I found this male Trithemis dragonfly in my garden. These dragonflies are also known as drop-wing dragonflies due to the way they sit and allow their wings to drop by the side. I thank Sourabh Sawanth for helping me to identify it. I was using my Canon EOS 5D Mark III with Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM illuminated by Canon MT-24EX macro twin light flash. All these photographs are of the same dragonfly taken in a span for few minutes from various angles.
Photographing dragonflies and damselflies makes a refreshing change to shooting birds! The beauty with dragonflies is that most do not fly away as soon as you try to get close enough for a good shot. Some of the smaller dragonflies and almost all the damselflies allow a reasonably stealthy approach to within a few centimeters. Even wary dragonflies, are easy to get within a few meters once they settle down. They can often stay still for quite reasonable lengths of time unlike birds. The hardest way to photograph dragonflies, is to chase one that is busily flying around. Look for a bush or area where there are lots of them coming and going, then choose to photograph one that is sitting still. Patience is the key here. It might take you a couple of hours to capture one that is motionless. When you do, it can be fascinating as they often seem very curious and follow your path with their heads. The dragonfly I was shooting that day even offered me a bite from what he was eating, check the piece of mandible from his meal on the twig below his face in the first photo above.
There are of course challenges associated with this form of photography. As with any macro or closeups, the depth of field is inevitably very narrow, so getting a sharp image across the whole insect is usually the biggest problem. There are various things that can be done to help with this to improve this situation. The best dragonfly pictures in my view have a clean, uncluttered background. 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. It is difficult and is possible on a few species that tend to hover. Anyone who hasn’t tried this, most birds in flight (BIFs) are a piece of cake by comparison.
To get as much of the dragonfly in focus as possible, you need to be as square on as possible to it. It is not that easy to achieve in practice. For dragonflies face on (with wings outstretched) it can be quite a challenge to get equidistant from the head, tip of the abdomen and both wing tips. As they tend to sit within vegetation it is many a times a difficult task. In such situation, opt for angled or oblique shot. 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.
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 favorite places, so the chances of them coming back to the one you are staking out are slim.
Some species of dragonflies only to be seen endlessly zooming around in flight, with almost zero chances of flight shots. Finding one settled is therefore a real bonus. Early in the day or late in the evening are the best time to capture these dragonflies when you most of them sitting on a twig. However, finding settled dragonfly, before they fly, is far from easy. This is where a telephoto lens comes in handy 300 or 400mm lens with extension tube or tele converters can do wonders in catching these dragonflies.
I have earlier used 300mm lens, the problem is that their minimal focusing distance. With teleconverter, minimal focusing distance remains same, but the subject is magnified. With full range of extension tubes it is possible to reduce minimal focusing distance and go closer. Still the magnification we can get is not 1:1 like macro lenses, but 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 tubes, the far focus distance is reduced from infinity right down to about few meters. All this leads to quite a lot of changing of tubes, with the added risk of getting more dust on the sensor. All in all, given the fact I already had the 300 mm lens, the extension tubes are a pretty cost effective route to a reasonable telephoto macro capability. With the extension tubes on the 300mm lens, 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 for dragonflies. As for focusing 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 focused 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! Remember to get the eyes always in sharp focus.
With my Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM where I can get 1:1 magnification, my technique has been to hand hold, and try to move in to within the required distance of the subject, relying on auto-focus. You might be surprised how easily dragonflies allow you to approach close (this dragonfly was just a feet from me). Trick I use is pretty simple. I cover my face with camera and not taking my eyes off the viewfinder I approach the dragonfly. As I get closer if my face is covered with camera dragonfly is not perturbed. If I show it my face it will run away. I think all animals have human face recognition built into them. So when you mask your face with camera there is a greater chance of them being curious than wary of you. This can be extremely awkward in the field – especially if the insect is low down above water. I recommend manual focus for close-up macro work. With new Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM lens I found autofocus was fine. If I don’t use flash I tend to go up to ISO 800 and stop down to about f/8 to f/11 and hope for the best in sunny conditions.