Shooting Dragonflies: Show Up, Watch Stuff Happen, Shoot it When it Does (Part 2) – Guest Article by Steve Russell
Some roosters startle easily so shooting with a longer lens helps. I use a 70-200mm lens with a 1.4 extender and can fill a frame with a dragonfly from about 4-5 feet away or stand further back and crop later. On occasion I’ve pushed the envelope and gotten within a foot of the subject with my 90mm macro lens and it usually produces a crisper image.
Flash can be used to enhance detail and saturation and remove distracting background elements. For close-ups with my macro lens I’ll use a macro twin flash, but I use my external flash in the hot shoe when using my 70-200mm lens. As much as I love the detail and saturation using flash, the soft bokeh of blurred greens and browns from vegetation and dried grasses in the background can be beautiful.
I generally shoot roosters with a wide-open aperture (when I’m not using flash) to get as much light (and speed) as possible, but the depth of field is very shallow. For that reason, being parallel to the subject or at least what you want in focus is important. But with eyes, a body and wings going every which way, decide your priorities when you shoot and take as many shots as you can and cull them later.
With roosters I try to keep the ISO (100-200) low since I’m not as worried about speed, especially with flash. Flash allows me to freeze the action at the maximum sync speed of 1/200 sec. and with roosters on a calm day that’s often fast enough with or without flash.
Focusing on flyers is the biggest challenge of all – even when they are hovering. Automatic focus (AF) is hard to use unless the dragonfly is close and fills much of your frame, which doesn’t happen very often. I like manual focus because it’s actually faster to do, but the window for coordinating the sighting, focus and shoot is very small before the flyer zips off. Standing in the path or favorite haunt of a dragonfly you’ve been watching helps and sometimes they get very curious and will hover longer nearby (they’ve even landed on me twice now).
I’ve had better luck with flyers with my 90mm macro lens and an external flash (not my macro twin flash) – it’s lighter and easier to hold and point and the flash covers farther. I’ve had far better luck by using flash and waiting for the dragonflies to come close to me (as opposed to using a heavier, longer lens and shooting them at a distance). Areas of bright shade seem to produce the best results on sunny days. Shooting flying dragonflies requires a ton of patience and a willingness to fail much more than you succeed. But the rare sharp capture of the intricately webbed wings and unusual faces is worth the trouble.
One of the great things about just showing up at these ponds is the unexpected opportunities that may come your way like they did for me. The mating pair flying in tandem that suddenly split apart and land clinging to low grass totally exhausted. The sudden appearance of a female laying her eggs on the algae of a pond just a few feet away. The sound of fluttering wings against thick tall grasses that lead me to a lone female laying her eggs in the dense vegetation.
Stuff happens and the trick is to be there ready to shoot it when it does. These things all occur on the dragonflies’ timetable, not ours, but maybe by tuning in to their rhythms and habits and tuning up our skills we can improve our chances of getting some good quality images of these amazing creatures.