Photographing Odonata

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The following is an excerpt from the book "Dragonflies and Damselflies of Ohio", which I co-edited.  I also wrote the chapter on photography in that book.







More about the book..


Odonata Images


Photographing Odonata is challenging yet rewarding. Some of our Ohio Odonata are arguably among the most beautiful insects in the world. Photographing these fast-flying insects takes much of the same skill needed to capture them. The following discussion is aimed at advanced amateur photographers with knowledge of such things as focal length, depth-of-field, aperture, and shutter speed.

While large format equipment will produce exquisite images, portability is the key to photographing Odonata. This argues for the use of 35mm equipment, and there are basically two routes the photographer can take in regards to lenses. The highest quality images will be taken with a macro lens at a relatively close distance. This works fairly well for damselflies, but it is much more difficult to approach dragonflies with such a setup. If a macro lens is used, a 90-100mm lens is better than a 50 mm lens since the additional focal length will allow the photographer to stay further away from the wary subject. Several camera manufacturers market 180mm macro lenses that would be even better. A good macro lens will focus to life size (1:1) without any additional accessories. Less expensive lenses will have various extensions or screw-in lenses to reach 1:1 magnification; before purchasing one of these lenses consider your ability to successfully screw in a finely threaded lens while balancing yourself in the middle of a swamp and swatting mosquitoes!

For the dragonflies, less magnification is needed. A magnification ratio of 1:2 or even 1:3 is acceptable to fill a 35mm frame with the body and wings of a medium-size dragonfly (1:2 means that the image on film is ½ the "real" size of the image; 1:3 means the image is 1/3 life size). Thus, for dragonflies, longer lenses such as prime or zoom lenses of 300-400 mm focal lengths are ideal. The sharpest images will generally come from the more expensive lenses. Speed of the lens is not as critical for photographing dragonflies as it is for some other applications. In general, you will be photographing on sunny days. Be aware that lenses slower than f 5.6 may not autofocus correctly.

What about the camera? This is one case where cheaper may be better, since there is some likelihood of dropping the camera into the water. Autofocus is nice, but has problems with water, moving vegetation, and long lenses – all factors one encounters when photographing Odonata. You probably can’t go wrong with any of the entry-level autofocus cameras produced by the major manufacturers such as Canon, Nikon and Pentax. Be sure that the model you choose will allow you to mount the lenses you want to use, and that you can turn off the autofocus and automatic exposure features and take pictures manually.

Another equipment option is flash. To get adequate depth-of-field, it is often necessary to add light – even on a sunny day. Flash allows you to do this, and modern cameras can add flash automatically. There are two basic options. A ring flash is designed to fit around a macro lens and provide flash at close distances. Shoe-mounted flash units will work at greater distances, especially the distances involved when working with a zoom lens. A connecting cord that allows you to remove the shoe flash from the camera is a very useful accessory since it enables you to position the flash wherever you need it (although if you remove the flash from the camera you will probably need to have the camera on a tripod). Tripods themselves can be useful accessories. Mounting the camera on a tripod will ensure sharper pictures, particularly when using longer or slower lenses, or when shooting at 1:2 or 1:1 magnification ratios. The tradeoff is the longer period of time it takes to compose a picture with the camera mounted on a tripod, and the potential of scaring the subject away before you get the photo!

Finally let’s consider film. Modern slide and print films are both of high quality. For publication and presentations, slide films are the ideal. For casual use, producing a scrapbook or a display, or scanning into a computer, print film is preferred. In general, the slower the film (lower ASA or ISO number), the higher the quality of the image. Faster films will have a grainier image (although with modern films the quality is still very high). Higher speed films allow you to increase depth-of-field and to increase shutter speeds; this means sharper images. Many photographers find 200-speed film an ideal compromise. Those who look for higher image quality will gravitate towards slower films (ISO 100 or 50) and compensate with tripods (to hold the camera steady at slower shutter speeds) and/or flash. Those who prefer to get an image at all costs will tend towards faster films (ISO 400 or 800) and take pictures using daylight only. A new trend is the development of digital photography. While digital photography has many advantages, including considerable cost savings since film is eliminated, at the time of publication the quality of affordable (<$2000) cameras was not comparable to 35mm film. This disparity will no doubt change and at some point digital imaging will replace film.

Stalking Odonata to photograph them takes special patience and skill. Move slowly. Observe the patterns of their movement and try to stake out a place near a favorite perch. Remember that patrolling males in particular will return to a given area over and over again. Get used to each individual. Often you will discover its "comfort zone," the closest distance it will allow you to approach. Sometimes repeated approaches to the same individual will habituate it to your presence, and you will be able to approach closer on subsequent attempts (other times this will simply scare or annoy the insect and it will fly over the horizon). For many individuals, you will have to venture out into the water to take the pictures. It is a good idea to scout the area out in advance without the camera, lest you step into a hole or trip over a submerged obstacle.

Once in the vicinity of the quarry, it is time to compose the photograph. For dragonflies, the most appealing shots are taken looking down on the back of the specimen, showing the outspread wings. For this type of shot it is crucial that the film plane (back) of the camera be on a plane parallel to the wings and the body of the dragonfly. This is important since the depth-of-field will be very small. You want the eyes, the wings, and the tip of the abdomen all to be in sharp focus. Assuming you have aligned the camera parallel to the specimen, you will probably need an f-stop of f16 of greater (f22, f32, etc.) to get sufficient depth-of-field. Your shutter speed should be at least 1/x, where the x is equal to the focal length of the lens you are using, i.e. 1/250 of a second for a 200mm lens, 1/100 for a 100mm lens. If the camera’s meter indicates that there is not enough light for a sufficiently fast shutter speed, then you will either have to use a tripod (allowing for a slower shutter speed), use faster film, or use flash. Other good poses for dragonflies are lateral (looking at the side of the head, thorax, and abdomen) or frontal (looking at the face). In either of these cases, it is vitally important to get everything in sharp focus. On lateral shots the wings will be out of focus, and on frontal shots the hindmost legs will be out of focus. In these situations it is important to ensure that the critical elements – the eyes and the tip of the abdomen – are in crisp focus. No photo will work if the eyes are out of focus, and lateral shots are unsatisfactory if the tip of the abdomen is blurry.

Damselflies are somewhat easier to photograph. They don’t move as much, and are more likely to perch. Most importantly, many species are tolerant of close approach. Their small size argues for the use of a macro lens, and picture quality will improve greatly if a tripod is used. The best pictures of damselflies are lateral shots since the wings are held over the body. Again, one must take care to ensure that the plane of the damselfly’s body is parallel to the film in the camera so that both the eyes and the tip of the abdomen are in focus.

In any photograph, composition extends beyond getting the critical parts in focus. Ideally, the background will not distract the viewer from the subject, and, needless to say, the foreground will not hide critical areas of the body. Pay attention to the presence of distracting branches, discolored leaves, or harsh shadows. In particular, shadows from the body falling on nearby vegetation may be in good enough focus to be very distracting. Close-in vegetation can also play havoc with flash. Any background that is noticeably brighter or darker that the subject may throw off the camera’s meter. In such cases, you must make some exposure compensation. If the background is very dark, let in less light (by increasing the shutter speed or moving to a smaller aperture (larger f-number). If the background is light-colored, let in more light than the camera recommends by slowing the shutter speed or using a larger aperture (smaller f-number). The reason for these adjustments is simple. A camera is designed to make everything gray, and in trying to make a black background gray the camera will let in too much light. Likewise, to make a white background gray the camera will reduce the amount of light it exposes the film to. Camera meters vary in their sensitivity to such background conditions, and some cameras have multiple meter settings that further complicate things. Careful attention to the camera's operating manual, along with some experimentation will help ensure accurate exposures.

Even with the best equipment, careful technique, and considerable luck, it is virtually impossible to get all of the critical features necessary for proper specific identification on a single photograph. For instance, some structures may be dorsal (on the back) and others ventral (on the belly)! You can compensate to some extent by taking multiple pictures from different angles. Even complete documentation, however, might not capture the characteristic some future taxonomist might find necessary for definitive species identification. Because of these difficulties, the Ohio Odonata Survey does not include photographic records of species in its database. If you are uncertain as to the identity of a specimen, you might want to capture it after taking its picture.