If you’re like me, one of the insect subjects that you may find challenging to photograph handheld is dragonflies. While on a recent tropical holiday I took the opportunity to practice my approach capturing images of these interesting creatures. This article shares some tips on photographing dragonflies.
NOTE: Click on images to enlarge.
Study dragonfly behaviour.
One of the most important things to do when arriving at a location frequented by dragonflies is to take a few minutes to study their behaviour. Like many animals, dragonflies are often creatures of habit, buzzing along the same flight paths, perching on the same branches, and hovering in similar locations. Once you understand these basic behaviours of your subject dragonflies you are better equipped to capture some photographs.
Often we can be quite excited to capture an image of a perched dragonfly, even if it is not in an ideal position to show off its unique beauty. Dragonflies are fast flyers, and can be extremely skittish. We need to remember that getting any kind of usable photograph is a success!
Look for unobstructed backgrounds.
Dragonflies are very delicate insects with beautiful, fine details. These are best shown if a specimen can be captured up against a monochromatic, unobstructed background. Look for protruding branches and twigs that dragonflies often use as perches. These are regularly found right along the shoreline of a small pond or very slow moving creek. This type of background will give you the best opportunity for some nice, detailed images.
Choose a favourable shooting angle.
As you can see in the image above, straight side angles can produce photographs that capture good detail of a dragonfly’s body. Unfortunately this angle does not provide a good view of a dragonfly’s delicate wing structure.
Using a rear shooting angle with a slight pitch can do a very nice job capturing wing details. The risk with this choice of shooting angle is that the tail of the dragonfly may be out of focus depending on the focal length and aperture used. That out-of-focus issue may be a small price to pay for capturing dramatic wing details.
If that rear shooting angle can be adjusted slightly to one that is shooting downward on the body of the dragonfly, the out-of-focus tail issue can be corrected as you can see in the image above.
Find even lighting, free of shadows.
It is typically very difficult to capture an image of a dragonfly from a front facing position. Rather than fixate on getting a front view, it is usually more productive to position yourself for a shooting angle that captures a nice, clear photograph showing a lot of wing, back, head and tail detail. Finding nice, even lighting that is free of shadows also helps produce good, usable images.
Capturing dragonflies in flight.
Trying to photograph dragonflies in full flight motion is extremely difficult. You will have more chance of success if you study the dragonfly’s flight patterns and take note of the ‘air space’ where they tend to momentarily hover. It is these split second pauses while in flight that represent your best chance of capturing a dragonfly in flight successfully.
For photographs of dragonflies in flight, it is even more important to find a shooting angle that puts the dragonfly up against an unobstructed, monochromatic background. Having this type of background gives your camera’s auto-focusing system a higher chance of success.
Pre-focus your lens.
I strongly recommend pre-focusing your lens at the approximate distance of the ‘air space’ you have selected for your attempt to capture a dragonfly in flight. This tips the odds in your favour by reducing the time it will take your lens to acquire auto-focus on your subject dragonfly when it enters your selected ‘air space’.
Practice eye-hand coordination.
The basic approach here is to wait for the dragonfly to come to you, at the desired angle (i.e. side view), and in the ‘air space’ for the photograph you have imagined in your mind. You will very likely only have a second or so to get the dragonfly positioned in your viewfinder and fire off your image run. It is important to practice eye-hand coordination regularly. Bringing your camera up to your eye at the correct shooting angle vis-a-vis your subject dragonfly needs to become second nature.
Choose an appropriate frame rate and shutter speed.
How much wing blur you want in your images is a matter of personal preference. The images in this article were captured using a shutter speed of 1/1600 and a frame rate of 20 fps. I shot in Continuous Auto-Focus (AF-C) with Subject Tracking.
You may only get one solid opportunity to get your image burst during an outing. Making sure you have your camera set up properly is critically important.
At 20 fps per second I got repeating wing patterns every 4th image. I also got a little more wing blur than I would have liked with the photographs featured in this article. Assuming good enough lighting, my next attempt at dragonflies in flight would use a shutter speed of 1/2000 or 1/2500 and a frame rate of 60 frames per second.
Photographing dragonflies is one of the subjects I discuss in my Photographing Birds, Bugs & Butterflies presentation that I deliver to camera clubs and community groups.
All photographs in this article were captured hand-held using camera gear as per the EXIF data. All images were produced from RAW files using my standard process of DxO PhotoLab, CS6 and the Nik Collection.
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