Techniques

Shooting Dragons: Macro Photography at its Liveliest

by John McHugh | April 1, 2006

© John McHughFinding where dragonflies live is relatively easy. Shooting them is something else. But with a little planning and a lot of practice, you can learn to identify and shoot dragons to your heart’s content.

Any place that has fairly clean water would be a safe bet. On a sunny day take a walk around any pond, lake, marsh or even a roadside ditch and you will be in their habitat. With a pair of binoculars and one of the many regional field guides or the very good guidebook, “Dragonflies through Binoculars: A Field Guide To Dragonflies of North America” by Sidney Dunkle, the challenge of identifying the three-hundred plus species becomes less daunting.

A quiet pond with an opening or two in the cattails is a good place to start photographing and identifying the dozens of male dragons that will be flying, hovering, perching, chasing and generally cavorting over the water. Female dragonflies are usually away from the pond except when ready to mate. Flight seasons vary according to regions. What may be seen in the first third of the summer may not be available during the end of summer.

Eastern ringtail © John McHugh

Underwing of Eastern Ringtail

The larger size dragons (3 inches+/-) at the pond will usually be from the Darner family. They are constantly on the move flying around the pond in search of a female. While observing closely their flight pattern of weaving in and out of the reeds, the chance for a difficult-to-get photograph happens when you see a darner weave in but not out. They perch vertically and low to the surface and are very wary. The Common Green Darner (Anax junius) male is identified by a green thorax and blue lateral stripes on the abdomen and a bull’s-eye pattern located on the forehead. The other large dragonfly commonly seen at a pond is the Mosaic Darner of which there are twenty species. Its name comes from the pattern on the abdomen; it also has a forehead mark in the shape of a black “T.” A side shot showing the stripes on the thorax is very helpful for identification.

The most common dragonflies on a pond will be the Skimmers, also called perchers. They are medium in size from 1.7 to 2.2 inches and tend to perch on the tips of stems, basking in the sun showing off their brilliant colors or intricate wing patterns. One shot from above for a dragon with a definite wing pattern will most always produce a positive ID. With clear to vague or small markings on the wings, a second shot from the side preferably from below the wings will show any stripe, dash or dot on the thorax or abdomen. A shot from below the wings will also determine the sex.

Approaching from behind and taking care not to cast your shadow onto the subject will usually allow a moderately close approach. If approaching from the side causes the dragon to fly, a few steps in retreat will be all that is needed for the dragon to return to the same or another close perch. Protecting a prime perch from the competition will entail chasing and upon return, the perch may be occupied by another. By introducing another perch or two a short distance away a game of musical chairs may result.

The smaller dragonflies are 1inch to 1.25 inch and can include the dasher, pondhawk, whiteface and meadowhawk families just to name a few. These yappy little poodles of the pond are very frisky and spend much of the day fiercely defending their little territory against all who dare to enter. Size of the offender does not matter, a darner will be chased and harassed just as quickly as a dragon of the same size. They perch on the lowest of plants and grasses as well as floating logs or debris. When females arrive to mate, ample opportunities to photograph the pair in a wheel position are presented.

Lenses

Almost any lens a nature photographer has can be used for dragonflies. Although I don’t own either of the ever-popular 500mm and 600mm lenses that the mammal and avian photographers use, these will produce excellent results. At the other end of the lens range, a landscape person could use their wide angle lens and with the knowledge of the hyper focal distance formula and keen eye for backgrounds, the ultimate environmental photo could be taken. For versatility a zoom lens makes photographing the dragonfly a breeze.

Checkered setwing © John McHugh

Checkered Setwing (Dythemis fugax) female

Zoom in, zoom out, change apertures and do it again. Add a teleconverter and start all over. What fun and a great way to learn composure, exposure and depth of field. The only downfall to a zoom lens is its ability to eat up a lot of MBs of your card. Carry a spare. The 300mm f/2.8 is touted as the world’s fastest and sharpest lens made. I do agree with this. Add a 1.4 tele-extender, an extension tube and by practicing long lens technique, you simply have the best there is!

Standing right next to the 300mm f/2.8 in quality is the 300mm f/4that is much lighter, less costly and only one stop of light less. The dedicated macro lenses are without a doubt the lens to use with a willing and approachable subject. The clarity and crispness that these lenses produce simply is astounding. Whether it’s an eyeball, wing, or the hairs on the chin, macro lenses are the cat’s meow. Artistic close-ups, semi close-ups and even a lucky flight shot all seem to please the eye.

Technique

With enough light and a fast shutter speed, hand-holding allows unencumbered stalking and minimal disturbance of the surrounding flora. With the added stability of a tripod, lower shutter speeds may be used, but great care must be taken in setting the tripod legs down and the time taken to adjust for composure and height may result in a missed shot. The lightweight automatic monopod made by Bogen is a solution to the problems of the tripod. It’s quick to adjust for height and ease of placement and coupled with good long lens technique can give very satisfactory results. Using flash as fill will help in shady conditions and an increase in power will help to knockdown the harshness of a full sunlight shot. Manual flash is preferred as the prefire of ETTL can cause the subject to twitch and cause blurriness. Flash will add specular highlights to the eyes and wings, so a diffuser either store bought or home made from a plastic milk jug will keep them to a minimum.

Along with tele-extenders to increase the magnification, a set of extension tubes will enable the photographer to move in closer than a normal lens’s minimum focal distance.

Action

Action shots can be taken with any grade digital camera; much patience and persistence are the only requirements. True in-flight shots are the hardest of all. Studying the flight path and pre-focusing helps reduce the time that AF or manual focus is needed to provide a lock on the dragon. Hovering shots are a little bit easier but, not by much, as dragons tend to move a foot or two at a time, dipping and then pausing as they look for mates.

Twelvesot skimmer in flight © John McHugh

Female Twelvespot Skimmer in flight with 180mm macro lens

Mornings are good for the first hour of the day to try for hover shots as the males are just arriving on the pond from their night roosting spot. Coming to a perch shot is the easiest of the three to photograph and, with a little preparation, the most controllable.

First, select a background with enough distance that is suitable for an f-stop of f/8 to f/11. Then test shoot the perch as most are sun bleached and will cause burnout. Replace the perch with a proportionate size and at the proper height, if need be. Acceptance is almost immediate. A zoom lens is ideal as no further movement is needed. Compose to include the perch right or left in the viewfinder and test shoot again for composure, shutter speed, focus and depth of field.

If you have a shutter release cord and a zoom lens, you can start at the shorter end of the lens reach and practice timing the landing and adjusting for shutter lag. By shooting in one-second bursts and reviewing in between landings, the success rate will rise. Zoom in and shoot again with a narrower field of view.

Chimp and zoom until you are happy with the size and space of the dragonfly relative to the perch. With the speed at which a landing takes place your reaction time will become faster and various wing and body positions will result. Depending on direction, a slight breeze may help in slowing down the approach speed but may also change the angle that is taken by the dragonfly alternating between casual approaches and very fast hook-slide- type landings. Inducing blur by slowing down the shutter speed and opening up the aperture will produce beautiful, artistic photographs.

About the Author

John "Chew" McHugh builds log and timberframe homes and furniture in the Aspen area of the Colorado Rocky Mountains. After being an ardent birder for most of one day, and then realizing that a photograph is better than memory, he became intrigued with digiscoping. Entering the arena of the DSLR, interchangeable lenses, f-stops, depth of field and flash two years ago still makes his head spin occasionally, but he enjoys the feeling of sitting on top of the world.

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