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Photographing Dragonflies and Damselflies

Surely the most photogenic of all insects are the dragonflies and damselflies that have colonised most zones of our planet. The four winged ancestors (some of them gargantuan creatures) of the present day habitant are traceable to rock deposits that date from the Carboniferous period almost 325 million years ago. Enter the exclusive preserve of the wildlife photographer and discover a challenging and fascinating subject that is accessible to all. Using no more than simple techniques the newcomer to photography can capture beautiful frame - filling images of native dragonfly and damselfly species.

The 5500 species of dragonfly and damselfly distributed worldwide are members of the insect order called Odonata (that means 'toothed jaw'). Though much of the life history of dragonflies and damselflies takes place underwater, hidden from our eyes, for a brief period their existence captivates one and all. Distinguishable features of the adult insect are the segmented body and the two pairs of finely veined wings that move independently, the dragonflies (Anisoptera) have dissimilar (hind and fore) wings, the damselflies (Zygoptera) have similar (hind and fore) wings.
However, dragonflies and damselflies differ markedly in their appearance, behaviour and flight. In their rest state, dragonflies hold their wings open and damselflies hold their wings closed, the exceptions are the Emerald damselflies (two species) that hold their wings partly open (at 45 degrees). Generally, the dragonfly is a large insect (the wingspan of the Emperor dragonfly is about 10 cm) and strong flier,
the damselfly is a smaller insect and weaker flier. Nothing can escape their scrutiny, multi-faceted compound eyes (about 30,000 facets) that are sensitive to colour and movement can see in all directions. Dragonflies have large eyes that encircle the head and (usually) touch, damselflies have smaller, spherical eyes that are aligned to form a dumb - bell shaped structure.
Most noticeable are the luminous colours and markings on the head, thorax and abdomen that are helpful in identification. Their formidable and primeval form should not deter the aspiring photo - naturalist, these insects have no sting and are harmless to humankind.

The three stages of their complex life - cycle, egg, (prolarva) larva and adult, have need of water and land environments for the larva and adult to mature. Dependent on the water temperature, larvae can develop in less than one year, however, for some species the larval stage can last five years. Described as incomplete (there is no pupal stage) metamorphosis, larvae pass through several stages of growth (instars) before their final change of form. Most larvae leave the water at night or the early morning (some species synchronise their emergence) and climb the stems of aquatic plants rooted in the sediment, although some journey further afield to evade predators. During the Herculean process of emergence that may take several hours once the larval skin has split, this rapacious hunter (they feed on gnats, mosquitoes, ..., even butterflies and moths) is defenceless.
For the first week (sometimes longer) adult dragonflies and damselflies are immature (teneral) and the characteristic vivid colouration of the mature adult is absent. Furthermore, age related colour changes (to make identification more challenging) are not unusual.
The natural life of the adult insect is variable, for dragonflies up to two months, for damselflies, typically less. Throughout this stage the process of reproduction can take place and the life - cycle begins once more. In the British Isles the 40 resident species of dragonfly and damselfly can be photographed at some time from late April (the Large Red Damselfly is an early flyer) to early November (the Common Darter Dragonfly is a late flyer).

Escape to the countryside on a calm and sunny summer's day and explore their natural environment. The habitat types most favoured by dragonflies and damselflies are close to unpolluted sources of slow flowing or standing water, though innate stimuli can take them to more distant localities. The water is a meeting place, there is an urgency to breed and adult (male and female) dragonflies and damselflies are present en masse. Male dragonflies constantly patrol the water's edge and engage in aerial combat, reminiscent of the antiquated biplanes of an earlier time. The clashing and rustling of wings disturbs the silence as rival males defend established territories and females diligently lay their eggs (called oviposition).
Try to familiarise yourself with the appearance (colour, markings, size), behaviour patterns, flight and habitat (the 'jizz') of common species. Dragonfly names are especially descriptive, chasers, darters, hawkers and skimmers. Over time you begin to recognise their distinctive characteristics and with some practice the process of identification becomes effortless. Look for pristine subjects to photograph, male dragonflies that have torn wings are a common sight. The first part of the day can often be productive, dragonflies and damselflies are cold blooded and in the early morning are relatively inactive and more approachable.

High - priced film or digital equipment is not a prerequisite for successful dragonfly and damselfly photography. A basic 35 mm SLR (or digital SLR) body and a long telezoom, typically, 70 - 300 mm are ideal. In sunny conditions a 1.4x or 2x teleconverter (attached to a 1.4x/2x teleconverter a 70 - 300 mm lens becomes a 98/140 - 420/600 mm lens) to increase the magnification (at the same focus distance) is effective, but the lens becomes 1 or 2 stops slower. Use the lens manufacturers matched converter for the best results. Other digital choices are an SLR - style camera with an optical zoom lens at least 300 mm equivalent or at close working distances a creative compact camera used in portrait (or macro) mode.
For high quality reproduction use a slow, fine grained film, for digital capture select an ISO 100 - 200 sensitivity to minimise noise.

Set the camera to aperture priority mode (A, Av) and select a wide to mid - aperture
f/5.6 - f/11 to isolate the subject from the foreground and background scene. This mode affords depth of field control and leaves the camera to select an appropriate shutter speed (ideally moderate to fast). At close focus distances a long telephoto lens generates a shallow zone of sharp focus. A 300 mm f/8 lens creates a depth of field less than 0.02 m (35 mm format) at an optimal working distance of 2 m. Mounted on a sub full frame DSLR body, the same lens creates an even shallower depth of field (1.4x - 1.6x less), and narrower field of view (see Depth of Field).
To minimise the spatial depth of the subject, the back of the camera should be parallel (square - on) to the predominant plane of focus. The use of flash illumination to extend the depth of field is not recommended (flash photography can form the subject of another article), however, fill - in flash may be effective to restore shadow detail and balance the natural illumination.

Of course, the ideal viewpoint is not achievable at all times and creative blur may be desirable to soften the image. While there is considerable scope for changing the composition and framing your subject to create impact, bear in mind, visual clutter
is a distraction.

Though multi - zone (termed evaluative or matrix) metering is adequate, for cameras that feature alternative metering modes, spot meter from a mid - toned surface (grass/foliage) and lock the exposure reading. This is effective for scenes that exhibit high contrast between highlights and shadows, thus, for any subject that is framed against a background of sky or water. In difficult ambient lighting conditions bracket the exposure (increments  of 1/3 EV) to ensure that one image is correctly reproduced. Above all, use an efficient lens hood or a piece of card to shield the lens from stray light. Blur due to camera movement (shake) can ruin a perfectly composed and exposed image. Handholding the camera is acceptable, use a shutter speed equal to or faster than the reciprocal focal length of the lens (1/(f x FLM))
to limit objectionable blur, where FLM is the focal length multiplier (for the 35 mm format, FLM = 1). Shutter speeds up to 3 stops slower are practicable using an image stabilised lens (or image sensor with 'built - in' stabilisation).
For general photography, anchor the camera to a robust tripod and use a cable release (or remote control) to fire the shutter. On ground that is overgrown and uneven, more often than not a tripod is unmanageable, rather than handholding the camera use any lightweight tripod as a monopod (one axis remains rigid) so that you can manoeuvre easily to access restricted viewpoints. 

Dragonflies and damselflies are creatures of habit that often return to the same vantage point to rest, to survey their territory and absorb the heat of the sun. Identify your subject, optimise the camera settings and approach, one step at a time. Bear in mind, the subject benefits from 360 vision and has observed your arrival. Their acute senses can trigger a lightning reaction to any sudden movement or intruding shadow (note the position of the sun) that could signal danger. Now is the time to test your field craft skills, to gain an unobstructed view. Advance slowly, the dragonfly or damselfly may accept your presence and not take to flight. As you move forward, pause, frame the subject and fine tune the composition. Support the camera (handholding or other) to reduce camera shake, confirm the auto or manual focus point (unless your purpose is to accurately reproduce an anatomical detail, focus on the eye) and squeeze the shutter release button. After all your labours, to locate and reposition close to the subject, never let pass an opportunity, always capture several images at different camera settings.

For a real challenge, record one or more events in the life - cycle of the adult insect, emergence from the larval skin (the delicate cast skin (called an exuvia) of each species is distinctive), mating in the 'wheel' position, egg laying in 'tandem' or opt for a (wide angle) environmental study.
At close working distances (the subject almost touching the front of the lens!) use a telezoom that is capable of macro photography, alternatively attach a close-up lens (an achromatic doublet design for the best results) or extension tube. To check your composition from a restricted viewpoint, an LCD screen that can tilt is useful. Dragonflies and damselflies may be photographed in hovering motion, make use of the continuous (burst) shooting mode to capture a sequence of images. How the camera passive autofocus reacts to contrast changes can make focusing problematic. Manually focus to guarantee control (you can select the focus point), and do not be discouraged by several poorly (the subject is three - dimensional) focused images, try again. Most of all, adopt a consistent approach and become familiar with the basic and advanced creative features on your camera. 

The common dragonfly and damselfly species (see Slideshow) that you can
expect to encounter are the Broad Bodied and Four Spotted Chaser, Common and Ruddy Darter, Emperor dragonfly, Hairy dragonfly, Brown, Common, Migrant and Southern Hawker, Black Tailed Skimmer, Azure damselfly, Common Blue damselfly, Emerald damselfly, Large Red damselfly, Blue Tailed damselfly and Banded and Beautiful Demoiselle. The list is by no means comprehensive, look for nationally rare or scarce species (Norfolk Hawker, Small Red damselfly, ...) that are present from time to time, there are many useful and well tested field guides to aid identification.
Unseasonal weather (excessive rainfall or drought) may effect the year on year breeding population, so that far fewer reach maturity. Species that can demonstrate some tolerance to the regional differences in the British climate (and pollution) usually thrive and are geographically dispersed. Though several European migrants (Red Veined Darter, Small Red Eyed damselfly, ...) have found sites to sustain the breeding population, not all endure. To learn more (about conservation, habitat management, ...), join your local natural history society or specialist group. Try to achieve a varied portfolio (to include the less common species) and experiment with composition and technique.

Only perseverance and the basics of camera and field craft are necessary to capture beautiful, frame - filling images of Britain's dragonflies and damselflies.


Broad Bodied Chaser Libellula depressa
Four Spotted Chaser Libellula quadrimaculata
Common Darter Sympetrum striolatum
Ruddy Darter Sympetrum sanguineum
Emperor Dragonfly Anax imperator
Hairy Dragonfly Brachytron pratense
Brown Hawker Aeshna grandis
Migrant Hawker Aeshna mixta
Southern Hawker Aeshna cyanea
Black Tailed Skimmer Orthetrum cancellatum
Azure Damselfly Coenagrion puella
Common Blue Damselfly Enallagma cyathigerum
Emerald Damselfly Lestes sponsa
Large Red Damselfly Pyrrhosoma nymphula
Blue Tailed Damselfly Ischnura elegans
Banded Demoiselle Calopteryx splendens
Dragonfly Exuvia  


All images and text imajtrek