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Dragonfly photography

Opening remarks
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 issue
To get as much of the dragonfly in focus as possible, the first thing is to try to get as square on as possible to it. This may sound obvious, but is not that easy to achieve in practice.

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!

Fieldcraft
I'm sure fieldcraft is important for getting good dragonfly shots, but I freely admit I may well have a lot to learn here!

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).

Different Cameras and lenses
The comments below are based mostly on personal experience using the cameras and lens I have used at various times for dragonfly and damselfly photography. All are digital cameras.

Digital compact cameras
The macro facilities almost universally available on today's digital compact cameras provide great potential for cost effective dragonfly photography. My experience is based on the now obsolete Nikon CP 995 and 4500, so I presume better results can be achieved with more modern compacts. For best results, I would advise getting a camera that allows aperture priority shooting (to allow stopping down to increase depth of field). Also, a camera that allows selection of the auto-focus areas is very useful, to have control over exactly where on the insect to select for focus. I think this is something not widely available on cameras at the lower end of the price bracket, but the CP 4500 has both these useful features.

Emerald Damselfly, Thursley Common, July 2004.
Nikon CP 995, ISO 200, 1/380 sec @f5.8.
Common Darter, Oxfordshire, Sept 2004.
Nikon CP 995, ISO 100, 1/560 sec @f7.3.
Two early digital compact photographs

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.

A stunning wide-angle photograph of Small Red Damselflies.
Nikon E5200, ISO 64, 1/500sec @ f4.8.

copyright Kate Dent
Migrant Hawker, Torrent de Pareis, Majorca, October 2005.
Nikon CP 4500, ISO 100, 1/300 sec @f3.1.
Two digital compact photographs showing the dragonfly/damselfly together with their surroundings/habitat

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).

Digiscoping with digital compacts
As noted above, with a digital compact, it is necessary to get quite close to the dragonfly for anything like reasonable results. On occasions where this isn't possible, it is perfectly possible to digiscope dragonflies, using exactly the same gear as for birds. In fact, dragonflies are rather convenient subjects for digiscoping, as they tend to be still, and they can easily be approached close enough to get frame filling shots on the larger species such as hawkers.

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.

Digiscoped Broad-Bodied Chaser, Greenham Common, July 2005.
Swarovski AT 80HD with Nikon CP 4500. ISO 100 1/300 sec @ f4.4
Digiscoped Emperor, Harwell, July 2005.
Swarovski AT 80HD with Nikon CP 4500. ISO 100 1/90 sec @ f4.6
A couple of digiscope dragonfly photos, of insects in positions difficult to approach closely. Viewed at higher magnifications the lower quality is quite evident.

DSLR with telephoto lens
For higher quality results, there is no doubt a DSLR either with a good telephoto or macro lens will out perform a digital compact. This is certainly borne out by my experience.

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 was that the close focus distance was 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.

Broad-Bodied Chaser, Shellingford Pit, 1 July 2006.
Canon EOS350D & EF400f5.6. ISO 400 1/1250 sec @ f5.6
Small-red eyed Damselfly, Shellingford Pit, 26 August 2006.
Canon EOS350D & EF400f5.6 with x1.4TC. ISO 400 1/125 sec @ f13
A couple of early DLSR/400mm lens pics, without extension tubes. The quality of the left pic, of the chaser, is OK. But even with the x1.4TC, the damselfly (right) is really too small for good results and this heavily cropped image lacks sharpness when viewed larger.

In 2007, I progressed to experimenting with extension tubes. 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 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!

Ruddy Darter, Sole Common Pond, 4 August 2007.
Canon EOS350D & EF400f5.6 with extension rings.
ISO 400 1/250 sec @ f10
Small-red eyed Damselfly, Shellingford Pit, 5 August 2007.
Canon EOS350D & EF400f5.6 with extension rings.
ISO 400 1/1000 sec @ f9
A couple of my early DLSR/400mm lens pics, using extension tubes. Click on either to enlarge.

Skipping on several years, late in the summer of 2016, I acquired the new Canon EF 100-400 IS II USM zoom lens, partly on the grounds of a very favourable review of it for dragonfly photography. Indeed, the reviewer considered it was probably the ideal lens for dragonflies. This lens has a number of advantages over the older EF 400 f5.6 prime:

  1. A much closer focus distance (down to just below 1m, compared with the 3.5m of the 400 prime)
  2. A zoom capability!
  3. A very effective image stabilisation (IS) system (up to 4 stops, compared with none on the 400 prime)
  4. Pin-sharp Canon lens series II optics

Writing this midway through the 2017 season, I am still feeling my way with this lens, but it is certainly capable of producing impressive results. The 1m close focus distance is fine for most dragonflies, especially the larger ones, but not quite close enough to get damselflies almost filling the frame. So I have been experimenting with adding one of my extension tubes (26mm) to bring the focus distance down further. At 400mm focal length, damselflies can then be made to fill the field of view. Because it is a zoom, it is also possible to zoom out, which brings to the close focus distance down even further - as I found by accident very recently! So much so that at 100mm I suspect it would not focus at all.

The IS is also very handy as it allows more opportunity for hand held shots, even when stopped down to say f11 for extra depth of field. This then can remove the need for a tripod (or even monopod) and leads to a much more portable solution.

So all in all, I suspect the reviewer is right - the EF 100-400 USM II is a very good lens for dragonflies and damselflies (with an extension tube)!

   
Migrant Hawker, Shellingford Pit, 29 August 2016.
Canon EOS 7D mk II & EF100-400f4.5-5.6 IS II USM @ 400mm
ISO 1600 1/2500 sec @ f10
Beautiful Demoiselle, Crockford Stream, 7 July 2017.
Canon EOS 7D mk II & EF100-400f4.5-5.6 IS II USM @ 400mm
ISO 800 1/500 sec @ f10
A couple of more up to date images with my newest toy - the great Canon EF100-400f4.5-5.6 IS II USM lens

Flight shots
A DSLR with a telephoto lens can also be used to attempt the holy grail of dragonfly photography - flight shots. However, it can be very difficult to get most erratically flying dragonflies in the field of view, let alone centred and in sharp focus! Certainly a tripod is no use at all. Although I haven't tried my new EF 100-400 USM II very much yet for flight shots, I suspect it could also be very good - no need for extension tubes and the lightening fast focussing helps. My one success to date with this lens produced my first ever damselfly flight shot!

Experience certainly helps with this challenge and some species are easier than others. For example, in the right sheltered conditions, Migrant Hawkers can fly slowly or even hover almost in one spot for long enough to get onto them. Others like Emperor are also possible but more difficult, as they don't really hover much. With them I find that having some wind helps, as this slows them down - provided they are flying into the wind that is. Over the years, I have also managed to get one or two reasonable flight shots of various other species including Southern Migrant Hawker, Common Hawker, Downy Emerald, Brilliant Emerald and Common Darter.

But if you try this form of photography - good luck! Perseverance is the key and don't be put off by a very small percentage success rate. After all it only takes one sharp image to have made the session worthwhile.

 
Migrant Hawker, Shellingford Pit, 15 September 2007.
Canon EOS350D & EF400f5.6 with extension rings.
ISO 800 1/320 sec @ f5.6
Emperor, Shellingford Pit, 16 July 2016.
Canon 7D mk II & EF400f5.6.
ISO 800 1/2000 sec @ f5.6
Two DLSR/400mm lens flight shots. Click on either to enlarge.

DSLR with macro lens
The limits to the EF400mm with extension rings begin to appear when attempting to get the sharpest shots on the smallest subjects - small darters and damselflies. For these, even with all 3 extension rings, giving 65mm of extension, the horizontal field of view is about 70mm, which is a good deal larger than these small insects, so they don't fill the frame. Also, for really close up work it is difficult to get really pin sharp results using a 400mm lens. For this reason, I acquired a true macro lens for the 2009 season. I selected the Canon EF100mm f2.8 macro lens as it was not too expensive, had good reviews regarding sharpness, and provided a reasonable focal length to allow some stand-off from the target.

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 steadying 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 or even 1600 and stop down to about f8 to f11 and hope for the best in sunny conditions. A couple of my attempts have then been pleasingly sharp - probably beginners luck:

Black Darter, Thursley Common, 19 August 2009.
Canon EOS350D & EF100f2.8 macro.
ISO 800 1/500 sec @ f8 (hand held)
Small red Damselfly, Wildmoor Heath, 25 July 2009.
Canon EOS350D & EF100f2.8 macro.
ISO 800 1/640 sec @ f8 (hand held)
Two examples of EF100mm f2.8 macro lens results on smaller subjects. Click on either to enlarge.

After using the EF100mm f2.8 for a few years, I then decided to upgrade to the Canon EF180mm f3.5 macro, as this will allow more stand-off and hence less chance of disturbing your subject. This indeed a very good macro lens for dragonfly and damselfly photography; its main drawback being lack of any image stabilisation. It can also be used to good effect for other small bugs of various, including flight shots of a fly!

  Club tailed Dragonfly  
Beautiful Demoiselle, Otmoor, 3 June 2017..
Canon EOS 7D mK II & EF180 f3.5 macro.
ISO 800 1/800 sec @ f11 (hand held)
Club tailed Dragonfly, Goring railway bridge, 23 May 2015.
Canon EOS 7D mK II & EF180 f3.5 macro.
ISO 1600 1/640 sec @ f11 (hand held)

Current preferred gear
My most usual photographic gear for dragonfly photography now consists of a Canon EOS 7D mkII camera, combined with the EF100-400mm USM II, perhaps with a 26mm extension tube if I am after really close shots of damselflies. I also use the 180mmf3.5 macro from time to time for really close up work. 

 

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:

Steve suggests that a possible cure for the 'wet belly syndrome' is to carry a roll of dustbin liners with you. You can then open it out as much or as little as you need on wet ground. Also, to avoid soggy knees, why not take a pair of lightweight kneepads of the sort sold in garden centres and DIY stores? Although he warns you might look a bit silly wandering the countryside with them strapped to your knees!

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