Damsels & Dragons

17th May 2013

We are underway at last!

It has been a slow start to 2013, I have made a few trips out in late April and early May but seen nothing more than the odd Large Red damselfly. These beautiful insects normally start to appear in April here in Wiltshire but its only now (16th May) that numbers are starting to build up. In a future blog I will tell you a bit more about these facinating insects but for now I will concentrate on giving you some advice on how to photograph them.


First a word of warning - macro photogrphy is not easy, you will take many, many images before you get a good one. The reason for this is that we are working with such narrow depths of field, sometimes just a couple of millimeters and if we are not perfectly parallel to our subject or if we move slightly then our image will not be sharp.

So what is a macro lens?

A macro lens is the same as any other lens, except that it allows you to focus very close to your subject and reproduces your subject at 1:1 (or very close) on your cameras sensor. All top camera manufactures produce high quality macro lenses for their cameras as do a number of 3rd party lens manufactures, so there is bound to be one to suit your pocket. I use the Canon 100mm L f2.8 macro lens - it is light, has superb optics and is reletively cheap for an L grade lens.

The first skill we need to master is to locate a suitable subject to photograph, all damselflies and dragonflies (known collectively is Odonata) need water, so most ponds, lakes, streams and rivers will be home to some species, even garden ponds will have residents and visitors during the summer months. A word of caution - be very careful around water and if possible go with a friend and keep a close eye on each other to prevent accidents. Start your hunt for these insects around the margins of water bodies, they will soon give their prescence away by flying up in great numbers from the vegetation as you approach. They are cold blooded and rely on the sun to warm their bodies which, when warm enables them to fly. So if you are out early in the morning you are likely to find specimens that aren't as active as they will be later in the day and this will make for easier photography. If you distub them, watch an individual as it flies off, follow it and see if it lands in a suitable position - eventually one will.

The background is very important when photographing these small insects - a soft, blurred, out of focus background is desirable, this way the fine detail of the insect is not lost against a 'busy' background. It also gives the insect an almost 3D quality that makes the viewer think they can just pick it off the page. So how do we go about getting a beautifully soft background?

We look for an insect that has perched on some vegetation that is a good distance away from the background i.e. a reed that might be 2 or 3 meters away from the vegetation or on the edge of a bush. The greater the distance between our subject and the background, the more diffused or out of focus the background becomes.

Camera settings - I vary my aperture usually between f8 and f16 depending on what effect I am looking to create in my image and how much depth of field I want. f8 will help to give you a more 'out of focus' background but also give you less depth of field, while f16 will give you a greater depth of field but also render more of your background 'in focus'. So its a trade off - for 1.6x crop factor cameras use f11 as a starting point but for full frame cameras f14 will give you a similar depth of field.

If you try to get the whole insect in focus from its near leg to its far leg you are going to need a reletively huge depth of field for a macro lens, something in the region of 3 or 4cm, so I would advise you that this is not necessary. We only really need half the insect in focus, the near leg and half the body - the reason being that it is almost impossible to see the far side of the insect.

To maximise your use of the depth of field you need to make sure that you are perfectly parallel to the insect, be aware that not all insects hang perfectly vertically and some have 'kinks' in their body.

I vary my ISO to give me a shutter speed of around 1/125 sec - I find it best to shoot in manual mode and adjust my settings as my shooting position and the lighting conditions change.

So to recap:

ISO: Varies to give a shutter speed of around 1/125sec.
Aperture: f8 - f16
Shutter Speed: 1/125 sec

Find a subject that has some distance between it and the background. Look around bankside vegetation and follow likely subjects as they fly off to find a new perch.

Get perfectly parallel to the subject.

A final few tips: always approach them slowly to avoid disturbing them, if possible with your camera up to your face. The reason being - if you look through your lens you will see a big, light circle - to the insect this looks like the big of of a possible predator. By having the camera up to your face you prevent light from entering through your view finder and thus there is no large, light circle.

Try not to allow your shadow to fall on them, this will disturb them.

Finally they do not sting or bite, so they are completely harmless to humans but please do not touch them as they are very delicate.


Should fancy trying to photograph these amazing insects, please contact me to book a 1to1 photographic session. I can show you all the necessary techniques you will need to photograph them, find you some specimens to practice your photographic skills on and give you some practical 'field craft' skills, then show you how to process your images to make them look their best.


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