Insects are invertebrates, which make up 97 per cent of the world’s animal species, so a closer look among plants, flowers and grasses reveals a world of life forms that many of us simply pass by. Keen gardeners and flower enthusiasts are well aware of nectar-feeding species such as bees, butterflies and hoverflies, and the brilliant colours of these insects make them popular subjects for photographers too. But there is another, larger, more colourful species of insect to be found when wandering by any river or lake during the summer months: the iridescent brilliance of dragonflies and damselflies.
Despite the name, dragonflies are benign by nature and names such as ‘hawker’, ‘chaser’, ‘skimmer’ and ‘darter’ reflect more accurately their behaviour and characteristics. True dragonflies are large, full-bodied insects, brightly coloured and fast fliers. The majority of smaller species congregate around breeding pools, especially during mid-morning, waiting for potential partners to visit. This is often the best place to start your observations and photography. At rest, their wings are held in a horizontal position.
By contrast, damselflies are much smaller insects with long delicate bodies, which are easily damaged. Most, with the exception of a few species, rest with their wings held together along their body. They have less agility in the air than dragonflies, but are more numerous and easier to find in sheltered spots near the water’s edge, where they rest among the lush vegetation.
EARLY MORNING START
Dragonflies are superb fliers and have 360-degree vision, so the best approach to photograph them – and damselflies – is early in the morning when the temperature is cooler and they are less active. Not until they have warmed up sufficiently will they take to the air. Good places to start are the margins of small lakes, rivers and other wetland habitats. Mild and sunny conditions often trigger an emergence. Dragonfly species such as the four-spotted chaser and the broad-bodied chaser, as well as many damselflies, are frequently found among reeds and other waterside vegetation.
When looking for suitable subjects to photograph, target individuals that are isolated from the surrounding vegetation as they will stand out more clearly and produce straight, clean pictorial images. This is especially true in strong sunlight, which creates dense shadows in the vegetation and produces high-contrast backgrounds.
Some species can even be enticed to perch on a predefined spot. For example, chasers are highly territorial and aggressively defend their patch, usually from a prominent position, and often return to the same reed or stem. As with so much nature photography, taking the time to observe the habits of your subject can pay dividends – by placing a couple of alternative perches in the appropriate spot and pre-focusing your lens, it becomes a case of waiting for your opportunity to come along.
Longer focal length macro lenses of 150mm or 200mm are many photographers’ preferred option when shooting dragonflies. As with much macro photography, cropped-sensor digital SLRs have an advantage in utilising the central area of the lens for better image definition and further extending the working focal length (and therefore the subject to camera distance). The image magnification of longer focal lengths also demands a tripod be used and the shutter fired with a remote release to reduce vibrations.
Another operational characteristic of using longer lenses is the narrow plane of focus, which actually helps to control distracting backgrounds by keeping them well diffused. However, focusing becomes more critical and fine adjustments are best made manually. Autofocus is convenient, but in close-up work it is never essential and some lenses can be too slow to respond or have a tendency to hunt.
There is an increasing trend among nature photographers to use wide-angle lenses to include more of the subject’s surroundings in the frame and provide an environmental context. This is also true of macro subjects such as dragonflies and damselflies. Of course, this is only feasible, either very early in the morning, or when the temperature is generally below the threshold for flight.
Wide-angle lenses have a short minimum focusing distance and inherently large depths of field, allowing you to take photographs with the subject large in frame, set within the surrounding landscape. Wide angles also allow you to produce unusual and interesting perspectives with short focal lengths and to distort scale creatively.
Damselflies and dragonflies begin their lives as aquatic nymphs and each spring some will end the aquatic phase of their life cycle by climbing onto a reed and out of the water. Once in position, a remarkable transformation commences, one that many photographers seek to capture if the chance presents. Over a period of 20 minutes or so the adult will slowly begin to emerge, breaking its white breathing tubes in the process before hauling itself free from the exoskeleton of the nymph (which is known as the exuviae). It will then remain stationary for up to a couple of hours as its wings expand and harden and body colour develops.
So how do you find such a nymph? It’s simply a case of exploring the fringes of lakes and ponds, checking the reeds for exuviae. These provide the telltale signs that damselflies and dragonflies have started to emerge. The ideal situation is to find a nymph as it leaves the water and before it begins its transformation so you can photograph the entire process. For once, the photographer has time on his/her side to make considered decisions about every aspect of the photograph. There is even time to use flash, or ‘outdoor studio’ set-ups with a second flash unit and white background sheets to make a multiple sequence record of the transformation.
Many nature photographers are reluctant to use flash but for this situation it improves contrast and adds vibrancy to the image, especially on overcast days. A single flash mounted above the lens, which can be rotated in any direction gives plenty of directional options. The angle of direction and power output can then be checked on the LCD monitor and adjusted accordingly.
There are other technical and equipment-related factors to consider when photographing insects such as dragonflies and damselflies. For example, image stabilisation systems are ever present in modern lens design, but they can be an ineffective addition to macro lenses as they create vibration when countering the movements caused by hand-holding the camera. The lesson therefore is simple: whether hand-holding or on a tripod, turn off the IS.
Despite the move to full-frame (35mm) format in recent digital SLR cameras, many macro specialists prefer to use a cropped sensor (APS-C) camera because it extends the focal length of any full-frame lens by a factor of approximately 1.5x and utilises only the central area of the lens for optimum image definition. Converters – 1.4x, 1.7x and 2.0x – also give a magnification boost and excellent quality when the lens is stopped down, as in most close-up work. However, there is also a reduction in depth of field.
When exploring the creative possibilities of shallow depth of field, it is essential to carefully select the zone of sharpest focus. For example, the eyes of damselflies and dragonflies are prominent, often bulging, and always colourful, making them an obvious focal point of a picture. Therefore, they need to be sharply focused. Another advantage of shallow depth of field is the diffused, smooth background (known as bokeh), which helps to make the focused area stand out even further. Good bokeh is the product of a lens that produces nearly circular images of its diaphragm opening that blend smoothly when they overlap.
The jewel-like, iridescent colours of dragonflies and damselflies make them an obvious target for photographers who specialise either just in insects or in macro images in general. At this time of year, they are a conspicuous presence near water and one of nature’s iconic summer species. Another reason, therefore, to get up early and venture outside while the sun shines.
Focus on the eyes. The eyes of a dragonfly are usually prominent and colourful and make an obvious focal point, especially for a close-up study.
Try different lenses. Subjects such as dragonflies and damselflies are usually photographed using long focal length macro lenses, but a wide-angle lens will enable you to include its surroundings.
Use a tripod for added stability. If you’re early enough in finding your dragonfly, chances are it will still be warming up for a few minutes before flying – which gives you plenty of time to set up your tripod and guarantee a sharply focused exposure.
Switch on image stabilisation. Many lenses have built-in switches to counteract movement that is caused when hand-holding the camera, but the vibration they make can also blur your image at slow shutter speeds.
Shoot directly into the sun. The sun will be low in the early morning so make sure it isn’t in the background of your image, or causing flare. The best lighting is when the sun is diffused by thin cloud.
Leave the flash at home. Even in bright conditions, a burst of fill-in flash – at low power – can fill in shadows, adding a great deal of vibrancy to the natural colours of the dragonfly.
Britain’s Dragonflies by Dave Smallshire and Andy Swash, Princeton University Press, £28.90, softback
Dragonflies Through Binoculars by Sidney W Dunkle, Oxford University Press, £17.99, softback
Field Guide to the Dragonflies of Britain and Europe by Klaas-Douwe B Dijkstra and Richard Lewington, British Wildlife Publishing, £21.95, softback
Accessory option: Polarising filter
When close to lakes, rivers and ponds, reflections will be hard to avoid, particularly when the sun is low in the early part of the day. Adding a polarising filter to your lens will help reduce glare reflecting from the water’s surface. The Japanese-made Hoya Super Pro 1 D Revo SMC (£100) is one of the best filters of this type and available in most sizes from 37mm up to 82mm.
Accessory option: Ball head tripod
A tripod that isn’t too heavy is worth having when wandering around lakes. Carbon fibre or aircraft-grade aluminium models are lightweight and strong enough to support the heaviest camera and lens combinations. Ball head tripods such as Giottos’ (from £150) are the pros’ choice as they are quicker to adjust when changing angles and easier to use in confined spaces.
Camera option: Cropped sensor DSLR
DSLRs that use the APS-C format are also known as ‘cropped sensor’ cameras. Not only are they cheaper than full-frame SLRs, but they extend the focal length of full-frame lenses by 1.6x – a major plus for macro optics. The Nikon D5500 (£640 body only) is the first crop-sensor DSLR to use a vari-angle touch screen, useful when shooting subjects in low-to-ground positions, such as dragon or damselflies.
This article was published in the August 2015 edition of Geographical Magazine