side views are often crucial for identification purposes. A particularly cooperative subject may permit you both dorsal and lateral shots. However, impenetrable vegetation, deep water, or a host of other obstacles may prevent an approach from the angle you desire, in which case the only options are to make due with whatever angle and lighting are available, or to move on to another subject. In the case of some of the territorial perchers, such as many of the skimmers (Libellulidae), flushing the bug might result in it landing in a more favorable position nearby.

Also think about whether a horizontal or vertical format will provide the most pleasing image. In many cases, a standard horizontal shot will be best, but for those species which hang from perches (e.g., Darners [Aeshnidae], Emeralds [Corduliidae], and the Spreadwing Damselflies [Lestidae]) a vertical image may be preferable.

Once you begin your approach, move slowly, increasingly so the closer you get to the insect. Most (if not all) species seem particularly sensitive to lateral movements, thus the importance of choosing your angle of approach beforehand to minimize any sideways motion once you get close to the insect.

One of the greatest difficulties in any close-up photography is obtaining enough depth of field to insure that as much of the subject as possible is in focus. I always try to shoot with an f-stop of f16 or smaller, though that is not always feasible. One of the advantages of using flash is that you will be able to choose any f-stop you desire, without the trade-off of a slower shutter speed. In any event, before pushing the shutter, be sure the film plane (i.e., camera back) is as parallel to the insect's body as possible. In other words, both the insect's head and the tip of its abdomen should be the same distance from the camera. This may necessitate slight, last-minute shifts in the camera position prior to tripping the shutter.

The lighting in close-up photography is often very tricky. Although the automatic exposure capabilities of modern cameras are remarkably accurate in most instances, I still prefer to set my exposures manually. If a picture comes back poorly exposed, I at least know that the error was probably mine and not the camera's. To increase the chances of obtaining properly exposed images, I always bracket my exposures extensively. When I locate a cooperative subject, it's not unusual for me to fire off a roll or two of film in a matter of minutes, particularly if it's a species I've not photographed before. This often results in many nearly identical slides of the same image, but that's fine with me: It's much less expensive to make duplicates in the camera than to have a photo-lab do it later.

Always pay attention to the background. This is the rule I violate most frequently, to my continual frustration. No matter how well the subject is lighted and composed, a distracting background can greatly detract from, and in the worst cases virtually ruin, an otherwise fine image. Generally, the most pleasing backgrounds are those that are uniform with little contrast, such as water or a dense stand of grasses. The farther the background is from the subject, the more likely it will be rendered as a pleasing, out-of-focus blur of color and texture. Often you will have little or no control over the background. However, when working at very close distances, even a slight shift of the camera position just a fraction of an inch in many cases can result in a dramatic change in the background and make a big difference in the quality of the final image. Also keep an eye out for shadows cast across a portion of the subject. Even the smallest blade of grass can cast a shadow that, while not particularly evident in the field, can be distractingly obvious in the photo.

One method for photographing the more elusive species, if you're not too concerned with the artistic aspects of the results, is to capture the insect (for many species, a difficult undertaking in itself!) and then pose it. Many dragonflies are surprisingly cooperative after they've been in the hand for a few minutes and, when placed in a natural pose, will sit for a minute or two, sometimes longer, affording the opportunity for at least a few quick shots. Curiously, damselflies seem much less cooperative in this regard. Before placing the bug, pick a suitable, well-lighted perch and get the camera in place and ready to shoot. Chilling the bug, either by placing it in a cooler for a while or by dunking its abdomen in the water for a minute or so will often immobilize it for a time. Purists will find posing the subject distasteful as do I. Be advised, as well, that a posed dragonfly rarely appears completely natural and an experienced odonatist will be able to detect such photos. Nevertheless, some species are virtually impossible to find, never mind photograph, perched in the wild; obtaining photos of these species often requires less than "pure" methods.

Finally, keep in mind the three "P"s: practice, patience, and persistence. No matter how good your equipment, there is simply no substitute for experience and no way to acquire experience without spending time, time, and more time in the field. Be prepared for frequent frustrations; accept them and keep plugging away. Take your time: Rushed photos invariably reveal themselves through fuzzy images, poor exposures, distracting backgrounds, annoying shadows, or assorted other maladies. Of course, the quest may be of much greater interest to you than the results, in which case ignore everything you've just read and simply go out with your camera and have a good time! The most important thing is to enjoy and appreciate these amazing creatures. If you can learn something about both dragonflies and photography in the process, all the better!


Digitizing Images:

Many people who have visited the Ode News Web site on the Internet have commented not only on the quality of the images, but on the speed at which they load. Jackie Sones created and maintains the Web site, but neither she nor I had previous experience with creating Web sites or digitizing photographs. Thus, the results have been largely a matter of beginner's luck. The methods we use are very simple.

First, the photographs (slides in this case) are sent to Kodak to be scanned onto a photo CD. As many as 100 slides can be scanned onto a single CD. The cost varies depending upon the number of photos scanned, but generally is in the range of $1.25 - 1.50/slide. There are now many alternate sources for slide scanning, and many of them charge less than Kodak. It is also now possible for the "do-it-yourselfers" to purchase a slide scanner for a few hundred dollars. However, I have been very pleased with the results from Kodak scans and have so far not been tempted to try alternate sources. Contact your local photo store for prices and additional information on Kodak Photo CDs.

Once the photos have been scanned, the image files are opened in PaintShop Pro, an inexpensive ($50-60) imaging program. The files at this point are quite large-about 1.2 megabytes. The image is then cropped as desired, and the captions are added. Although PaintShop Pro, like virtually any other image editing software, offers the possibility of altering an image in an infinite variety of ways, the only changes to the Ode News Web site images (other than cropping) has involved modest adjustment of the brightness and contrast in some cases.

After the captions have been added, the image file is saved in a JPEG format (.jpg) which, through some technological miracle, reduces the file size from over a megabyte down to somewhere between 30 - 100 kilobytes, with no obvious loss in image quality (at least as viewed on the computer screen). Thus, the images download rather quickly-a very important consideration. No matter how good your images are, few people have the time or patience to wait several minutes for a large image file to download. Your photos will be much more widely viewed if you make an effort to keep the file sizes below 100 kilobytes. The JPEG files are added to the Web site using one of the many available FTP (file transfer protocol) programs. We can't explain why this simple method works so well, we're just happy that it does!

I hope this article addresses any questions you may have, but if not, please don't hesitate to contact me for further information (address: 2 Gilbert Lane, Harwich Port, MA 02646; e-mail: odenews@odenews.org).


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