How to Photograph Dragonflies
Taking photos of dragonflies can be an interesting and rewarding pursuit. After all, they’re some of the most beautiful and colorful insects around.
They’re also relatively large (for insects), and fast, so capturing a good image can be a challenge.
Like any other naturalistic genre, photographing dragonflies is a matter of patience, context, and weather. That’s not to say that it depends on luck or just finding yourself in the right moment and place. It takes preparation.
Dragonflies are found in wetlands, during the summer period in the daytime. You should get to know their behavior and the right spots to find them.
Then, when the right conditions arrive, you should be ready to make the most out of your photoshoot.
In this article, you’ll find some tips and tricks that will guide you to get amazing results. You can also check our guide on how to photograph birds in flight, for more related tips.
Table of Contents
5 Tips to Take Amazing Pictures of Dragonflies
1. Choose your camera gear
When you’re photographing in nature there are lots of factors beyond your control. That’s why you should set yourself up for success by packing the right gear.
Obviously, this will depend on your budget and the type of images you want to get. However, here are some recommendations to consider when you want to take dragonflies pictures.
Let’s start with the basics: the camera. You don’t need a specific brand or model to photograph dragonflies. What you shouldn’t use though is a compact point and shoot or smartphone as these won’t be sufficient.
First of all, you need a camera that lets you work in manual mode or semi-automatic at least. I’ll be going into more detail about settings in the next section.
Secondly, if you want to photograph dragonflies flying then you should check the burst rate (frames per second) of your camera. Most of them range between 3 and 10 fps. Needless to say, the higher the better.
Finally, another consideration of the camera is that it should be ILC (Interchangeable Lens Camera). This is because the lens you use will define the kind of pictures you’ll be able to achieve.
If you want to get close-ups of your subject your best choice is to use a macro lens or a telephoto lens with macro capabilities. Even though dragonflies are big insects, they’re still small subjects – so the choice of lens serves to get you close. (But not so close that you’ll scare or disturb them.)
If you don’t have this type of lens, you can try with an extension tube. This is exactly what it sounds like: a tube that extends the distance between the lens and the sensor.
The idea behind it is that the further away the lens is from the image plane, the closer the focus will be. On the downside, you’ll lose some light so you might need a wider aperture or a higher ISO.
Also, although there is no lens inside the tube you’ll still lose some sharpness. In any case, this is a good solution if buying a macro lens is not available on your budget.
Another piece of equipment that you should consider for macro photography is a tripod. Because of the narrow depth of field that characterizes macro photography, focusing through LiveView can get you sharper images.
To compose pictures that feature the dragonfly in its environment you can get by with a wider focal length. To avoid buying more than one lens and still do both types of images you can try a zoom lens.
2. Prepare your camera settings
It’s always difficult to specify the camera settings as they depend on the kind of image you want, the equipment you have, and the lighting conditions you’re facing. But I can give you some guidelines that you may use as a starting point.
When you’re trying to photograph dragonflies in flight, you should prioritize the shutter speed like you would with any other moving subject.
This is because a fast shutter speed will freeze the movement resulting in a sharp image. A slow shutter speed, on the other hand, will deliver a blur.
Just a little blur can give you a sense of motion, which could be an interesting effect. But very blurry photos can make the subject indistinguishable.
The above example shows a good balance between motion and static subject that renders the idea of the moving subject while keeping it sharp enough.
That’s why the recommended settings can range from 1/800 to 1/3200.
Another factor is the speed at which the dragonfly is moving. The faster it is, the faster your shutter speed will need to be to freeze the wings.
To get a deeper understanding of their movements, familiarize yourself with dragonfly behavior. I’ll get to that in the next section.
Since I’m already covering the motion shot, I might as well warn you that this is not an easy image to get. You’ll need to be prepared to ‘waste’ a lot of images.
To capture a moving dragonfly, you should set your camera to continuous shooting mode. This is where the fps capabilities of your camera come into play.
The continuous shooting mode, also called burst mode, allows the camera to keep firing for as long as you have the shutter button pressed. This will give you a better chance of capturing your moving subject.
Dragonflies can be very fast insects. They move at an average of 16 km/h (9.9 mph). Therefore having high fps levels will ensure you more success.
Of course, shooting more images per second will fill your memory card faster and give you more editing work in the end. This is just something to keep in mind.
Now let’s talk about aperture. This will differ greatly depending on the focal length you’re using and the type of photography.
A macro lens will give you a very shallow depth of field. So, an aperture of f/8 or f/11 will help you to keep the entire body in focus.
Small apertures will decrease the amount of light that reaches the sensor. That’s why you’ll need to compensate with slower shutter speed or a higher ISO.
If there isn’t enough light to balance the settings this way, you can try to photograph the dragonfly parallel to your sensor. This way, more of the body stays inside the focus plane even with a large aperture.
When you’re interested in giving context to the dragonfly, you don’t have to use a macro lens. In this case, the aperture should be larger. This way only the insect is in focus and the background can be blurry.
This is also affected by the distance between the dragonfly and the background. A greater distance makes the subject stand out.
The ISO is the one setting that can be more flexible when photographing dragonflies. A smaller ISO will give you better quality. However, today’s cameras can deliver very good images with higher ISO values.
A 100 ISO would be ideal but going up to favor aperture or shutter speed is not a big deal. This of course will depend on your camera.
I can venture to say that 400 or 800 ISO is still very acceptable for most cameras. And generally speaking, you shouldn’t need more than that as dragonflies fly during daytime.
Speaking of which, let’s talk more about their behavior.
3. Learn dragonfly behavior
Understanding how dragonflies behave and learning about their environment can save you a lot of time in the field. Also, it will help you choose the gear you should pack and overall get better images.
First of all, it’s important to know that dragonflies can be found from spring to autumn. So, if you’re reading this in wintertime, don’t head out on a photoshoot tomorrow.
Another important generality is that their environment is the wetlands. Therefore you’ll need to find a spot near water.
Now that you’ve identified the day and the place in which you can find them, let’s get into more details that will favor better shots.
These beautiful insects need the sun to fly. That’s why the time span for your photoshoot will be from sunrise to sunset.
At the beginning and end of the day, they will be less active so it’s the best time to shoot your macro images. Also, the light during these times is usually beautiful.
Keep in mind that this will mean they can be found on the ground or be hard to spot, so be very careful when moving and positioning your tripod. Above all, you need to respect them and the environment.
To capture them on the move, you have the rest of the day. If it’s sunny they’ll be more active.
Don’t worry about chasing these flighty little subjects. They usually follow the same path, again and again, so they will come back.
They also hover around the same spots. My advice is to start by finding a place where the lighting and background are good for you and position yourself there.
Then, study the movements of the dragonflies to plan your images. Don’t worry if you miss them on the first try. They’re likely to come back, you just need to be patient.
Take into consideration that their behavior is possible to change according to the species. However, this is a good starting point.
4. Find the right composition
The composition rules are similar to those of any kind of photography. They’re also just guidelines as your style will ultimately define the right composition.
That said, finding your style can take some time, so here are some tips to get you started.
For close-ups and macro shots, the focal point needs to be the eyes. Not only do they need to be the sharpest part of the photo, but they also need to be positioned correctly inside the frame.
For example, you can use the rule of thirds to guide you. This rule is named as such because of the way it divides the image.
Imagine two lines that go from top to bottom splitting the composition in three. Then two more lines go from left to right resulting in the image to be divided in a 3 x 3 grid.
You’ll have nine equal squares in which you can accommodate the elements of the photograph. The four intersections are the most important points in the composition.
This rule of thirds is not just for doing macro; you can use it for wider images as well. This is more complicated because you need to include more elements in the composition.
You can start with simple setups, like photographing a dragonfly on a perch. You should position the dragonfly and the branch in a way that fits the grid harmonically.
Look at this example: the composition is on the right. The branch is following a line that follows the rule of thirds, while the head is in the imaginary intersection. The rest of the background creates negative space to balance everything out.
Most cameras can be set up to show you the grid in the viewfinder or Liveview for you to familiarize yourself with this kind of composition. Eventually, you’ll do this naturally without the need for a visual guide.
Another composition rule that can be especially useful in dragonfly photography is the symmetry. Dragonflies have a beautiful, symmetric anatomy.
And because these beautiful insects love water, there’s also great potential for reflections.
5. Enhance dragonfly picture via editing
This again is a matter of taste and style, but here are some popular choices to try out.
Continuing on the topic of composition, this is something you can easily fix in post-production if you’re not satisfied with the original.
Using the cropping tool from any program you can position the elements to better fit the framing. In this solution, you have to consider that your image will become smaller, as you’ll be cutting parts of the image.
You may also want to correct the white balance. Because you’re working with natural light, the temperature or color of the light is subject to the time of day and weather conditions.
For example, the sunrise and sunset will have warm colors while noon on a sunny day is what we know as white light. If you didn’t adjust the settings in your camera accordingly, you can fix this in post-production.
Sharpening is also useful, especially in the eyes. Most editing programs allow you to do this easily. Sharpener Pro from Nik’s filter collection is very good. Otherwise, in Photoshop you can use the Unsharp Mask filter.
Pumping up the colors is another popular edit. Because dragonflies are such colorful insects, you can amp the vibrance or saturation to really make them pop.
Check out the colors of the dragonfly and the background in this image. It can’t be defined as anything less than eye-catching.
Other kinds of filters and edits are more along the lines of personal taste and style. For example, you can add a vignette using Lightroom or other photo editing software to focus the attention on the subject.
Another way to go is by using filters to fit a certain style. These are very popular if you’re going to share your images on Instagram. Giving your photograph a specific tone or a retro-style makes them more trendy.
As you can see, there’s more to photographing dragonflies than just being around a lake on a nice summer’s day. You shouldn’t be discouraged though, just be motivated to learn and prepare.
Wildlife photography is not for everyone, but if you like being in nature, a dragonfly is one of the most accessible subjects.
Just so you know, most of these tips can also apply to photographing damselflies. You may have to consider a different aperture range because a dragonfly is usually bigger and thicker than a damselfly. If you use an f/11 you might end up having too much background in focus.
I hope you enjoyed this article and decide to go out and try to photograph dragonflies this summer. Remember to go out in the field often to have better chances of achieving the perfect picture.