Digital Odonate Photography:
My Personal Techniques
Greg W. Lasley
article written October, 2006
I used to be a bird photographer. My bird photography dates back to 1977 when, as a novice but enthusiastic bird-watcher, I started trying to get photos of rare birds for the official record. From the late 1970s until the late 1980s, most of my photography was focused on documenting unusual bird sightings and taking slides to illustrate lectures for Audubon societies or other nature groups. In 1988, I was lucky enough to take some photos of the Golden-cheeked Warbler, an endangered bird that nests only in the Hill Country of Texas. One of these photos was published on the cover of a birding guide book, which led to other requests for my bird photos. In the next year or two, a number of them were published in Texas Highways Magazine, Texas Parks and Wildlife Magazine, American Birds, Wildlife Conservation, and several other publications. After these publication successes, I became more serious about photography. Over the next few years, I slowly upgraded my camera equipment (always an on-going process), developed more of the skills necessary to become a good wildlife photographer, and traveled the state of Texas and much of the United States photographing birds. Throughout the 1990s, hundreds of my photos found their way into various publications.
I started experimenting with odonate photography in the year 2000 when I entered the Valley Land Fund Wildlife Photo Contest in deep south Texas. This contest forced me out of my "comfort zone" of bird photography and into the world of photographing dragonflies, spiders, reptiles, mammals, and other types of wildlife. For some reason, photographing odonates really captured my interest. I had no clue which species I was photographing, but found them to be fascinating subjects for my lens. In the past, most insect photographers, including those who photographed dragonflies, used 50 mm or 100 mm Macro lenses for their photography. Coming from the world of bird photography, I did not know this. I was photographing dragonflies and damselflies with a telephoto lens, much as if I were photographing hummingbirds. In this same time period, my friend John Ingram was out photographing dragonflies as well, and he, too, was using telephoto lenses. Our photos were often considerably better than many others that were available, and other photographers who were interested in the subject started asking me about the methods I was using. In 2002, I started bugging Bob Behrstock and John Abbott for help with identifications of some of my dragonfly photos, which they always graciously provided. Bob was in Arizona, which usually saved him from the bulk of my novice questioning, but John Abbott is at the University of Texas at Austin, the same city where I live, so he bore the brunt of my assaults. John became interested in my photography methods, and over the past several years we have spent a great deal of time photographing odonates together. I have shared my methods with a number of people, and many have said that they have found them helpful. A number of people have more or less copied my equipment as well as my methods. For those reasons I thought this article might be helpful to those with an interest in photographing these fascinating insects.
I should state right at the outset that there are many, many successful wildlife photographers who do marvelous work with dragonflies and damselflies using equipment and methods quite different from that which I will describe. This article is about my own photography, and I make no claim of being better than anyone else. I only state that these methods work well for me. I will also state that this article will be of little interest to those who want to use "point-and-shoot" cameras. The photo equipment I use is fairly high-end professional gear and can involve considerable expense. Less expensive camera bodies and lenses may be employed, but this is not an article for those who seek to use the typical consumer-grade digital cameras that are so prolific today. I am sure that many of these smaller cameras may be used to excellent advantage, but I simply know nothing about them, and it is beyond the scope of this article to deal with those issues.
Since early 2003, I have used three different digital camera bodies, all in the Canon EOS series; the D60 (early in 2003), 10D (2003 into 2004) and 1D Mark II (2004 to present). The two former bodies have 6.3 mega-pixel sensors and offer a 1.6X magnification factor, while the 1D Mark II has an 8.2 mega-pixel sensor and a 1.3X multiplication factor. I have used three different lenses for odonate photography; the Canon EF 180 mm F/3.5 Macro, the Canon EF 70-200 mm F/2.8 L IS, and the Canon EF 300 mm F/4 L IS. In addition, I usually use either the Canon 1.4X or 2X extender on all the above lenses. I use all Canon gear, but I know that very similar equipment is made by Nikon (and other manufacturers), so those who use other brands of equipment may use comparable lenses and bodies. When I used the Canon D60 or the Canon 10D (or other 1.6X sensor magnification camera bodies), I used the Canon EF 70-200 mm F/2.8 L IS lens and a 2X extender. This gave me a maximum focal length of 400 mm with the lens and thus 640 mm total with the digital-body multiplication factor figured in. Since that lens will focus as close as 1.4 M. (4.6 ft.), I was able to get essentially full-frame images of any dragonfly, even smaller ones, from 5 to 6 feet away, depending upon the size of the subject. This is often a real advantage over using a smaller macro setup and trying to get mere inches away from a wary insect. I now use the Canon 1D Mark II. This is a suburb camera body that is extremely rugged and offers an 8.2 mega-pixel sensor. The trade-off for telephoto shooters, however, is that it has only a 1.3X magnification factor. When I used this body with the above lens setup, I found that I simply did not have the magnification necessary for many of the smaller dragonflies. For that reason, I switched to the Canon EF 300 mm F/4 L IS lens and the same 2X extender for most of my odonate photography. This lens and extender mounted on the Mark II gives me a total focal length of 780 mm and a close focus extreme of 1.5 M. (4.9 ft.). It is a great set-up for most odonates. Another trade off with this particular lens is that I lost the zoom capability of the 70-200 lens and thus find myself having to reposition the tripod more often. While the EF 300mm F/4 with a 2X extender as described above, is fine for most larger damselflies, for the smaller damselflies I have found that it is just not adequate. In those situations, I use the Canon EF 180 mm F/3.5 Macro lens along with a 1.4X or 2X extender, depending upon the situation and the size of the insect. I must, obviously, be much closer to my subject with this macro set up. My “dream set-up” for odonate photography would be a camera body with a 1.5 or 1.6X magnification factor which offered a 10 or 12 mega-pixel sensor coupled up with a 70-200 mm F/2.8 lens which would focus as close as about 1 M. (3.2 ft.) or even closer. With the 2X extender I could handle all the odonates well, even the very smallest. That rig does not yet exist, but I’m hoping some day it might.
I use a tripod or monopod 95% of the time when photographing odonates. Many people do not wish to go to this trouble, something I certainly understand. I will admit that I used to avoid using a tripod and almost never used one until about 14 or 15 years ago. The extra weight and bulk of a tripod, along with having to set it up for each shot was difficult to deal with. Shooting photos with a hand-held camera and lens was easy, but the results were rarely what I hoped for. Several photographers I respected kept suggesting that I use a tripod. Finally, I gave in, and my images improved by leaps and bounds. One of my goals with photography of odonates (or any other wildlife subjects) is the potential for some later publication of the images, and I think tripod use is critically important, at least for me. I believe that use of a tripod is the single most important thing you can do to improve the quality of your images. When using a tripod for photographing odonates, you will sometimes accidentally bump into sticks and grass blades with the tripod legs and you will flush away your subject many times, but your percentage of "keeper" shots will go way up once you are set up on a dragonfly or damselfly.
I use a flash mounted on the camera hot-shoe for my odonate photography, even in bright daylight. The use of the flash allows me to eliminate or reduce shadows, even in the brightest sunlight. Using a flash for bird or mammal photography requires one to be aware of the problem of eye shine or eye reflection, which requires that the flash be mounted on some sort of bracket well above the direct line of sight of the lens. For odonates, however, this eye reflection is not a problem, and the flash may be mounted directly on the camera hot-shoe. If you use the flash properly, even in full sun, you will not have problems with over-exposure, which I will talk about in more detail later.
Most of the basic principals of photographing any wildlife applies to dragonflies and damselflies as well. For the most part, you are striving for an image sharply focused on the subject with a background that is not a distraction. Much of my bird photography is from a blind that is set up near a small water hole. In this sort of situation I can arrange the potential perch for the bird so that the background is just how I want it. With odonates, however, the background often cannot be controlled, but I try to decrease distractions whenever I can. When taking a lateral photo of an odonate, it is important to try to get both the head and the entire abdomen in focus. This is not easy, since your depth of field is rather shallow when using telephoto equipment, even with the lens stopped down to a small aperture. For lateral shots, try to get perpendicular to your subject in an effort to have the entire bug in focus. Shots from directly in front of the bug, or quartering from the front, or even from the rear can be perfectly acceptable as well, but for those lateral "portrait" shots, try to get the whole bug in focus since an image with a sharply focused face, but with slightly soft terminal appendages, is not what you are looking for and will rarely be usable for illustration purposes. The shallow depth of field that makes focusing on the bug so critical is also an advantage with the background. For many purposes, a totally flat, out of focus background is quite desirable (since the insect stands out nicely), and telephoto set-ups help with this. Have a look at the top image of the Halloween Pennant (Celithemis eponina) or the two images of Five-striped Leaftail (Phyllogomphoides albrighti) for examples of these clean backgrounds. Actually, the grass and brushy backgrounds were not very far away from the subject, but the shallow depth of field totally blurs them.
Probably 95% of my digital shooting is at 400 ISO. I used to use Fuji Velvia (pushed to 80 ISO) when I shot film, so having the ability to shoot at 400 ISO is incredible for me. I believe that 400 ISO with digital is equal or better than the grain or "noise" (as they say in the digital world) that occurs at 80 or 100 ISO with film. Using 400 ISO gives you a great deal of latitude with your shots. Most of the odonate shots of on my web pages were shot at 400 ISO. I occasionally shoot at 200 ISO, but the results at 400 ISO are so good that I rarely bother to drop back to 200. Many people new to digital photography still have a "film mind-set" and shoot their digital images at 100, or at the most, 200 ISO. In my opinion, they are missing one of the major advantages of digital photography--being able to get excellent results at 400 ISO. I have had dozens of published odonate photos, including two magazine covers, which were shot at 400 ISO. I can also make a 19 X 13-inch print with a 400 ISO image that will knock your socks off. I think 400 ISO is perfectly acceptable with today's digital cameras and would encourage you to try it if you have not yet done so. With digital images, even 800 ISO can be used when necessary, with acceptable results.
With bird photography, I normally shoot without a flash and in an aperture priority mode. Typically, I am doing bird photography only early and late in the day, with direct frontal lighting on the subject. With odonates, however, I found that shooting at mid-day (when dragonflies and damselflies are active), or in overcast conditions, or with other factors, I was not getting the results I wanted by employing my aperture-priority bird-photography methods, even with a flash. I photograph odonates on the manual setting for shutter speed and aperture, but let the flash work through the lens or "TTL". Because I do not have to worry about bad eye reflection, a problem with birds, I use the flash mounted on the camera hot shoe. In years past, when I did a little insect photography with film using this same manual setting, much of the time the bug was well illuminated in the shot, but all the background was black. Some folks liked that effect, but I did not. Obviously, the flash was not able to sufficiently illuminate all the background to render any color, and the ambient light was insufficient to help out much at the slow ISO speed of the film I was using. I tried to give myself a lot of depth of field, so I shot at about 1/90 or 1/100 of a second at F/11 or F/16, or something similar. Digital has solved most of these problems because in general you get more latitude in the shot with a digital image, but especially because shooting at 400 ISO allows ambient light (and the flash) to bring out more of the background than was ever possible with 50, 100, or even 200 ISO film. Most of my odonate shots are now at a shutter speeds between 1/160 and 1/250 of a second and with an aperture of F/16 to F/22, sometimes even smaller.
In order to start using this manual setting method, you may first wish to try an experiment by focusing on a dragonfly with your camera in aperture-priority mode in order to get an idea of what the camera would "want" to shoot at, say, 1/160 of a second. Your flash should also be turned on. If the camera, in aperture-priority mode, would take the shot at 1/160 of a second at F/14, you might leave it at 1/160 of a second (switching to manual-mode now, not aperture-priority), but bump the aperture to F/18 or F/20. In this way, you cause the flash to take out some shadows and make sure that the flash has some work to do to create the image, but you do not overpower the scene with the flash. The results can be an image that does not appear as if it was shot with a flash because you are not using the flash as the primary light source, but rather using the flash as fill to take out shadow and brighten the background as needed. My methods are not sophisticated, but I get the results I am looking for. Often I may work at 1/160 of a second and F/18 or F/20 as default settings and let the flash take care of what extra light is needed to achieve a decent image.
If it gets very bright and sunny and I am not paying attention, my manual settings may force over-exposure of my shots and need to be adjusted. This is why it is important to keep an eye on the histogram after every few shots to keep checking your exposure. The flash will usually make up for situations that would otherwise result in under-exposure, but if your shutter speed is too slow and your aperture too large for the ambient light, you will blow out the shot, so you have to pay attention to what you are doing. If you are over-exposing shots, you need to use a faster shutter speed and/or a smaller aperture (remember, that the larger the number in aperture, the smaller it is considered. Thus F/22 is considered a smaller aperture than F/16). In addition, I sometimes may bump the flash output up or down in 1/3 stop increments as necessary to get an image I like. Again, this is another advantage to digital in that I can keep watching that histogram to see the effects of the exposure changes I am making right on the spot, while I still have the dragonfly in front of me.
I have often been asked about the use of a 2X or 1.4X extender on my lenses, as the conventional wisdom is that the use of extenders can result in a poor quality image. Any time you put anything such as an extender between the lens and the camera body, you lose some degree of quality. It is also clear that the use of a 1.4X extender will result in a better quality image than that with a 2X extender. From my own experience, this is especially true of less expensive, off-brand extenders. That being said, however, the very best quality extenders, such as the Canon EOS 1.4X and 2X minimize these problems. If you are using a high-quality lens and match it with an equally high quality 2X extender, you can achieve excellent results. I have had many published and award-winning wildlife photos using a 2X extender on a number of Canon L series lenses all the way up to 600 mm, several of which have been on magazine and book covers. Would a 1.4X be better? Certainly, but I find it hard to detect the difference on many occasions, and of course you lose the magnification advantage of the 2X. I have used a Canon 2X extender with excellent results for many years. I think the key to doing this revolves around the original lens quality and the quality of the 2X extender itself, plus the use of a tripod, as well as careful focusing. One must also keep in mind that a 2X extender takes away two stops of light from a lens, thus an F/2.8 lens becomes an F/5.6 and so on. A 1.4X extender takes away one stop.
There are certainly some disadvantages to odonate photography using my particular equipment and methods. I’ve already talked about the problems of bumping into sticks and grass with the tripod legs which may cause your subject to fly away. Another disadvantage is the weight of the gear. My camera body weighs 3 pounds, 10 ounces. The 300 F/4 lens and 2X extender together weigh 3 pounds, 11 ounces and the flash I use weighs 1 pound, 1 ounce. This adds up to more than 8 pounds of camera and lens plus the additional 5 to 8 pounds of tripod, depending upon the brand and model tripod you have. At the 2005 meeting of the Dragonfly Society of the Americas, held in Ontario, Canada, I remember walking far across a marsh with a number of other folks in search of a particular dragonfly. I had my relatively heavy equipment over my shoulder was looking with envy at some other dragonfly photographers carrying their small, lightweight camera bodies with a lightweight, compact 100-300 mm zoom lens, which they were shooting hand-held. Most of them got some pretty nice shots of our quarry. I like to think I got some absolutely fantastic shots. Is the added expense and extra effort worth it? Each person must answer that question for himself or herself considering the purposes of their own photography. I've made my decision. Oh yes, I still do, in fact, photograph birds!
Notes added 27 December 2010:
My odonate photography has gone through some changes since I wrote the above article in 2006. Basically, my methods are the same but I have made some changes in my equipment. Currently I use a Canon EOS 1D Mark IV camera body and a Sigma 50-500mm F/6.3 lens. This lens is slightly larger than a Canon 70-200 F/2.8 L IS lens, but not by much. I use a 25mm and a 12mm extension tube on this lens which allows me to get quite close to my subject, especially if I bring the magnification of the lens from 500 down to 300mm or so. Virtually all my odonate photography since late July, 2010, has been with this setup, and a Canon 580 flash. The Sigma lens is very sharp and quite versatile with its 50-500 range. Taking the extension tubes off the lens also allows it to serve as a bird lens from time to time if you are close enough to smaller birds.