Photographing dragonflies

One word: how???

Seriously, they’re so fast and so active. Is my best bet for getting pictures to just bring a chair, sit by where I see them perching, and hope they land near me? I sure can’t catch any to get pics of caught ones. And I prefer not to catch things anyway.

Do people do mist netting for dragonflies? I won’t be doing that, I’d be afraid to hurt them somehow, but it seems like it might work. Unless they can see the netting too well.

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They usually have a favorite perch. Observe a few individuals and camp near where they perch the most.

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Many species will spend a lot of time perching – keep an eye on the tops of grasses and shrubs for pennants, for example, and look at rocks and logs in streams for many clubtails. Common Whitetails are well known for landing on trails, as are pondhawks.

Darners, many Emeralds, Cruisers, etc. are harder – if you’re willing to take a few hundred shots for every good one (if you’re lucky!) it’s possible to get shots of them in flight. Many of these will have a favored patrol route that they repeat over and over, so find a spot near that route where you can see them coming. If you can, disable the auto-focus on your camera. (I know that sounds crazy, but very few autofocus can keep up.) Then pick a distance you think you want the shot at, and focus on something at that distance. Now, don’t touch the focus anymore! When the dragonfly approaches the distance you want, start shooting and keep going as it moves through the zone you’re targeting. When I try it, I typically shoot 200 for every photo I’m willing to keep, but my standard is basically that the dragonflly is identifiable, not that anyone would call it a good shot.

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You can try to get shots while they are perched, or with some species that don’t perch you can try to catch them with a butterfly net.

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Thanks for the advice. I think I’m going to take a folding chair and some vaseline down to the river. The riverbank has a lot of large, active, fast spiders on it, of the types that will run over your feet and up your legs (fishing spiders are real bad about it), so I’m always kinda worried about standing still to try and photograph dragonflies there. But if I’m in a chair, and I put vaseline on the chair legs, I don’t have to worry about the spiders. Vaseline is a nontoxic way to keep bugs from climbing, commonly used to contain climbing insects (like feeder roaches) in enclosures, and is effective as all get out. Even if vaselining a chair leg is a weird thing to do.

I’m fully willing to take a lot of pics. That’s my dad’s approach to photography. I’d just really like to find out what my different local dragonflies are- nice pictures are great, but I’ll take identifiable.

I’ve tried to catch dragonflies in my yard with a net. It doesn’t work. All it does is make them avoid me by about a 6-foot radius, and tire me out. I’m just not fast enough to reliably catch them. Plus, once I’ve gotten one, what do I do with it? They can bite if you try to hold one, and I worry about hurting it.

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Very interesting tip about the vasoline and climbing critters!

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I’m going to use that tip when I get back to my Dominican house. I’ve not had a lot of fire ants in my bed, but it seems there are always a few.

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The catching dragonflies method won’t get you nice looking photos, but if you hold them up to show all the details on the wings and body, the photos should be identifiable. Also, catching dragonflies looks like a daunting task but as long as you approach slowly and make a fast motion with your net you should be able to catch them (if you are slow enough you might be able to catch them with your hands),

Catching seems to be a time-efficient approach - there are still a few dragonfly species, living on the lake nearby, which I have seen a few times, but was unable to take a photo of. There was a pair of Aeshna living in the same place a whole summer, but I was able to take only 2 blurry photos of them. In contrast, Sympetrum stays perching in the same place until you virtually touch them with a lens, and you can find them here day by day.

Although, any advice on photographing dragonflies is welcome! I have bought a wonderful book “Dragonflies and Damselflies of Europe: A scientific approach to the identification of European Odonata without capture”, and I am still amazed by the quality of photographs there. So, it is definitely a possible task!)

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This website has some advice:

https://www.newforestdragonflies.com/PVcamera.html

I am relatively new to photographing dragonflies and damselflies (Odes). I enjoy the challenges of capturing nice quality images, but my primary interest is just learning about what I am seeing. I am also not spending a lot of money on equipment. I have captured almost all of my images using a simple Nikon CoolPix L340. Mainly because it easily fits in my small backpack that I used for day hikes. As others have suggested, just observing how dragonflies and damselflies fly and where they tend to perch is more than half the battle. Going on walks with folks that know how to observe odes has been invaluable for me.

I have found that my camera has two basic sweet spots for odes. The first relates to the typical distance that I can approach to the subject before I disturb it. This is often around 4 feet. I have found a basic camera setting that reliably allows me to get a clear focus (using autofocus) at the 4 foot distance with the subject occupying approximately 30 to 50% of the frame. What I give up with the combination of this approach and my equipment are distant or flying odes. The second sweet spot is the use of my camera’s basic macro setting. I will use this when a subject seems to be unconcerned with my presence. That allows me the opportunity to approach within a few inches and capture images of interesting diagnostic features.

In a nutshell, tinker around with your camera to find several combinations of settings that allow you to get consistent images. Keep it simple.

I also use a simple ski pole hiking stick as a monopod for stabilizing my camera.

Here are examples of my approach. https://www.inaturalist.org/observations?place_id=any&subview=grid&taxon_id=47792&user_id=centratex&verifiable=any

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Having a telephoto lens (200mm is okay, I use a 400mm) and a DSLR camera certainly helps. I’ve never tried photoing them with a smartphone or a standard lens.

One way to get them to perch in locations where you want them is to put in some perch sticks in the shore line right where you are going to stand or sit, with the sun behind you. I find if you rely on them using what perches are already available, they tend not to land in a convenient spot. But if you give them some nice perches, they will often use them, typically within a few minutes. And you might be able to get in closer to photo them.

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Vaseline works pretty well on climbing things. If there’s a ton of it, small bugs can sometimes manage to get up it, so you may have to experiment with how much is needed. I used to use it to contain Madagascar hissing roaches, which can climb very well (they can walk up glass), but can’t climb a band of vaseline. If it doesn’t work to keep the ants out of your bed (though I bet it would, if your bed doesn’t touch a wall they can climb from), there are products sold specifically to keep ants in enclosures, for people who like to keep ants.

I can tell you right now, a smartphone isn’t going to work very wel unless you’re VERY good at sneaking up on them. I’ve tried. My only nice dragonfly pictures are of ones I’ve managed to catch at porchlights, and one memorable one that kept bouncing off my phone flashlight at night, then flew away in weird spirals when released. I think it hit something too hard. I have some “at least you can identify it” pics of damselflies, and one really nice picture of some rubyspots somewhere, but dragonflies either fly off too quickly or perch somewhere more inconvenient. Phone cameras are getting nice, but don’t work so well at a distance.

I went back out with a proper camera to look for dragonflies today. Figured it’s cold enough that they’re all sleeping, and maybe I could find some sleeping ones to get pics of? I was half right. They aren’t out, but I couldn’t find any. I did find a butterfly and some spiders, and see a heron catch a fish, so that was cool.

Ah, it’s probably easier to catch dragonflies when they perch. I’ve only tried in my yard, where they’re flying around looking for bugs and don’t perch at all. I can’t approach slowly because they don’t stay in one place. Might have to try at the river if I just can’t photograph something in particular.


Here’s the butterfly I found. ID pending. Maybe one of the crescents?

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I just started looking for dragonflies and damselflies this past summer. People who had been looking for them for a long time told me that, it you carefully walk up to the shore of a body of water with cattails, you will see some perched. If they fly away, just stand still. They will often return to the same perch. It works. Damselflies will often hover around the same area if you spook them. So, once again, just stand still and watch them. They will often circle back and perch even closer than when you first saw them.

Some of the larger dragonflies spend almost all of their time flying around protecting a territory. But, if you watch the temperature and get to a pond before it warms up or just when the sun is hitting an area, you can often catch them perched and waiting to warm up.

As a birder who is used to getting out as early as possible, I had to adjust the time I went out during the day. Insects are more active when it is warm. So, I was often out in the late morning and in the afternoon when it was quite hot. Wear a good hat and take water. I tried to keep my camera under the shade of my body to keep it from overheating. But, like birding, you will find dragonflies and damselflies in their habitat. So, look for bodies of water and streams (just like the guidebooks say). But, some dragonflies and damselflies can be found in fields and grassy area. So, keep your eyes open wherever you go hiking. I found a lot of damselflies along railroad tracks because they seem to like to come from the plants around the tracks to perch on the gravel to warm up. (In the Cuyahoga Valley National Park in NE Ohio, there is a set of tracks that runs through the Valley for the tourist train. We are allowed to walk along the tracks. Nothing illegal about it.)

Best of luck. Be patient. Enjoy their beauty.

If you disturb a perched dragonfly it will often return to the same perch, or another close by, so set yourself up and sit still for a few minutes. This is good for darters, chasers and skimmers.

Hawker dragonflies spend long periods patrolling on the wing without perching, but they tend to follow the same circuit so after observing them a while you can predict where they are likely to fly. You might then have the chance to photograph one of them in flight. This is immensely frustrating as it is possible but difficult, and requires not only a rapid autofocusing system on your camera (ideally one that will track movement away from the initial focus point) but also developing the skill of finding a subject quickly with a telephoto lens. They seem to have rest periods, but often at different times of day from when they are patrolling (late afternoon or early evening on a sunny day is good), and often rest in trees fairly high up a little away from the water.

Dragonflies are also much more approachable when they are eating, and having a mouthful of prey can make for a more interesting picture. I photographed one dragonfly in Thailand eating a honeybee which also had a small fly buzzing around trying to steal some, AND a mite biting its head. On the other hand when they are mating they are still easily spooked and will fly off together even if the male is in the process of transferring the sperm package to the female.

You may also catch them in the process of laying eggs.

I find that a close-focusing telephoto lens is better than a macro for dragonflies. With my Canon system the 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 L IS II is good and focuses reasonably close as well as having a remarkably good image stabilisation system (I bought it as a jack-of-all-trades to take on holiday and it has proven to be a very capable all-round wildlife lens). I also have the Canon 180mm f.3,5L macro, which is good for dragonflies and very sharp, but no image stabiliser, and the Canon 100mm f/2.8 L IS macro, which is a good insect lens all round, though probably better for smaller butterflies, beetles, bugs etc. rather than dragonflies. Health problems have made it difficult for me to manage a heavy professional camera, however, so I also have an Olympus micro 4/3 system and the 300mm f/4 lens is good for dragonflies, birds and many other things, being light enough to carry and hand-hold and yet giving the same magnification as a 600mm f/4 on a full-frame camera (it doesn’t have that razor sharpness of the Canon super-telephotos, however).

I generally don’t use flash for dragonflies as they usually appear on sunny days when there is plenty of available light. A ring flash on a macro lens is good for smaller insects, but gives rather flat lighting when you are far enough away for dragonflies.

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I had good luck with a long lens, 70-300 zoom. That way you don’t have to be very close. They do seem to return to the same area during their patrols.

1st rule of wildlife photography: Take lots of shots, delete most of them. :)

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There are behavioral and physical differences among dragonflies in their perching and therefore the ease of photographing them. Most of the skimmers (Libellula) and meadowhawks (Sympetrum) are pretty habitual perchers that will often return to the same twig and sit for a while. They’re probably easiest to photo. Saddlebags (Tramea) and gliders (Pantala) can be tough since they’re active fliers and usually don’t perch often if it’s a hot day. If it’s windy, you might find them perched more easily. Darners, as well as gliders, don’t perch obviously because they hang downward so you need to search cattails, shrubs, and other vegetation to spot them when resting. Clubtails perch on stream rocks or the ground and can be fairly cooperative. Searching vegetation, like a tree row, at dusk (and perhaps at dawn) can be productive in finding dragonflies that have perched for the night. Once you develop a search image for these various forms you can spot them perched before they spot you.

Photoing dragonflies on the wing is possible, but you usually have to take a lot of shots with a fast shutter speed to get one good pic.

Good luck.

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I was amazed to realise this year that if slow enough in approach, damselflies would even crawl off their perch on to my finger if offered… whilst one Clubtail was at ease with me holding it on a leaf. Maybe it was newly emerged though (?)
Breathtaking to have such close encounters with them.





Has anyone ever been bitten ?
British dragonflies say they won´t break the skin at least even if they do try it. But I did wonder.

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That clubtail is indeed freshly emerged – you can tell by the way he’s holding his wings.
I’ve never been bitten, but I’ve seen one Green Darner (Anax junius, one of the big ones) draw blood at someone’s thumb. (She was rescuing it from a spider web, ironically.)

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