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Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Photographing Dragonflies, Part II

In yesterday's post I talked about giving yourself a personal photographic challenge and my desire to get a really killer shot of a dragonfly. I haven't been back over to the pond yet to put my new found bits of dragonfly-photo knowledge to work, but today I'll share with you the many things I learned about photographing these beautiful and mysterious creatures.

Photographing dragonflies kind of reminds me of photographing the Blue Angels because, as I wrote a few weeks ago about shooting those ultra-fast jets, you need to plan a strategy if you want to get sharp photos. Here are some of the things I observed in my first day of shooting that may help you if you try to photograph them:

  • You'll need to find a location with a lot of dragonflies in order to photograph them, of course, and the best place to look is along the edges of a pond or stream. I found hundreds of them zipping along the edges of the small neighborhood pond where I was shooting. Interestingly, since I grew up near this pond, I have always known it was a favorite spot for dragonflies, so finding them was easy.
  • Observe them for a while before you begin shooting. While they are indeed incredibly fast creatures, they tend to come back to rest on the same favorite spots time and time again. If you see a dragonfly land on a particular leaf once, odds are they will return to that same exact spot.
  • Shoot them at rest. While my ultimate goal is to get a good in-flight shot, I'm trying to build up my skills and confidence a bit by shooting them at rest. Of course, I won't pass up any attempts to get a good in-flight shot, but for now I'll be happy to get a great resting shot.
  • Use a long lens and extension tubes if you have them. The more distance you can put between yourself and your quarry, the better the odds that they'll ignore you. I have been shooting with a 70-300mm Nikkor zoom with a Kenko 20mm extension tube.
  • Use a small aperture. Considering the magnification I'm using with the 70-300mm lens (usually at 300mm, which is 450mm in 35mm terms on my Nikon D90 body) and the fact that I'm using extension tubes, depth of field (near-to-far sharpness) is almost nonexistent. You must shoot at a small aperture (I tried shooting between f/13 and f/22) to have any hope of a sharp photo.
  • Keep your subject parallel to your sensor plane. Because there is so little depth of field you have to try to keep as much of the dragonfly as possible parallel to your camera body so that you're minimizing the depth (width or length, depending on your perspective) of the dragonfly body and wings. In the shot above, for example, the head and wings are pretty sharp, but the long extension of the body is not. Had I been off to the side more, I might have been able to make that body section sharper.
  • Use a plain background. The thing I don't like about this shot is the mix of black and green in the background--a mix of leaves and dark water. Try to shoot with a totally plain (and out-of-focus) background. I will pay much more attention to that in the future since most of the shots I took on the first day were pretty much ruined by a busy background. Can I save them in Photoshop? Yes, some of them. Better to start with a plain background.
Obviously most of these tips are for using a DSLR camera, but you might find you can do an even better job with a point-and-shoot and a long optical zoom (5x or longer preferably). Getting good photos of insects is more about being patient and devoted than it is about long lenses or expensive cameras. In fact, many of the good dragonfly images I've seen on Flickr were shot with simple cameras.

In future postings I'll talk about using flash with dragonflies and also flash accessories (I'm going to try some this weekend, I hope). If you have any questions or comments, feel free to post them.
By the way, when I was a kid we used to call these "sewing needles" and the myth was that if one caught you, he'd sew your mouth shut. So far none of them has tried to sew anything up!

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