How to photograph the graceful dragonfly
The joys of 'dragonflying,' and how photographing dragonflies in flight can be a lesson in patience.
Sunday, June 5, 2011 - 17:15
Photo: NJ Wight
N.J. Wight lives in Montreal but is connected to New Hampshire as a local correspondent.
I have always been intrigued by the elongated shape and erratic movements of the dragonfly. But not until I started photographing them did I realize how intricate and beautiful they truly are. With their "stained glass window" wings, brightly colored tails and gigantic eyes, they are a small wonder of nature's design.
Part of the odonata order that also includes damselflies, they are believed to have been gracing this earth for more than 300 million years.
Equipped with two sets of wings that can beat independently, unlike other double-winged insects that beat in unison, their front wings can be going up while their backs ones are beating down. However, even with two sets they are considered to be slow flappers, so to speak, with an average of 30 wing-beats per second (whereas a bumblebee's wings move at about 300 bps). Dragonfly eyes are enormous and contain as many as 30,000 individual lenses (whereas humans have one), giving them supreme vision that enables them to respond to stimuli — like an eager photographer — up to 40 feet away. Still, they are quite accommodating and generally may grant you an audience quite close.
Once referred to as "The Devil's Darning Needles," myth would have it that dragonflies would seek out bad children and sew their mouths together with their claspers while they slept. Sadly, the myth fell apart after rigorous scientific study revealed they had no pockets or handbags in which to cart around needle and thread. They actually can do no harm to us humans as they don't bite or sting. In fact, they seem intrigued by us and generally come quite close. Frankly, I think they should be more revered as they help control our mosquito population.
Dragonflies pass through a fascinating life journey and you may not realize it, but the time they spend flying around our ponds and lakes is quite a short chapter in their lives. They actually hatch on the water surface and can remain in the larva stage for several years. The metamorphosis state brings the growth of wings, at which point they leave the water and begin their flying lifecycle, which lasts only weeks. This winged-stage is for mating and it is a common sight to see a male and female attached to each other, clinging to a blade of grass, or even mid-flight. Happy times for dragonflies before their precious few weeks of flight-time expire.
The art/challenge of photographing dragonflies
I am grateful to the dragonfly as it is teaching me patience. One of the biggest photography challenges for me has been capturing dragonflies in flight. I am generally impatient waiting for microwave popcorn, so standing in one spot for 50 minutes trying to focus and track spasmodically flying winged-things is not exactly in my comfort zone. But I love the challenge! I think of it as a zen meditation — with swearing.
I usually shoot with the Canon 7D and my 70-200 f4 IS L and after a few false starts and focus trial-and-errors, I have started to find my rhythm. Coincidentally, it has corresponded with finding the dragons' rhythm. Dragonflies really are unreliable, drunken flyers, changing direction and altitude very quickly. But, they also hover — and that is the photographer's moment.
I have learned to anticipate and concentrate on that brooding moment. Once I find my way with tracking and focus, and I seem to have to re-learn this every time, I am able to concentrate on composition. Luckily, these subjects enjoy flying around bushes and moss-covered water allowing for opportunities to explore creative and contrasting backgrounds with which to create interesting bokeh, (that nice, softly blurred background you sometimes see in photographs) and perhaps a little catch of light dancing off the wings. Is that too much to ask for?
The next time you see a dragonfly while you are out for a hike in the woods, kayaking on the lake or relaxing in your garden, take a moment to watch it dance. You are privileged to be witnessing the last few days of this graceful creature's life.
All photos © http://www.njwight.com