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
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,
(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
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
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.
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.
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
the silence as rival males defend established territories and females
diligently lay their eggs (called oviposition).
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
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.
quality reproduction use a slow, fine grained film, for digital
capture select an ISO 100 - 200 sensitivity to minimise noise.
camera to aperture priority mode (A, Av) and select a wide to mid -
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.
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,
is a distraction.
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
than the reciprocal focal length of the lens (1/(f x FLM))
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 -
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
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.
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.
a consistent approach and become familiar with
the basic and advanced creative features on your
common dragonfly and damselfly species (see Slideshow) that you can
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
perseverance and the basics of camera and field craft are necessary
to capture beautiful, frame - filling images of Britain's dragonflies and
Broad Bodied Chaser
Common Blue Damselfly
images and text © imajtrek