I found this Fulvous Forest Skimmer (Neurothemis fulvia) dragonfly perched on a dry twig in our kitchen garden. I captured this skimmer with Canon EOS 5DS R fitted with Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM. For the illumination I used Godox Ving V860C II E-TTL Li-ion Camera Flash fitted with LumiQuest SoftBox III. My main intention was to get the wing details of this beautiful dragonfly.
Fulvous Forest Skimmer (Neurothemis fulvia) is a medium-sized rusty coloured dragonfly with transparent wing tips. Male is reddish brown whereas the female is paler brown in colour.
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 centimetres. 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 was very comfortable with me and cooperated well.
There are of course challenges associated with this form of photography. As with any macro or close-ups, 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 perpendicular to them 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 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 set up 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.
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 an extension tube or teleconverters 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 a full range of extension tubes, it is possible to reduce minimum 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 to 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 lockup to further reduce shake on the longer exposures, but I’m not convinced it makes any discernible difference for dragonflies. As for focusing on this setup, I use both auto and manual and have no strong views on which is preferable. With the manual, it is often difficult to tell if the image is correctly focused on 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.