Tuesday, 5 May 2015

So, You Want to Photograph Dragonflies ?

Haven't been out in over a week now with one thing and another, and now we're into May the Dragonfly season is upon us, just a matter of waiting for a break in the weather to begin the hunt for the first damsels, and with a new camera to shoot them with I’m looking forward to it more than ever. I still have a few avian targets I want to photograph but lets not forget the primary aim of this blog, which is to hunt Dragonflies with my camera and get the best pics I can of all the species I encounter.

So here’s a little bit about dragonfly fieldcraft to aid like-minded souls in creating the best opportunities for a successful Dragonhunt. I know to a lot of you this will be common knowledge and common sense but a gentle reminder at the beginning of the season never comes in wrong. In my four years of writing this blog I find there’s always something new to learn, and it’s nice to go through the basics again before the start of the season.

Obviously the best place to start looking for dragons and damsels is on or near a waterbody, and just as obvious, photographing them perched is a lot easier than trying to get them in flight.

So though a sunny day is essential (as most tend to fly only when the sun shines), a day interspersed with periods of cloud cover can help in finding a perched subject. The diffused light of cloud cover is better for photographs too, and if you have the patience to seek them out on grey days, finding a photographable subject, (ie one not hidden deep in cover) can offer great opportunities as the dragonfly will most likely be approachable to point blank range.

Times of Day

You need to be up very early morning to get one of those dew-covered photographs, first light if possible, but if you can find a dragon it’ll be so docile you won’t have any problem getting your photo as long as it is in a reasonably open position.
And if you’re out as the sun rises, you may get opportunity for an arty photo of your subject silhouetted against the rising sun. A winner if you can get one (see Marc Heath's blog).
Dragonflies usually (but by no means always) emerge during the night, so an early morning look among emergent or bankside vegetation in the pond margins can bring possibilities for some cracking emergence shots. 

Around 9am is decent time to start looking for perched up hawker species, they aren’t easy to find but as they aren’t fully warmed up they are much easier to approach. You may find one rapidly vibrating its wings which is how they they stoke up the engine room on cool mornings. A good tip is to look along the edge of a reed bed, especially good for Four-spotted Chasers early season and for Migrant Hawkers in late summer.

Late morning to early afternoon sees the period of most activity and is most productive for photography with the dragons offering all sorts of behaviour to capture. Away from (but not far off) the water they will be feeding or copulating, so perching more and therefore offering better opportunities to photograph.
At the water the males will be beating out territories, fighting off rivals and chasing down females, so much more active. Great to watch but can be frustrating for the photographer. At the pond I find it best to concentrate on the damsels if you have a clear access to a margin, but keep one eye out for Dragonflies as well and you might just be lucky, the darters are usually the easiest to photograph here.   

On particularly hot days even a sun-loving dragonfly feels the heat, and activity may cease altogether during the afternoon as they take shelter to cool off. Follow the flight of a tiring hawker and you may see where it stops to rest. Also look out for darters taking up the obelisk position ie pointing their abdomen skywards directly at the sun, this reduces the surface area in direct sunlight and helps them cool off, a nice bit of interesting behaviour to capture. But don’t be shocked if there are hardly any dragons or damsels to be found, hot sunny days can be surprisingly disappointing when the sun is strongest and temperatures at their highest. 

Early sunlit evenings can be just as surprisingly productive for hawkers, many of them feed ‘til sundown and you may find a perched up specimen easily approachable as they take in a final sunning session before dusk.

Group Generalisations
Probably the easiest of all to photograph as there are usually a lot to choose from and being weak flyers they tend to perch more. Find an accessible pond margin and pick your target from those holding on to stalks of vegetation. Males, females and copulating pairs should be easy to bag from all sorts of angles. If one flies up don't worry, there'll soon be another one.  
As the name suggests, this group of dragonflies spend a lot of time darting from their perch after prey, and often return to the same perch or one close by. I find common darters can be very approachable, though not all individuals are, so just as well there are usually good numbers of these found together, and a stealthy approach will eventually pay off with very close encounters, so keep trying.
Ruddy Darters will be a bit wary of you at first, but have a bit of patience, as once used to your presence they will be very confiding, returning to the same perch no matter how close you are or even using you as a perch if you offer an outstretched hand. 
Males like to perch from a vantage point overlooking a territory at the edge of a pond, and like darters will often return to the same perch over and over. Best approach with these if you can’t easily access a regular perch is to make your own by planting an (approx.) 2ft stick overhanging the edge of the pond at an angle of around 30-45 degrees (warning : make sure your camera is secure while you do this, one idiot dropped his camera in a pond last year while making a fake perch and frazzled it completely).
Sit and wait with (your nice dry) camera at the ready and eventually a chaser will adopt it, you may also attract darters and damselflies. This tactic may require a lot of patience and waiting around but once the dragonfly finds your perch you will be rewarded with great shots. It’s also much less frustrating than chasing them around the pond as they rarely perch where or when you want them to.
Broad-bodied Chasers also return to the same resting place away from the water after their stint at the pond is finished, so follow the flight of one when it leaves the pond and track it to its rest point. These are usually better still for photographs as they tend to stay at rest a lot longer than they spend at the pond.
Hawkers often seem never to perch so finding one at rest is an opportunity not to be missed. They are dozy in the morning but not easy to find. As I said before, on hot afternoons they tend to need more rest so follow one in flight and see if you can find where it lands.
Despite them being fast and spending hours at a time in the air, hawkers are probably the least difficult dragonfly type to get an in-flight shot of, as they have a tendency to hover. Small ponds will usually offer decent opportunities to catch a hovering male as they seek out females in the margins, and Common Hawkers are the most likely to hover for long periods, though you may get lucky with any of the others, even an Emperor.
An ovipositing female usually offers the best chance of bagging a hawker as this is usually done in emergent or surface vegetation close to the edge of the pond and when they find a decent site can spend long periods egg-laying in a small area (as long as they aren't disturbed by a rampant male).

The approach

Be stealthy and keep your shadow off the intended target or it will be opportunity missed. With the camera already on the required settings (and maybe choose continuous burst mode to increase chances of getting a shot in focus), approach your subject slowly in a straight line, hesitating every few steps. When at close enough range take a shot after every step (as you don’t know which one will be your last). If the insect looks like it is about to fly (body seems to tip forward as it extends its legs and so raises its abdomen) take a step back, wait a few moments and remember to avoid any sudden movements.
If you’re photographing a subject for ID purposes, try and get as many different angles and features as possible, as some similar species have only subtle differences.
The angle of the sun is important, a front lit subject is best, side-light means harsh shadows and back-light creates flares. You often can’t be choosy on the position of your target, but look for contrasting background, or as plain and uncluttered as possible so as not to detract from the subject. And finally, expect a high failure rate, though you should get more 'keepers' with practise.
When composing a shot, always focus on the eyes as the photo will lose impact if they are out of focus. As depth of field is very narrow on macro try to get in position parallel with the length of the body, but still try and keep focus on the eyes, or on the wings if photographing from above.
Blurring through camera shake is the big problem with macro shots, and using a tripod is the best antidote for this, but they can be bulky and awkward in field situations so try using a more mobile and less imposing monopod. A beanbag is also useful but if you haven’t got one try to use some sort of natural support like fence, gatepost, large rock, whatever comes to hand.

As you are more than likely photographing on damp ground, its a good idea to take a bin liner to kneel or lie on as they don't take up much space in your kit bag, and gardening knee pads are handy as well (if you don't mind looking a berk). A wide-brimmed hat serves the dual purpose of protecting your head from the sun and keeps the sun out of your eyes.
And as dragonflies eat other insects, they are inevitably found where there are lots of other insects, which unfortunately including bitey ones like mosquitos and cleg flies, so take a good repellent. I was bitten by a cleggy last year and it bloody hurt, and once they find you they won’t leave you alone, which can be a bit distracting to say the least.

And finally always wear earthy or dull colours. Dragonflies are particularly sensitive to UV light which bright objects and clothing give off by the bucketful.

Sites for species and photos around Gateshead.

The ‘Gateshead Dragonfly Sites’ section in the menu has more detailed description but here is a brief rundown of the main sites I tend to visit during the summer :

Thornley Woods Pond for large red damsels (May – Aug) and southern Hawkers (Jul-Sep) has been particularly good for emergence in the past, and being an intimate little site, ovipositing females are easy to find as well in late summer.

Far Pasture access road for common and ruddy darters (July onwards) and the blue damsels (May-Aug). Darters perch along the fences and roadside vegetation. Ruddy darters are usually in the area of the roadside ditch. Damselflies (especially azure) can be located in the nearby vegetation and offer great opportunities for photographs in various stages of maturity in early season. Photography from the hide can be difficult but not impossible. I have also had great shots of Migrant and Southern Hawkers here. They are always present in decent numbers but mostly in flight so a bit of luck is needed to find a photographable subject.
Stargate Ponds for Broad-bodied Chasers (mid-June - July) where a self-made perch can work wonders for the males, though females are best sought away from the pond, and in my experience they tend to prefer gorse bushes for their rest periods.

Kibblesworth Brickworks Pools for Four-spotted Chasers, Emperor (not an easy subject to pin down) and the only site where you can get Black-tailed Skimmer. From the end of May there is always something here as it has consistently been the only site to find all 16 regular Gateshead species, (plus migrants in influx years) so take a chance anytime. The marshy pond usually gets Black Darters late season.

Clockburn Lake, the outlet stream is excellent for Blue-tailed damsels from mid-late May, the female red and violet immature forms make colourful subjects for a photo, and there's always the chance of a Banded Demoiselle here as well.

Hagghill riverside is the place for Banded Demoiselle though not easy for photographs. It’s a bit pot luck with this species but a walk along riverbanks of slow moving stretches with adjacent meadows is the best bet to find one perched up. They usually perch in the open and are easy to spot being so big and brightly coloured.

The Lily Pond – Has great access to the pond-dipping margin where damsels (Azure, large red, occasional Blue-tailed) can be found from late May and is especially good for Emerald Damselflies from July.
Octagon Pond – Preferred by the Common Blue damsels but not as good for photos as the Lily Pond as it is surrounded by a fenced-off overgrown area for wildlife. Damsels perch on the fence though and you may get a mating wheel in good view.
Walled Garden Pond – Good site for Ruddy Darters (July-Aug), usually found among the surrounding flower plots.

Shibdon Pond - Darters and damsels use the boardwalk for sunning, and its great for Migrant Hawkers perched up in the reedbeds on a late summer morning.
Burdon Moor – Good for Broad-bodied Chaser in early summer, Common Hawker from mid-summer, and Black Darter in late summer.  

They are the sites I mainly visit with those particular species in mind, often with great success as long as conditions are right, but if the forecast is wrong and cloud cover hides the sun, then it’s usually a wasted journey.
Not much technical stuff at this stage but as I’m just advancing from point and press I'm an absolute novice, so I’ll be using the first damsels as practise to find what settings give the best results. I’ve searched the ‘net for tips on macro photography, but a lot of it is mumbo-jumbo at the moment, hopefully an understanding will come with trial and error. But I can’t wait to get stuck in.

Good hunting, and please let me know what you find and where. All my sightings and records will appear on this blog during the summer, please feel free to contribute or send any interesting photos (any used will be credited with a link to your blog if you have one) to a.mould@tiscali.co.uk 



  1. Thanks Alan for all the cracking tips and advice on capturing images of Dragonflies and Damselflies. Like you I can’t wait to get started its one of the reasons I have just bought a new lens, Nikons new 300mm f4 as it will focus down to 1.4m so hopefully!! I will be able to fill the frame without getting to close (although I will also be using a macro lens). Anyway great article.

  2. Excellent Ron, no doubt I'll soon be viewing your blog pages with envy, look forward to seeing the results :-)

  3. Nice piece Alan. If i bump into any newbies in the field chasing Dragons i'll refer them here. Great read, as ever.

    1. Cheers John, I'm sure I can rely on you to keep me updated on Northumberland dragons :-)