Ronno Tramper Photography

Northern White-faced Darter (Leucorrhinia rubicunda),
Engbertdijksvenen, Overijssel, the Netherlands
Nikon F100, Sigma 3.5/180 macro + 1.4x converter,
1/15 sec. at f11 on Fujichrome Velvia, tripod


Photographing Dragonflies:
Tips & Tricks

text and photography (C)Ronno Tramper


Many nature photographers must have had the experience. Dragonflies, damselflies and darters all seem to have eyes in the back of their head. After a painstakingly slow approach they often fly away when you are positioning your tripod. Well, as a matter of fact they do have eyes in the back of their head. Their large eyes consist of tens of thousands of facets and are placed on their heads in such a way that they have almost a 360 degree field of vision. With eyes like that they are extremely well equipped to detect moving objects. Including photographers frantically trying to adjust the length of their tripod legs and nervously moving their hands in an effort to get the subject in focus. Does that mean that photographing dragonflies is merely a matter of trial and error until you get lucky the umpteenth time? I think not. There are a few basic rules of conduct that will considerably improve your success rate.






location
Some wet areas are literally swarming with many different species of dragonflies, particularly during the first days of a warm period in May and June. Large numbers will increase your chance of success. Also some species and some individuals are less wary than others. It is important to observe the behaviour of your subject and adjust your strategy to it. Many dragonflies and darters hunt from a fixed position in their own small territory. They will keep coming back to the same branch or leaf. An approach that is often succesful is to try positioning yourself near this point and simply wait without moving. Their faceted eyes may be very good instruments for registering movement, but it is unlikely that dragonflies can tell the difference between humans and trees. In fact several other darters were sitting on my back while I was photographing these two. The photo vest I was wearing was of a color similar to that of the bark of the birch trees.

Darter, Merskenheide, Friesland, the Netherlands
Nikon D100, Sigma 3.5/180 macro, 1/15 sec. at f5.6, tripod


time
The best time of the day is early in the morning and late in the evening. Around sunrise you have a good chance of finding dew covered specimens that are unable to move until the dew has evaporated and the rays of the sun have warmed them. A little later, but still early in the morning, and also late in the evening when the sun is low above the horizon and the temperature is relatively low you may find many of them gathering in sunlit spots with trees and bushes to catch the last weak sunrays.

Northern White-faced Darter, Leucorrhinia rubicunda,
Engbertdijksvenen, Overijssel, the Netherlands
Nikon F100, Sigma 3.5/180 macro + 1.4x converter,
1/8 sec. at f5.6 on Fujichrome Velvia, tripod


approach

In the beginning I was easily discouraged when they flew away at my approach. Subsequently I started chasing them, which made it only worse. The reason they are all gathering on this sunlit spot is because they want to be there. I soon found out that sitting down and waiting for them to come back works much better. Simply sit down and prepare everything for the next shot. They are much less wary when they approach you instead of you approaching them. That's how I made the first photo.

Common Bleu Damselfly (watersnuffel), Enallagma cyathigerum,
Merskenheide, Friesland, the Netherlands
Nikon D100, Sigma 3.5/180 macro, 2.5 sec. at f16, tripod


equipment

I used a long macro lens for a large working distance. These photographs were taken with a 3.5/180mm macro (on a D-SLR with a DX-size sensor that is the equivalent of 270mm) at a working distance of 0,5 to 1,5 meters. You should be able to get as close as 25 centimeters though as long as you move slowly. Once you have spend about half an hour in their vicinity, some species seem to regard you as a part of their surroundings and they become less wary.

You can also use a normal 200mm or 300mm lens with extension rings, but you will need a lot of extension (approx. 50mm in addition to the extension that the lens has of itself to get to 1:4) and the resulting combination will be less stable and less flexible because it does not focus to infinity. There will only be a limited distance range to photograph in.

A 300mm with a diopter, although normally a reasonably good option for macro photography, is not ideal for this type of photography. Most diopters will take you too close to the subject (usually less than half a meter). Dragonflies can be rather big and consequently will sometimes not fit into the frame if the diopter gets you too close to your subject. You might try your luck with an 80-200mm zoom lens + diopter. The zoomlens will make framing easier and you will have to move less, decreasing the chance you will chase away your subject. Use a high quality zoom lens with a high quality diopter or you will be disappointed by the image quality.

A compact digital camera in macro mode like the Canon G9/G10 can lead to surprisingly good macro images with an incredible depth of field. However, the working distance is often only a few centimeters. I doubt you will be able to photograph many dragonflies that way. A long macro lens on a D-SLR is your best option.

Four Spotted Chaser (Viervlek), Libellula quadrimaculata, Merskenheide, Friesland, the Netherlands
Nikon D100, Sigma 3.5/180 macro, 0.4 sec. at f11, tripod

Moorland, typical dragonfly habitat:
Engbertsdijkvenen, Overijssel, the Netherlands
Nikon F3, Nikon 3.5-4.5/28-105mm (at 85mm), 1/4 sec. at f16 on Fujichrome Velvia, tripod