How to Photograph Damselflies and Dragonflies

how to photograph dragonflies

Why the fascination for dragonflies? It is a question I’m regularly asked. Well, they are just really cool insects, aren’t they? They were patrolling the skies over 300 million years ago – long before dinosaurs roamed the earth. They are impressively agile and accomplished fliers. They can hover effortlessly and even fly backwards. They are also fast – some species reach speeds of over 30mph – and are ferocious predators. They are some of the largest, most colourful and beautiful insects on the planet. Therefore, it is no surprise that both dragonflies, and their smaller relatives, damselflies, have widespread appeal to wildlife photographers. Few insects look more impressive in close-up macro.

My obsession with macro photography and insects began when I was 10-years old and still using my parents Zenith film SLR, and a humble close-up filter. I took a photo of a mating pair of emperor dragonflies, which later won me my first major prize – a category in BBC Countryfile’s annual photo competition. The rest is history, but I’ve incorporated a dragonfly into my logo to pay homage to the role they’ve inadvertently played in my career path. Today, I still enjoy studying and photographing them. They are highly challenging subjects, though… so how do you take better shots?

how to photograph damselflies
Male emerald damselfly (Lestes sponsa) resting on a reed near the water’s edge with out of focus highlights in the background. Broxwater, Cornwall, UK. September 2015.

Understand dragonflies and damselflies

From spring through to early autumn, dragonflies and damselflies can be seen flying around. The two insect types are easily distinguishable. Damselflies are typically smaller and slender. They close their wings together above their bodies, and their eyes are apart – in most dragonflies, the eyes touch. There is a wide variety, and different species emerge at different times of the year. Most of their life is spent underwater as aquatic larvae, but when they are ready to emerge in the spring or summer, they climb up out of the water, cling to a grass, reed or low branch, and complete their extraordinary metamorphosis.

tips to photograph damselflies
Blue-tailed damselfly (Enallagma cyathigerum) cleaning its eyes. Tamar Lakes, Cornwall, UK. July 2016.

As with any wildlife subject, if you want to capture great shots, a passion, appreciation and understanding for the subject is essential. Do your homework – just as you would with a bird or mammal. Research your local habitats and get to know them intimately – this will enhance your chances of finding the very best spots for photography. Dragonflies and damselflies enjoy wetland habitats, particularly marshes, swamps, lakes, ponds and streams. However, they can often be found long distances away from water – dragonflies particularly like to patrol hedgerows and meadows, where they hunt gnats, flies and other small insects.

Knowing and observing your subject will help you get close. For example, dragonflies are highly territorial – often patrolling the same stretch of water and visiting the same place of rest again and again. Identify resting places – like overhanging branches or reeds – and then wait nearby, camera ready, for the insect to return. This can be a very effective approach during the day when insects are at their most active. In my experience, chaser and darter dragonflies tend to rest quite frequently, perching on grasses close to the water’s edge. However, hawkers bask irregularly and are generally trickier to get close to. Stealth and patience will be required – by wearing drab clothing and watching and waiting, you will certainly enhance photo opportunities.

photograph dragonflies
Broad bodied chaser dragonfly (Libellula depressa), newly emerged, resting on reeds. Broxwater, Cornwall, UK. April 2017.

What kit do you need?

If you want to capture frame-filling shots, you will need a close focusing lens. Read my article on equipment for close-up photography to help get you started. To photograph damselflies, which are small subjects, you will need to get very close and employ a high level of magnification. A tele-macro (in the region of 100-150mm) is the best choice, providing a larger camera-to-subject distance than close-up filters or extension tubes.

It goes without saying that the further away you remain from your subject the less likely you are to disturb it. For dragonflies, which are larger, a telephoto lens can suffice so long as it has a short minimum focusing distance. For example, I will often use my Nikon 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6G ED VR when shooting dragonflies, as this lens can focus to within 1.75m and boasts a maximum reproduction ratio of 1:5. This is adequate for larger insects and allows me to work from a practical distance. Many zooms today have good close-focusing ability, like the Sigma 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 APO DG Macro, which offers an impressive maximum magnification of 1:2 (half life-size). If your telephoto doesn’t focus close enough, try reducing its minimum focusing distance using auto extension tubes – like this set by Kenko. However, for the majority of my images, I still favour a dedicated macro – favouring a 200mm focal length for tripod work, or using a shorter, lighter and more manoeuvrable 105mm macro for handheld photography. Don’t overlook using wider focal lengths for capturing environmental shots to show your subject within context.

The Sigma 105mm f/2.8 lens is a very popular choice amongst macro photographers.

Think about your approach

Although dragonflies and damselflies are different, the technique and approach required to photograph them is similar. The best time of day to take photos is morning and evening. Not only is the light more photogenic, but also typically dragonflies only begin flying at temperatures of around 13-15 degrees Celsius. Therefore, when the temperature is lower, insects are less active. During summer, when the days are long, the hours can be unsociable – I might aim to arrive at my wetland location by 5.30am, while in the evening, I might still be shooting close to sunset. You have to be prepared to put the hours in if you want to take good shots, though. During morning and evening, carefully look for roosting insects close to the water’s edge. You may find them clinging to tall grasses or perched on branches – often you will find them close together. Please take great care, though. In the morning in particular, insects are fairly torpid, so a careless foot could spell the end. Be mindful of where you tread and avoid disturbing the vegetation they are sheltering within. The subject’s wellbeing is always top priority.

how to photograph damselflies
Banded demoiselle (Calopteryx splendens), male and female silhouetted on reed. Lower Tamar Lakes, Cornwall, UK. June 2014.

Morning is a particularly good time for dragonfly photography, as tiny droplets of dew will form on the insect’s wings and body during cool, clear nights. Droplets can add interest, scale and sparkle to your close-ups. Look for insects that are resting in a position where you can easily isolate them from their surroundings and achieve a clean, uncluttered background. This is important, as the wings of dragonflies and damselflies are transparent and their intricate veining will be lost against a messy backdrop full of twigs, sticks, grasses or gravel. During daytime, when insects are busily buzzing about, you have no choice but to shoot handheld. However, when insects are inactive just after daybreak, you should be able to place a tripod close-by without too much trouble. The opportunity to use a support is a welcome one, providing stability and aiding composition and precise focusing. Whenever I’m able to use a tripod for insect photography, I select the lowest practical ISO (to maximise image quality) and focus manually via LiveView – doing so allows me to magnify my point of focus to aid pinpoint focusing.

how to photograph damselflies
Large red damselfly (Pyrrhosoma nymphula) portrait. Tamar Lakes, Cornwall, UK. June 2016

Whether you are shooting with a tripod or handheld, it is normally advisable to keep your camera parallel to your subject in order to place as much of the insect as possible within the lens’ plane of focus. Your choice of viewpoint is important. Dragonflies, with wings held open and perpendicular to their body, suit being photographed from directly overhead, as this angle helps reveal the intricate veining of their wings. Most damselflies rest with their wings closed, so a side viewpoint generally works better. However, don’t overlook less conventional or more creative angles. Taking images head-on, to achieve portraits that emphasize the insect’s disproportionately large eyes, can look particularly striking.

Further Reading: Introduction to Macro Photography: Technique

dragonfly
Four-spotted chaser dragonfly (Libellula quadrimaculata) resting on reed, early morning light. Devon, UK. May 2016.

Capturing behaviour

To give your images extra impact and interest, try to capture an element of behaviour. Shots of dragonflies or damselflies hatching, mating, laying eggs or in flight are guaranteed to standout. Larvae typically emerge during the morning, climbing out the water and clinging to a reed or grass near the water’s edge, before hatching. They are vulnerable at this time, though, so photographers must take care not to knock or move them. Finding a freshly emerged dragonfly or damselfly, which is also in a position suited to being photographed, isn’t easy and it may take multiple visits and hours of searching. However, once you’ve found one, it should be possible to capture a series of shots – capturing the different stages of development – as the insect completes its transformation.

emerging damselfly
Large red damselfly (Pyrrhosoma nymphula) emerging from nymphal case on reed – sequence from nymph to adult damselfly. Broxwater, Cornwall, UK. May 2010.

During the heat of daytime, lakes and ponds will be alive with dragonflies and damselflies hunting, mating and laying eggs. Paired damselflies will often rest on vegetation close to the water’s edge. The male and female form a ‘wheel’ or ‘heart’ shape in tandem. This is very photogenic, but in order to keep both insects sharp throughout, you will typically require a small aperture of f/11 or f/16.

damselflies mating
Common blue damselflies (Enallagma cyathigerum) mating, West Hay nature reserve. Somerset, UK. August 2016.

When laying their eggs, female dragonflies will often land on lily pads or weed, dipping her tail beneath the water. Try to shoot from close to the water’s edge, lying on the ground in order to achieve a low, natural viewpoint. Unless insects are very close to the edge, a macro lens won’t be powerful enough – instead try using a telephoto in the region of 300-400mm.

dragonfly laying eggs
Female emperor dragonfly (Anax imperator) laying eggs on garden pond. Broxwater, Cornwall, UK. July 2015.

Dragonfly’s aerial agility and quick reflexes make them a challenging subject in flight. Be prepared to take huge bursts of images, with a low ratio of success. Target larger species, like hawker dragonflies, when attempting shots in flight. Observe their range and situate yourself in a position close to where they regularly patrol. The best opportunities will come when they hover, as this allows extra time to focus.

dragonfly in flight
Southern hawker dragonfly (Aeshna cyanea) in flight, Arne (RSPB) nature reserve. Dorset, UK. August 2011.

Alternatively, try pre-focusing on a favourite perch and then fire a short burst of images – using the camera’s continuous shooting mode – just before the insect arrives or departs again. It can take many attempts to capture an image that is both sharp and well composed, but results look fantastic. Prioritise a shutter speed of at least 1/1000th second for flight, while a tele-converter can be useful for increasing the reach of your lens.

So what is stopping you? Now is the perfect time to photograph these impressive and beautiful insects! Good luck.

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