I have had fun taking pictures of nature's photographic bounty over the years. During the past few years I have taken a lot of pictures of dragonflies. Lately, I have found it impossible to not give some camera attention to hummingbirds. According to the experts, this summer was banner for them; I live smack in the migration path of three varieties and I live very close to an Audubon Center that hosts an annual festival commemorating them as they congregate to fatten up prior to their dangerous flight across the gulf of Mexico, where they winter. I have always taken pictures of animals and birds both wild and domestic when the opportunities presented themselves. I have also spent some time actively stalking wildlife for the purpose of photographing them.
For thse interested in taking pictures of dragonflies, I'll prov e a few hints to get you started. It may not be rocket science to say begin by going to a local pond, lake, river, or stream. Even a swampy wet area that stays wet when other areas tend to dry up, sometimes called seeps, can be good places for dragons. Although not all dragonflies stay around water, they tend to stay fairly near water. Dragonflies and damselflies, or Odenates, spend a good portioh of their early lives under water where they are known as nymphs. Nymphs are famously imitated by fly fishermen. After a season under water, the nymph bodies have transformed into dragonflies. They climb up out of the water in spring and summer, crawl out of their nymph shells, and after drying their winds--fly off to live the rest of their relatively brief adulthood as the insect we commonly call dragonflies. Damselflies are closely related, but are generally smaller and have winds that angle more back toward their tails.
There are numerous species of Odenates. There are six broad categories of dragonflies. Since damselflies are a bit more reserved in both their habitat and their behavior, I recommend beginning your photographic excursions with dragonflies. Specifically, I recommend that you look along the edges of whatever fresh water you can find for those dragonflies that like to perch on the tops of weeds and limbs and outcrops to be seen. These guys are also often very curious and will come back around when they determine that you are not a threat to them. They may even land on you. I am always fascinated by how they will sometimes come hover right in your face as if to challenge you or size you up. This is part of their behavior that makes them interesting. I do not know if they are just checking you out, or trying to scare you off. But if you make no attempt to either retreat or to harm them, they quickly decide that they can coexist with you.
The longer you are around on a frequent basis, the less intimidated these insects are by you. You can then cautiously approach within a foot or so of them, so that even the most basic cameras will suffice for photographing them. Of course, the more capabilities you have for close-up focus, the better pictures you can potentially take. I usually have an inexpensive compact camera with zoom capabilities and a fairly good lens with me. Many of my best photographs have been done with one of these, although I also like to go out specifically looking for photographic opportunities along a creek or lake, with more capable cameras that allow greater adjust-ability and greater optical clarity. A telephoto macro zoom lens is what I often use during such cases. If I am wanting truly superb depth of field and clarity, I use a normal or slightly wide angle fixed lens. However, taking pictures with these requires greater patience and more expendable time to find and approach dragonflies and to get close enough to photograph them. I also sometimes use a fixed focus telephoto lens of an excellent quality.
In the order of progression as I have mentioned them, these lenses become more expensive. I want to make the point, though, that they are not necessary, except for the most exacting needs. You can do pretty well with an inexpensive digital camera if you follow a few rules. The first one I have already given you--seek those that perch near the water as they are most approachable. the second is to go during bright sun and warm weather with fairly calm winds. At the first signs of clouds or rain or wind and as evening approaches, most Odenates head for the shelter of tall grass or high tree trunks.
Using auto-focus initially, you may be able to get some nice shots. You'll probably want to set both your auto-focus area and your exposure readings on spot or at least heavily weighted toward the center. Once you try this you will see the limitations your are constrained to. Then you may want to use multi-spot auto-focus. You may also experiment with manual focus or auto with manual focus after option if you have it. Use automatic settings that use small f/stop apertures (larger numbers) or aperture priority with higher settings. Shoot at maximum resolutions. This gives you greater ability to crop after-the-fact if you are not that close to the bugs. If you have to in order to achieve the first objectives, use higher ISO settings, but understand that you will see a degradation in image quality.
I will repeat here a few basics that you may already know, but it never hurts to review their practical application as it applies to specific situations. I try to make my posts usable by the most basic photographers as well as provide a few insights usable by experienced ones. Depth of field is critically important in macro-photography, as the distances make the field of focus so shallow that part of a dragonfly may be in clear focus while another is not. This still may happen at times due to lighting, but there are things you can do to ensure the maximum depth of field.
First, realize that the smaller the aperture opening, which means the larger the numerical value of the f/stop, the greater the depth of field. This implies several other things that necessarily follow. The lower the shutter speed, the smaller opening you are able to use. this has practical limits. I remember my dad telling me when I was in the fourth grade of elementary school in Fairbanks, Alaska, as he allowed me to use his Yashica 44 EM Twin Lens Reflex camera in 1964, when I asked which of the combination of f/stops and shutter speeds that the built-in light meter offered, "Any of them". Dramatic pause to let it sink in and give rise to the natural questions that came from that not very satisfactory answer, "But use at least 1/125th for the shutter to stop the action." This is still pretty good advice. Camera shake alone can ruin an other-wise properly exposed photograph. There are more considerations than how much light you have. So, use the lowest shutter speed that stops the kind of motion required. Many digital cameras provide electronic warnings or refuse to take the picture until shaking has stopped at the camera. this does not provide for movement at the dragonfly. Another way of ensuring freezing action is to use the action preset, for Sports shots. This may NOT provide the optimum f/stop, however. One way to accomplish both needs is to use the "A" Aperture Priority setting. Choose a small f/stop such as f/16 or f/22. You will then need to adjust the ISO setting upward to increase the sensitivity if necessary in order to accommodate low light situations. Alternatively, you can use a fill flash, but everything has other ramifications. This may ruin the desirable natural lighting that you see on or in the camera. Choices may have to be made regarding which elements are most important. Don't fret about it, just shoot away with the best application of automatics and/or knowledge that you can muster on the fly, and plan to analyze and improve from there. I can tell you, that this process never ends, but with experience, you gain a broader understanding of what to do when to get what . . . . you want.
Of course, if you are trying to catch them on the fly, you'll want to use a fast enough shutter speed to freeze the images enough to be meaningful. But having the wings blur a bit can be fun too. Get as close as you can to the dragonflies. This becomes easier as they get used to you and decide that they are not a threat. Many of the bigger dragonflies will actually approach you and hover in your face to look you over. I don't know if they are actually challenging you and trying to protect their territories or if they are simply curious. But they are inclined to land on any outcrop. I use this tendency to my advantage and will sometimes place a pointed object out above the others--such as along a pond bank. They will very often land on it to claim it for themselves. The males like to be seen and be positioned where they can see intruders. Use this to your advantage.
Another way to gain greater depth of field in any photograph is to back up. This has its problems when you are taking macro pictures of insects. You are trying to get close or give the appearance of being close. If you are able to get close, using a wider angle lens or zooming out to a wider angle view will provide greater depth of field--but, of course this necessitates getting physically closer to compensate. You never know how close your quarry will allow you to get, so take a lot of pictures as you go, moving ever closer for additional sets.
Conversely, using a telephoto lens will give you a closer view, however, the depth of field diminishes greatly by so doing. Quality telephoto lenses, that is, those that provide critically sharp focus, become exponentially expensive as the magnification increases. But even this factor can be moderated by obtaining good used equipment. I have posted previously precisely about how to achieve this aim.
I generally advocate using just the highest resolution in megapixels that each job requires, but when it comes to these kinds of photographs, I recommend using the maximum allowed for almost all images. The reasoning behind this has to do with the ability to crop and enlarge just a small portion of the image in the event that you are not able to get close enough to fill the frame up. This is very useful, but it may affect the speed at which your camera can process the images within the camera in much the same way that using a fill flash has to wait to recharge subsequent filled shots. Both of these concerns are applicable for each use under given quick-shoot applications.
You will likely notice the advantage of manual focus or auto-focus plus manual tweaking, if you camera allows this function, as you take more pictures. Even as you maximize your depth of field, you may find the focus being not exactly where you wanted it to be. Your camera may choose to focus on the perch rather than the bug. This can be minimized by using spot-focus settings. More sophisticated digital cameras will allow automatic focusing, with tweaking or fine tuning after the focus has been done automatically, but this is usually a separate focus setting. It can be a very useful feature, but your eyesight, the camera display, or viewfinder view must all be considered.
Manual focus surely has its applications with dragonflies and other macro photography work. The aforementioned auto-plus feature has its limits. Some digital cameras offer manual focus assist that imposes a stark outline in one of several choices of colors of whatever is in the clearest focus. I sometimes use this with yellow. In the fall, I may have to vary the color. But familiarity with this feature as well as manual focus without this assistance should be practiced before you get into a mission critical situation. You may want to utilize the memory or so-called Soft-Keys or Buttons to facilitate going from one feature to another.
I am throwing a lot of ideas out there. If these put you off and become confusing, be assured that you only have to use them if you want to. As I have already written multiple times, use whatever you are comfortable with. But a once over of all of the features your camera offers is still a good idea, just to know what you may have the capacity to do with any given camera.
There are other considerations, but this should get you started. You may wonder, so, given all this, what is the best way to do it. The best way is whatever way will get the job done for you. Beyond this, I can tell you what I use. I have a homemade, actually, a home-altered, flash bracket that was originally intended to mount an off-camera flash above a camera, so as to direct the background shadow down and out of the field of view when taking candids of wedding and other such events. Instead of having a flash mounted on the top platform as intended, I have another camera mounted. I use used Sony NEX 5N camera bodies which have a respectable 16 megapixel maximum resolution. Next round, I will probalby ge the next rung up in resolution, but this has proven pretty good, even for the picture books I do.
Onto one camera body, I have a fairly wide angle to fairly telephoto zoom lens mounted. to the bottom body, I have a lens that picks up wehre the other telephoto leaves off and goes several times farther in the tele direction. To reduce expense, I use old Minolta lenses intended for analog cameras, but new enough to tap into the electronics of the Sony cameras. This also requires an intelligent adapter made by Sony, which I am pretty impressed with. It has limits, but it works under most circumstances. I also carry a 2x tele-converter sometimes if I am on a serious expedition--which is not that often. When I am into this serious mode, I wear a photography vest with lots of pockets. I don't like to carry a bag at all. I may also have a compact digital camera in my pocket. I have considered rigging my frame so that I could turn it to the handle side where I would ideally have the compact camera mounted. I have not been compelled to do this, but I may experiment with it.I also have an integrated flash on one of he cameras.
Yes, this is a fairly cumbersome and heavy set-up by today's standards. I came up through the ranks with heavy analog cameras, some which easily weighted twice as much; at least for me, there is a case to be had for being able to hold such heavy and physically larger rigs steadier for slow shutter speed shots without a tripod. I don't necessary recommend it, but it can be an upside. I may have a remote-controlled radio-slave driven off-camera flash either mounted on the rig for the non-integrated flash camera--still a smallish one--in a vest pocket. I may have a very good prime fixed focus lens or two as well, but this is getting more esoteric than I usually want to get. If it become too much more complex and heavy as to adversely effect my mobility, I will likely find myself less motivated to go take dragonfly pictures.
For this reason, the little compact pocket automatic Sony or any other brand remains a viable alternative. Most of my insect pictures are taken coincident to other activities whether it be hiking or fishing or traveling. It is virtually always there. I have worn out at least three of these, which does not cast aspersions on their quality. They are what they are, and they are not expensive. I am happy with them. I also am considering trying a waterproof and shock-resistant variant of a compact digital camera for even greater versatility and rigors.
During the Fall or late Summer, Odenates will couple to mate--even in mid-air. This provides unusual photographic opportunities. All Odenates are predators. They eat many harmful insects. Some also eat one another. I recently photographed something that I regarded with both fascination and horror. One female Pond Hawk was attacking another from behind and devouring her. The one being attacked might well have been able to escape but for the smaller male who was simultaneously mating with her. Such photographs place both amateurs and professionals on a par as they are able to participate in scientific research and input these photographs, along with dates and times of sightings that go into a database used to learn more about these animals.
Although I have spent a lifetime as a professional photographer to one degree or another--sometimes pursuing it full-time, while at other times only part-time, I am also an amateur Naturalist. I am currently pursuing a course of study that will certify me as such. This is only important to me as it helps me better understand plants and animals in a desire to help protect them from extinction, control them as a good steward over the environment and simply learn more about them. The more I learn about these animals the more incredulous becomes the whole idea of anything less than an intelligent design, and the less probability it seems to me that e everything evolved accidentally, as it were.
It is hard to ignore fossil evidence of Natural Selection playing a part in animal and plant diversity, but it is a huge leap with a gazillion unexplained gaps jumping form one species to another. Evidence of dragonflies goes back millions of years before even dinosaurs walked the earth and then fell extinct. They have survived Ice Ages and climate changes longer than most other beings. Yes, I feel sure that improvements via Natural Selection has played a role in this diversity, but the nuances in design and behavior that makes these insects so incredibly interesting shows the creative hand of both an Artist and a practical Creator, perhaps even with a pleasing sense of divine humor.
Although I accept that I may be able to make some scientific contribution, even if by mere accident, by taking these pictures, my motivation is primarily amazement and appreciation for their beauty. If I can capture just a smidgen of that displayed by dragonflies and other insects and birds, humming and otherwise, and all the other subjects nature presents, I will be well-satisfied. This is not hard for anyone to do.
I have expressed in at least one previous post how at one time, having become burned-out as a photographer, because I did not allow enough time to take these kinds of pictures in preference to those that had immediate and demanding commercial application, that I had all but stopped taking pictures. I found more enjoyment in collecting old relic cameras, most of which I had been contemporary with, and writing about them. This was well and good, and I did make a significant contribution with related posts, but it did not scratch that creative itch that photography had scratched early on, and did so for so many decades. My wife bought me a simple little compact digital camera to carry in my pocket. I had several highly-featured digital cameras and had kept myself up-to-date with software and technology, but the u.ndeniable accessibility of the little Sony camera, got me taking pictures again.
With the little pocket camera, I found myself unable to squelch that part of my minds-eye that had become finally honed over a lifetime with a particular style of composition and rendering images more or less the way I see them screamed too loudly to be ignored. It was intuitive. I used the full automatics for the most part at first, but fairly soon, the understanding of the mechanics and physics of photography kicked in and I found myself using them to make manual adjustments or tricking the automatics into shortcuts to the same end. The gift, or curse, came back. I am limited and contained more by circumstances now, but the eye and the inner voice is there alive and well. This is what dragonflies and flowers and birds and grand-kids and a thousand other things have given me.
If a dragonfly of these varieties is startled and leaves his perch, don't give up or dispair. they will ften circle back around and return to the same or a narby perch. Sit down or just stay still. You may even want to take opportunity to advance to a better position, counting upon his return. If he does not return, his perch may well uickly be occupied by another dragonfly.
I will never allow this voice to be overpowered and silenced again. I hope that other photographers will take note and beware that this does not happen to them. Feed the creative need a little all along. If ever you feel photography becoming drudgery, step back and take steps to change whatever it is that is doing this. It is not the fault of your camera. It is your own abuse of your gifts. Stop it.
If you are taking photographs for identification purposes, take as many angles as possible.