Wildlife Notes

5. Dragonflies

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I’ve always been fascinated by these amazing insects with their alien looks, spectacular colours, intricate architectural detail and predatory nature. There can be few things more terrifying for a juicy insect than the sight of one of these formidable creatures. For me they are iconic of warm sunny, still summer days and a definite favourite of my photographic year. They are also an exciting link back to the long distant past with fossil records dating back as much as 300 million years.

The main determinants to maximum size for these insects (and most other insects) is their ability to breathe which occurs via spiracles (breathing holes) along their sides connected to tracheae (tubes) and tracheoles (air sacs) which take air deep into their bodies and finally exchanges oxygen with their blood (hemolymph) which is not contained within blood vessels but is merely contained within their structure. In times gone by the oxygen percentage within the air was much greater allowing these insects to attain an intimidating size with a wing span of 75cm (30 inches) - Scorpions at that time were up to 1 metre long!. This ‘breathing’ can be easily seen with species such as broad bodied chasers, the abdomen pumps in a dramatic way when resting.

The dragonfly order Odonata (meaning ‘toothed jaw’) has two sub orders, Zygoptera which contains damselflies (and demoiselles) and Anisoptera the true dragonflies. True dragonflies are usually larger and stouter than the damselflies, tend to be stronger fliers and have a hindwing noticeably broader then the forewing, while damselfly wings all tend to be the same size. Dragonflies also hold their wings at right angles to their body while resting while damselflies tend to hold them parallel.



Male Broad-bodied Chaser Dragonfly
Canon 40D
Canon 300mm F4 IS plus 1.4 x Extender
1/250th
F13
ISO 320
Fill Flash -3, Tripod




Female Broad-bodied Chaser Dragonfly
Canon 40D
Canon 300mm F4 IS plus 1.4 x Extender
1/500th
F13
ISO 320
Fill Flash -3, Tripod



Male Large Red Damselfly
Canon 50D
Canon 300mm F4 IS plus 1.4 x Extender
1/200th
F13
ISO 200
Fill Flash -2 2/3, Tripod



Male Banded Demoiselle
Canon 40D
Canon 300mm F4 IS plus 1.4 x Extender
1/500th
F8
ISO 200
Fill Flash -2 2/3, Tripod


All members of the order Odonata are carnivorous feeding on other flying insects (flies, mosquitoes, butterflies, moths etc.) and smaller member of the order, if you can get close enough they make quite a chomping noise while feeding on some prey. They can cover great distances feeding and are not confined to water areas, though they are most reliably be found by any clean water sources (running or otherwise). The demoiselles favouring rapid flowing water while most other species prefer still or slow moving water.

They must return to water to lay their eggs and males will patrol territories looking for females to mate with and fight of other males (their clattering wings can be surprisingly loud and as they get older can become very battle worn). While mating they form a ‘wheel’ when the female bends her abdomen round until the end reaches the second segment on the males abdomen. It is common in some species (particularly damselflies) to see the couple still in tandem (though not in a wheel) and flying around after mating.



Black-tailed Skimmer Dragonflies
Canon 20D
Canon 300mm F4 IS plus 1.4 x Extender
1/500th
F13
ISO 400
Flash
Tripod




Blue-tailed Damselflies
Canon 50D
Canon 300mm F4 IS plus 1.4 x Extender
1/200th
F8
ISO 200
Fill Flash -2 2/3
Tripod


I have to say for me it takes some persistence to identify these super creatures (and something I am still very much learning) but once you’ve successfully decoded a good identification book and got your eye in starting with the more common species identification does get easier. What I love most about photographing them is the detail you can capture and observe at your leisure, much of which you just would not be able to see in the wild.



Male Beautiful Demoiselle
Canon 5D
Canon 180mm Macro plus 1.4 x Extender and Extension Tube EF 25 II
1/400th
F13
ISO 400
Flash
Tripod



Male Common Darter Dragonfly
Canon 20D
Canon 300mm F4 IS plus 1.4 x Extender
1/500th
F13
ISO 400
Fill Flash -2 2/3
Resting on ground



Immature Male SOuthern Hawker Dragonfly
Canon 40D
Canon 300mm F4 IS plus 1.4 x Extender
1/400th
F13
ISO 400
Fill Flash -2 2/3
Tripod



Male Black-tailed Skimmer Dragonfly
Canon 40D
Canon 300mm F4 IS plus 1.4 x Extender
1/400th
F13
ISO 400
Fill Flash -2
Tripod



Female Common Darter Dragonfly
Canon 50D
Canon 300mm F4 IS plus 1.4 x Extender
1/400th
F13
ISO 400
Fill Flash -2 2/3
Tripod



Male Beautiful Demoiselle
Canon 50D
Canon300mm F4 IS plus 1.4 x Extender
1/250th
F13
ISO 320
Fill Flash -2 2/3
Tripod




Female Beautiful Demoiselle
Canon 5D
Canon 180mm Macro 1.4 x Extender
1/250th
F13
ISO 320
Fill Flash -2 2/3
Tripod


I’ve found the two most significant aspects of successful wild dragonfly photography (as with most nature photography) are observation and patience. Much of my ‘dragonfly time’ is spent scouting out favoured haunts and observing their habits to identify patterns of behaviour which make them predictable, this helps to plan my photographic opportunities. For scouting and preliminary observation a pair of close focus binoculars are ideal, then it’s a case of spending time just looking and waiting to see what flies by and really scanning likely perching places. I’ve often been asked what I am doing be inquisitive passers by, when I say I am looking for dragonflies they have been known say “there aren’t any round here” (as dragonflies zip pass their heads or perch next to them), it’s a classic case of stop and really look and you will see!

These insects are extremely aware of movements, their huge compound eyes give them superb all-round vision, though I feel they are slightly more approachable from behind than in front. Observation from a distance aids identification of pristine subjects, their territory patrolling patterns and favoured perches. Some species and individuals will never seems to perch or fly in a pattern while others will be predictable, I focus on these individuals to get good images.

I’ve had success creeping slowly up to perched subjects but also identifying perches and waiting for them to return after my initial arrival has scared them off. On finding a species I have not photographed before I take images from quite a distance away and more as I get closer, just to get an image. Once these are bagged then its time to think about composition, light, depth of field, focus point etc. Some people say you can attract dragonflies to a perch by attaching a feather to a stick, placing it in a know dragonfly territory then moving it gently, the local dragonfly will quickly appear to investigate. I haven’t yet tried this but it sounds plausible.



Immature Male Broad-bodied Chaser Dragonfly
Canon 50D
Canon 300mm F4 IS plus 1.4 x Extender
1/400th
F13
ISO 250
Fill Flash -2 2/3
Tripod



Golden-ringed Dragonfly
Canon 20D
Canon 300mm F4 IS plus 1.4 x Extender
1/250th
F13
ISO 400
Fill Flash -2 2/3
Tripod



Female Southern Hawker Dragonfly
Canon 40D
Canon 300mm F4 IS plus 1.4 x Extender
1/250th
F13
ISO 320
Fill Flash -2 2/3
Tripod

It’s vital to pay absolute attention to keeping their eyes sharply focused, which is usually best achieved via manual focus (either by focusing the camera lens manually or setting the focus point as required and gently rocking yourself and the camera back and forth slowly to attain precise focus). Though they seem cumbersome at first, I almost always use a tripod because of available light, adequate shutter speed, the desire for depth of field (high f stop) and resistance to using ISO of over 400.

For most subjects a telephoto lens (300mm with close focus capability of around 1.5 to 2 metres) with an extension tube and usually an extender works well. This is because they give a good working distance. It is only for real macro work I will use a dedicated long macro lens with probably an extender and at times an extension tube. If the images require I’m not afraid to crop them slightly by perhaps 20%, especially if the camera is above 12mp. Talking of camera bodies, in the main I use a Canon 1.6 cropped body (50D) but for macro work when you can get close easily a full frame sensor body (5D) is a good idea due to the view finder being bigger and brighter thereby helping focusing at close quarters.

I find fill flash works well with dragonflies it highlights their metallic qualities and brings out hidden detail and colours, though if there is available natural light I will always prefer it. Flash also allows you to be independent of the natural light which can be a bonus in some circumstances allowing greater DOF, and higher shutter speeds to freeze the subject.



Male Migrant Hawker Dragonfly
Canon 40D
Canon 300mm F4 IS plus 1.4 x Extender
1/500th
F13
ISO 250
Fill Flash -2
Tripod



Male Common Darter Dragonfly
Canon 40D
Canon 300mm F4 IS plus 1.4 x Extender
1/500th
F13
ISO 250
Fill Flash -2
Tripod

Some subjects are extremely tolerant particularly first thing in the morning while they are warming up in the sun to ‘operating’ temperature’, when feeding, mating, laying eggs or resting after a long patrolling spell. On these lucky occasions I really try to make the most of things by trying many different angles, compositions, focus points, lighting (with flash, without, fill flash) and depths of field. I then do my editing at home when I can view the images properly on screen. In the heat of the moment it’s easy to think I’m perfectly focused when I’m not. Having a greater choice of images to edit from also increases the variety and interest of a gallery.

For those interested the following site is an excellent UK dragonfly identification and information site.

Link To – Dragonfly Society, UK




Female Broad-bodied Chaser Dragonfly
Canon 40D
Canon 300mm F4 IS plus 1.4 x Extender
1/500th
F13
ISO 250
Fill Flash -2
Tripod