Stephen Burch's Birding & Dragonfly Website
In many respects, photographing dragonflies and damselflies makes a refreshing change to chasing pictures of distant birds! The great thing about dragonflies is that mostly they do not disappear over the horizon as soon as you try to get close enough for a good shot. Some of the smaller dragonflies and virtually all the damselflies allow a reasonably stealthy approach to within a few centimeters. Even the more wary hawkers, if settled, are easy to get within a few meters of. Also, they can often stay still for quite reasonable lengths of time - again quite unlike birds.
There are of course challenges associated with this form of photography - it would be too easy otherwise! With small, closely approached subjects the depth of field is inevitably very narrow, so getting a sharp image across the whole insect is usually problem number one. There are various things that can be done to help with this - see below for some tips.
Secondly, the best dragonfly pictures in my view have a clean, uncluttered background. Again this is often difficult to achieve in practice as the insects tend to settle low down in vegetation where confusing stems, stalks, leaves etc are only just behind (or even in front).
If you think settled dragonflies are sitting targets, and too easy, just try dragonfly flight shots! I find these incredibly challenging, and only remotely possible on a very limited number of species that tend to hover, if only very briefly. I can assure anyone who hasn't tried this, most birds in flight (BIFs) are a piece of cake by comparison. (I guess an exception would be Swallows and the like which are almost equally frustrating - being so fast moving and erratic).
Depth of field
For dragonflies face on (with wings outstretched) it can be quite a challenge to get equi-distant from the head, tip of the abdomen and both wing tips. It might help if you imagine these points on the dragonfly as defining an imaginary plane in space. The camera then needs to be somewhere along a line perpendicular to this plane (both horizontally and vertically), which emerges from a point on the plane roughly at the centre of the dragonfly. Basically this means getting the camera in the right place, both left to right and up and down. Of course this may not be possible in some cases, as the line you need to be on is inaccessible (miles up in the air, below the ground or obscured by intervening vegetation). In these cases, it may be easier to accept both wing tips may not be sharp, and go for an oblique or sideways on view.
With sideways on dragonflies, things are somewhat easier, as up/down alignment doesn't matter so much and it is only left/right that matters from the point of view of getting the head and tip of the abdomen sharp.
I often spend some time trying to line the camera up in this way, as best I can by eye, and even then it isn't quite right. Often it pays to take lots of shots, moving the camera position left/right and up/down so that some pictures at least will be in the best position.
By reducing the lens aperture or "stopping down" (from say f5.6 to f11) the depth of field can be increased somewhat, but not hugely for really close up work. So it pays to get the camera aligned as close as possible, as described above. The downside of stopping down is the corresponding increase in the required exposure time. This brings with it the likelihood of soft images arising from camera shake.
Wherever possible my solution to camera shake is to use a tripod, but this is well suited only some forms of camera/lens combination (see below). Alternatives to tripods are monopods (no personal experience) or resting the camera hand on something - even the ground in some cases. Some people have steadier hands than others - I'm told this is a skill that can be learned, but I've not made much progress so far!
One thing you will quickly learn is that a few species (notably darter types) often return time and again to the same exposed perch - often a prominent twig or stem. So with a bit of patience, you can just wait for them to re-appear - getting everything setup in the meantime. However, this is sadly not always true, and many species, especially if disturbed just fly off and go elsewhere! Many will also appear to have several favourite places, so the chances of them coming back to the one you are staking out are slim.
Hawkers present particular challenges as more often than not they are only to be seen endlessly zooming around in flight, with almost zero chances of flight shots. Finding one settled is therefore a real bonus. It is said that starting really early in the morning can help here, as they are often dozy before they have warmed up and got going for the rest of the day. However, finding settled hawkers, before they fly, is far from easy. My limited successes in this department have generally come during the middle part of the day, i.e. not particularly early or late. With persistence, it seems under certain conditions, hawkers will settle after flying around for some time. But getting close to them is really tricky - which is where a telephoto lens comes in handy (for more on this see below).
Cameras and lenses
As illustrated below, one the great advantages of compacts is their small sensor size and short focal length lenses that combine to give a very good depth of field, especially if stopped down a bit, and on a wider angle setting. This can allow the dragonfly and much of the background to be visible, which can result in really interesting shots showing the insect in the context of its surroundings - something not possible with telephoto lenses on DSLR's.
With a digital compact it is generally necessary to get quite close to the dragonfly, and very close to something as small as a damselfly. A stealthy approach often works OK for damselflies and some of the dragonflies. But it can be very difficult to get good shots of more wary species, notably hawkers, unless they are very dozy (such as the Migrant Hawker shown above right - that settled on me, before allowing itself to be transplanted to somewhere more photogenic!).
With a digital compact, using the live view display at a distance is a great advantage since this makes it much easier to get the camera close enough for frame filling shots, without either scaring off the dragonfly, or being a contortionist! The unique swivel body design of the Nikon CP4500 helped with this, as well.
But even with modern digital compacts, I suspect the enthusiastic dragonfly photographer will soon begin to yearn for the higher quality that can only come with DLSR cameras and lenses (see below).
with digital compacts
The downside of digiscoping is that the quality achieved isn't brilliant, as shown below. My digiscoping gear (seldom used nowadays) is described in more detail on another page on this website.
with telephoto lens
When I acquired a Canon EOS350D DSLR and EF400mmf5.6 lens in 2006 mainly for bird photography, I spent that summer trying this combination out for dragonflies.
With this 400mm lens, the problem is that the close focus distance is only 3.5m, which doesn't provide enough magnification for anything apart from maybe the largest species such as hawkers. For frame filling shots, you need to be closer than 3.5m, and this isn't possible with the EF400mmf5.6 on its own.
At the end of that summer I found that using the x1.4 teleconverter (TC) improved things significantly, since the close focus distance stays at 3.5m. So the x1.4TC provided an extra 40% of magnification, which even allowed some reasonable shots of damselflies.
Note that with other telephoto lenses, the close focus distance can be shorter. For example, I am told the Canon 100-400mmf5.6 zoom has a much closer focus distance, and the combination with a x1.4TC works well for dragonfly sized subjects.
In 2007, I progressed to experimenting with extension tubes, which I now use all the time for dragonfly photography, if I'm using a 400mm lens. I purchased a 3-tube set from Jessops, which were a good deal cheaper than the Canon ones, and in my experience work fine. With all 3 tubes stacked together, there is 65 mm of extension, which brings the close focus distance down from 3.5 m to around 1.7 m.
At 1.7 m distance, the horizontal field of view is then down to just over 70 mm, and the true magnification (on to the sensor) is about 0.3. This probably doesn't compare that well with true macro lenses, which will give magnifications as high as 1.0, but x0.3 is not bad, and does allow pretty good pics of even the smallest damselflies.
One important limitation with extension tubes is the reduced far focus distance. With all 65 mm of extension, the far focus distance is reduced from infinity right down to about 2.9 m (i.e. less than the normal near focus distance of the lens without the tubes on!). Of course using only 1 or 2 of the extension tubes improves the far focus distance, and can be better for the larger dragonflies (e.g. hawkers). All this leads to quite a lot of changing of tubes, with the added risk of getting more dust on the sensor - so learning how to clean the sensor gets more important.
All in all, given the fact I already had the 400 mm lens, the extension tubes are a pretty cost effective route to a reasonable telephoto macro capability.
With the extension tubes on the EF400mmf5.6 lens, you don't need to be very close to a dragonfly for frame filling results. So you can stand back, without worrying about disturbing the insect, and take your time over setup etc. This relatively large stand-off also allows easy use of a tripod, which brings with it so much more stability and hence extra sharpness.
The depth of field is very shallow with this setup, though, so unless you are exactly in the right position to get all parts of the dragonfly in focus at once, it can help to stop down to f11 or more. I usually take a series of shots starting at f5.6 and working down to f11 or even f16. Sometimes the wider apertures are better, because the background is then more out of focus. Other times, the extra depth of field at the smaller apertures helps to get more of the insect sharp. At the smaller apertures, exposure times can be quite long, which is another reason for using a tripod, combined with either a remote release/control or a timed shutter (2 sec or 10 sec delay). I have tried mirror lock-up to further reduce shake on the longer exposures, but I'm not convinced it makes any discernible difference.
As for focussing with this setup, I use both auto and manual, and have no strong views on which is preferable. With manual, it is often difficult to tell if the image is correctly focussed to the accuracy needed to produce sharp looking shots at 1:1 magnification back on the computer. With auto-focus you can be more confident that at least one part of the dragonfly will be sharp!
with macro lens
My experience with this lens is limited, given the dismal 2009 summer. It is very different from the stand-off shots with the 400mm lens, and a really close approach to within a few inches is needed for frame-filling damselfly and small dragonfly photography. This makes use of a tripod or any other steading device difficult. My technique has been to hand hold, and try to move in to within the required distance of the subject, relying on auto-focus. This can be extremely awkward in the field - especially if the insect is low down above water!
My most successful results have been achieved by virtually lying on the ground which can then be used to steady the camera. But on damp ground, it can produce unwanted side-effects unless of course you bring some waterproofing with you.
Some recommend manual focus for close-up macro work, but for my limited set of results to date, I found AF was fine. I tend to go up to ISO 800 and stop down to about f8 and hope for the best in sunny conditions. A couple of my attempts have then been pleasingly sharp - probably beginners luck:
As far as I can tell, the DO has no significant benefits for dragonfly photography. In fact the 400mmf5.6 is probably better, for the following reasons. My measurements have shown that the DO is no sharper than the f5.6 lens. In the field, on the smallest subjects, the f5.6 may actually be the sharper of these two lenses, when used with all three extension tubes (65mm of extension). As I usually stop down to improve depth of field, the f4 maximum aperture of the DO is of no advantage, except possibly for the occasional flight shot. However, I am often after both birds and dragonflies on the same trip, in which case I'll use the DO for dragonflies - I'm not going to lug both of these lenses around at once! I will invariably take my tripod as well.
For close-up work on the
smallest darters and damselflies, I will now also take
the EF100mmf2.8 lens.
|Comments and extra tips|
Steve Covey based in Wiltshire uses a full frame Canon EOS5D with the Canon 100-400mm f5.6 zoom or the Canon 180mm f2.8 macro for close-up work. He likes the greater stand-off possible with the Canon 180mm macro lens but says that better lighting conditions are generally required for best results. He reports that use of extension tubes can give vignetting with his full frame EOS 5D.
He has kindly agreed to share the
following fieldcraft tips:
Alternatively, it is sometimes possible to place a
taller stick in the same area and wait for it to be
adopted by the target subject, but he adds that
considerable patience and time is then needed.
If anyone else would like to contribute any
comments or tips, don't hesitate to get in touch.
|© All pictures copyright Stephen Burch, unless stated otherwise|