Taking Photos of dragonflies and damselflies

Taking photos of dragonflies and damselflies is one of my favourite summer pursuits.

I say summer, but my first sighting of 2018 was in early May, and some species can be seen as late as October.

They make great subjects for my camera when the bird life I photograph at other times of the year is harder to spot on my country walks.

These insects pose many challenges of their own though, not least of which is finding them to photograph! 

Banded DemoiselleBanded Demoiselle

But when I get results like the image above, it is worth the challenge!

This was the bright spot of a walk that never happened.

We were headed for a new nature reserve and although we must have driven past it twice, we never found it.

We ended up stopping in the town of Oundle, and walking down to the river Nene from there instead. I can't call the day a failure though after getting this, one of my favourite damselfly photos ever!

Where to Take Photos of Dragonflies

River Nene, Oundle, Northants

I find heading for fresh water habitats is a good place to start when aiming to take photos of dragonflies and damselflies: rivers, lakes and ponds.

However, I don’t look just on, or at, the water’s edge. Meadows and wasteland close by can be hiding these little treasures. 

Having explored the local areas for a few years now, I have built up a knowledge bank of where I am likely to see different species and at what time of year. 

My husband accompanies me on many of my nature walks, but when I am concentrating on dragonfly photography it can end up being rather boring for him. He can often be heard saying to other walkers “We don’t travel at miles per hour, but hours per mile!”

Scanning the undergrowth for tiny creatures is not a speedy undertaking, especially when you need to look up high and down low, not just at eye level. 

Better Backgrounds

Although a patch of stinging nettles may be a favourite place for a Banded Demoiselle, you have to admit that a pretty flower would make for a nicer photograph.

So once I locate a subject I bend and stretch, twist and turn, to see if I can get the best possible background for my images of dragonflies and damselflies.

Working at close distances most of the background is going to be out of focus. However, any variation in colour or tone is going to stick out like a sore thumb so I try to keep it as even as possible.

Moving a tiny distance to one side can put something completely different behind the insect making for a better picture. Often it is best to exercise patience and hope that it will land somewhere more suitable.

Common Blue Damselfly photoCommon Blue Damselfly with out of focus flower in background
Common Blue damselfly with smooth backgroundCommon Blue Damselfly with even background

The colour of a background can make a difference when taking photos of dragonflies and damselflies.

The green background, with purple flower are analogous colours (from the same side of the colour wheel) and they blend nicely together.

In contrast, orange is the complimentary colour to blue and the second picture has more vibrance.

Both work, but which do you prefer?

Natural backgrounds are best, in my opinion, but not always possible. Wooden fences and other man-made structures are less distracting than a jumble of vegetation,  but  not that attractive.

Ruddy Darter on picnic tableRuddy Darter on picnic table
Large red damselfly on ropeLarge Red Damselfly on rope fence

Getting Close Enough

I have two favourite lenses that I use when taking dragonfly photos. Which one I chose depends on how close I can physically get to the mini beasts, but both are normally in my camera bag. 

I tend to favour the 100-400mm telephoto lens, often with the addition of the 1.4x extender.

This combination lets me get enough of the subject in the frame without having to invade its personal space, as the lens has a close focusing distance of just under 1 meter. This is especially useful for nervous insects that take flight as soon as I get close enough. There is also a Nikon 1.4x extender if you use that brand of camera. 

Both of the photos of dragonflies below were taken with the 100-400mm as they were perched over the water and I didn't want to get wet feet!

Four Spotted Chaser dragonfly photoFour Spotted Chaser
Scarce Chaser dragonfly photoScarce Chaser

For detailed close ups, the Canon 100mm L macro lens is lighter and easier to carry than the large telephoto. Keeping quiet and moving towards them very slowly is the key here. 

It is also important not to disturb the insect by accidentally knocking the perch with the camera. Ask me how I know. 

Although the Canon extender is not compatible with this lens, I sometimes use a cheaper third party option by Kenko so that I can keep some distance between myself and my subject. 

Common Darter macro photographCommon Darter taken with the 100mm macro lens
Common Darter taken with macro lensCommon Darter taken with the 100mm macro lens

Keeping the camera steady at close distances is vitally important.

However, to get photos of dragonflies which are close to the ground a tripod is not always convenient.

I have two different options that I can use in these circumstances. A bean bag supports the camera and lens on any nearby surface.

However, my preference is for the Platypod (affiliate link) which is a metal base that holds a tripod head. It has four "legs" that can be adjusted (or removed entirely) to level the camera. 

Getting Photos of Dragonflies in Focus

Common Blue Damselflies (blue male, green female and a juvenile)

The next challenge is getting all of the dragonfly in focus, while keeping that all important background soft and non-distracting. 

I'll try not to get too technical here, but the closer your lens is to a subject, the less distance from front to back is going to be in focus.

That distance is called the Depth of Field. With a macro lens, up close, we are talking about a fraction of a dragonfly's head being sharp!

There are two main ways I try to deal with this issue...

  • I pick a small aperture to allow as much depth of field as possible, perhaps f8 to f16 if there is enough light
  • Position myself so that my lens is parallel to the body of the insect thus narrowing the distance front to back that it is occupying 

Occasionally, everything comes together and I get not only one insect in the plane of focus but three! In an ideal situation I would have eliminated the left hand twig in the photograph here, by moving slightly, but when taking photos of dragonflies and damselflies it isn't always possible without disturbing the creatures. 

Hairy Dragonfly on nettleHairy Dragonfly - although taken at F8 I was at the wrong angle and therefore the end of its abdomen is out of focus, spoiling the photograph
Common Darter dragonfly on leafOf course rules are meant to be broken! The focus here is on the head and it doesn't matter that the tail is out of focus.

Capturing the Action

Another thing to keep in mind when taking photos of dragonflies and damselflies is that they can move fast!

In order to stop the action I like to try to use a fast shutter speed of at least 1/500 sec if not faster. Luckily, the weather is usually bright and sunny when they are out and about, meaning I can still pick a small enough shutter speed to get a good exposure.  

Capturing the insects in flight is a more tricky situation. I try not to take the shutter speed below 1/2000 second if I want to freeze the action, although even that didn't stop the motion of the wings in the first Migrant Hawker below.  

Migrant Hawker dragonfly in flightMigrant Hawker in flight at 1/2000sec
Migrant Hawker dragonfly in flightMigrant Hawker from behind at 1/2000sec

Other action photos of dragonflies that prove popular are when these creatures are, ahem, creating the next generation.

Remember earlier when I mentioned getting down low to take photos of dragonflies?

I don't actually recommend repeating what happened to get the following shot, however.

I spotted this pair of Common Darters doing their business on the river bank. I took a couple of shots and then slowly moved closer. With my eyes on the critters I ended up putting my foot in a hole and falling over!

Luckily I ended up on the ground not in the water. After ensuring I hadn't done any damage to the camera I checked to see if the dragonflies were still in position. They were, and from down at ground level the sun backlit them beautifully! A happy accident, you could say. 

It wasn't necessary for me to use a fast shutter speed here, 1/250 second sufficed. This allowed me to use an aperture of f16 resulting in both animals being in focus. As the other river bank was some distance away it was still nicely blurred. 

It wasn't until I looked at the photo on the Mac that I realized the top dragonfly was surrounded by a "bokeh ball" created by a blurred circle of light on the water surface. Guess who was a happy girl?

Ruddy Darter dragonfly pairCommon Darter pair
The hole I accidentally put my foot into!

Photos of dragonflies and damselflies eating their prey are also interesting. They are voracious little predators! The damselfly below was busy eating a fly for its breakfast at Barnwell Country Park.

Damselfly eating a fly
Common Blue Damselfly eating a fly

Common Blue Damselfly at breakfast

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