Several years ago Karl and Dorothy Legler and I began a projectthat eventually culminated in Guideto Common Dragonflies of Wisconsin. Having avidly pursuedphotography for 25 years prior to this, I thought that the shiftfrom wildflower and mushroom photography would be a minor one.Little did I realize the education I was about to receive! After5 years of refining my technique and equipment, and having quitea few requests for information on how I go about photographingthese wonderful creatures, I guess it's time to do a short articleon the subject. Hopefully it will save you some time and frustrationand the hundreds of rolls of film that I burned up while acquiringthe tricks and techniques.
I first encountered the joys and frustrations of odonate photographyin 1991. I was shooting wildflowers in a meadow that bordereda large body of water and couldn't help but notice that almostevery mullein plant in the meadow was crowned by a small and beautifuldragonfly. I had a 200mm lens with me so I decided to try gettingsome photos of them. The lens only focused to 6 ft, which is totallyuseless for shooting dragons, so I added an extension tube andmanaged to burn up the better part of a 36 exposure roll of Kodachrome64. The day was bright and sunny but yet I was forced to shootat 1/250th of a second at f/4 because of the light loss causedby the extension tube and the slow speed of the film. I did takesome shots at 1/125th of a second at f/5.6 but these frames latershowed unmistakable camera shake. I was shooting without a tripod.My personal opinion on tripods and dragonflies is that the 2 aretotally incompatible. Trying to get to within 2 ft of a smallspecies such as Sympetrum or Perithemis, which is,with a 200mm lens, about the distance you want to get a framefilling shot, is an exercise in frustration if you're using atripod. My sense of humor is as good as anyone's but I don't appreciatehearing dragonflies laughing at me as I try to maneuver a tripodinto position.
The dragonflies I was shooting that day, I later discovered,were male Pachydiplax longipennis. When I got the slidesback from processing I was struck by the sheer beauty of the dragonfliesbut dismayed by the lack of depth of field in the images. Thearea of sharp focus at f/4 was extremely shallow and the slightestbody movement was enough to throw them out of focus. I later cameto realize that at very close distances even my heartbeat wassufficient to destroy critical focusing. I decided at the timethat if I shot dragonflies again I would put some of my flashtechniques to work. The problem would be in softening the harshlight of direct flash without using the 32 inch umbrellas thatI use to bounce and soften the flashes I use in wildflower andmushroom photography.
Another objection I have to shooting in natural light (sunlight)is that the color temperature is constantly changing and so, therefore,are the colors of the dragonflies. The human eye is quite goodat fooling itself as to the colors that its actually seeing. Ifit has seen the object before it knows what color it really isand will make you think that the yellow on a dragonfly shot inthe woods is still yellow even though its green on the film becausethe sunlight has filtered through the leaves of the canopy andturned green in the process. This is all fine and dandy, but Irecall seeing photos of dragonflies that I had not yet seen inperson and was greatly surprised to see in real life that theyhad yellow dorsal stripes instead of the green stripes that Iknew from the photos. To be truly useful in identification I feelvery strongly that flash photography is the only way to go. Thecolors are always accurate with flash and always consistent. Itbothers me to see a collection of photos of a particular speciesand see that their colors vary wildly >from frame to framedue to the changing color of the natural light. Natural lightis a wonderful thing for artistically pleasing shots of landscapes,etc. but its a disaster for dragonflies.
Now that I have all you natural light fans up in arms I'm goingto change the subject for awhile and start at the very beginningand discuss what I'm using at present to shoot dragonflies (mysetup is constantly evolving and, unfortunately, getting heavierand heavier). Ill start with choosing a film format. There area great number of medium formats out there such 6cm X 4.5cm, 6cmX 6cm, 6cm X 7cm, etc. but they're not well suited to dragonflyphotography for several reasons. They're heavy, expensive, especiallyat the longer focal lengths needed, and there are no macro orMicro (as Nikon prefers to call them) lenses available in longfocal lengths. Medium format also loses its advantage of largerfilm size when you begin shooting at reproduction ratios around1:5 or closer. Reproduction ratio is the relationship betweenthe actual physical size of the subject, in this case a dragonfly,and the actual physical size of the image of the dragonfly onthe film. Simply put, a reproduction ratio (R.R.) of 1:5 meansthat the image on the film is 1/5 the size of the actual dragonfly.1:3 R.R. would be 1/3 life size, 1:1 would be actual life size,and 2:1 would be twice life size, etc. When you begin shootingat these R.R.s, larger film size, for reasons that we need notgo into here, is much less important than when shooting subjectssuch as landscapes at R.R.s of 1:100 or greater. Therefore 35mmis extremely well suited for shooting dragonflies. The camerasare small, lightweight, and the lenses are extremely good, withmacro lenses being readily available, at least in the 90mm to105mm focal lengths. Nikon currently has 2 different 200mm MicroNikkors available. I will be writing the rest of this articleunder the assumption that you will be shooting with a 200mm lensor perhaps a 90mm - 105mm with a 2X teleconverter. Teleconvertersare a subject unto themselves and will be dealt with separatelylater on. I've found that anything shorter than 200mm is not agood choice as it forces you to get so close for a decent shotthat many dragonflies simply will not tolerate your presence atthe distances necessary for these shorter lenses. There are manyexceptions to this but over time a 200mm is definitely your bestbet. Anything over 200mm will invite camera shake. I will occasionallyuse a 200mm Micro Nikkor with the Nikkor TC14-B teleconverterfor difficult to approach species such as Gomphids which willfrequently land on exposed rocks in river rapids. I try to picka boulder in the river which is as close as I can get to whicheverrock appears to be their favorite and I'm forced to shoot at thatdistance, whatever it may be. But I generally try to use onlythe 200mm. It gives adequate working distance for all but thewariest dragons and minimizes the problem of camera shake.
Having decided on a film format, let's get down to the basicsof a good dragonfly setup and begin with the camera body.
I'll start out with what I consider to be absolutely essentialand move onto desirable and not so desirable options later. Theone feature that I consider to be the most important of all isto have an electronic flash synch speed no slower than 1/250thof a second. The flash synch speed is usually marked in red onthe shutter speed dial or it will have an icon of a lightningbolt or some such device next to the speed. This is the maximumshutter speed that you can use when shooting with electronic flash.If you try to use a faster shutter speed than this with your flash,part of the film frame will be black or very underexposed. Mostolder cameras had a synch speed of 1/60. This was later increasedto 1/80, then 1/125, and still later, due to new shutter curtaindesigns and materials, to 1/250. I consider 1/250 to be essentialbecause even though practically all the light in your exposureswill be coming from the flash(es), there is still enough ambientlight hitting the film to show up any camera shake. And believeme, when its 90 degrees and you're out in the sun and attemptingto stalk to within photo range of a dragon and the mosquitoesand deerflies are eating you alive and you cant move for fearof scaring the dragon, you WILL have camera shake with a 200mmlens. In all but the most extreme cases, a synch speed of 1/250will eliminate the problem. Occasionally one can get by with 1/125but I can guarantee that you will lose some great shots from shake.I once tried shooting spring frogs with a 200mm lens with a NikonF2 that synched at 1/80 and got only 1 usable shot out of 36!
Now for the bad news. There are very few 35mm bodies availablethat synch at 1/250. I've been using Nikons for the last 25 yearsand am pretty ignorant as to what's available from other makersbut I think 1/250 flash synch is a relative rarity. (If this beginsto sound like an ad for Nikon I apologize but its what I'm mostfamiliar with.) There are at least three Nikon bodies with 1/250flash synch, the FM2n, F4s, and F5. Of the three, the latter twoare monumentally expensive and have a plethora of features thatare of no use in shooting up close pictures of dragonflies. Autofocus is of very little use because the focus is always a compromise.Normally you want to focus on the eye of the dragonfly, whichmeans you'll have to keep its eye in the center of the frame wherethe autofocus sensor is. This results in every shot being offcenter in the frame. Some of the new autofocus bodies allow youto change which part of the frame it will focus on, but in thefield, in the heat of the moment, I have strong doubts as to howwell this would work out. In addition, all of these high techbells and whistles need batteries to function. The FM2n, on theother hand, uses two small, inexpensive batteries which only powerthe light meter. In flash photography, you don't even use themeter, so if it goes dead, who cares? All the features that youneed for shooting dragonflies with this camera are wholly mechanicaland if its well built (the FM2n certainly is), this means extremereliability.
One feature that I'm also fond of is having interchangeablefocusing screens. The standard screens work well for general typesof photography but the split image rangefinders and microprismfocusing circles tend to black out in low light with longer focallengths. I have replaced the focusing screen in every body I'vegot with the plain matte screen. It stays bright in dim lightand there aren't any distractions to good composition with a plainscreen. One of my FM2n bodies has been fitted with a Beattie Intenscreen,which is an aftermarket focusing screen and it brightens up theviewfinder a great deal, making focusing much easier. Its a niceoption but by no means necessary.
Another nice option for your camera body is a motor drive.They tend to be expensive and aren't necessary but they offerseveral advantages. First, you don't have to be moving your righthand all the time to advance the film. This movement will oftenspook a critter and send him flying off into the next county.Second, if you're using a high voltage battery pack, the extremelyfast recycling time of the flash(es), coupled with automatic filmadvance enables you to get a shot off about every 2 seconds. Thisis a great feature to have when you come upon a rare or unknownspecies where time is of the essence. The first time you haveto wait 30 seconds for a set of tired AA batteries to recycleyour flash when there's a rare species perched right in frontof you, you'll know what I mean. If you're using a motor drivebut not flash you can get off as many as 5 frames per second!This is great for bugs in flight or series such as the ovipositing"dance" of Tramea. Its also a great way to break thebank with film processing costs! Every option has a price. After2 years of using a high voltage battery pack and motor drive I'mstill trying to resist the urge to keep firing until the end ofthe roll. Kodak, however, loves me!
When you're using electronic flash units on your camera forshooting dragonflies TTL (through the lens) flash metering alsois unnecessary. On a lot of shots this feature simply wont recognizethat the dragonfly is the subject of the photo and it will readthe background light and expose for the background conditions.These could include a bright sunlit sky or a dark pool in themiddle of a woods. Either way, TTL flash metering will let youdown and either under or overexpose the dragonfly. This is anadded expense on a camera body that you don't need. If you alreadyhave it, use it for the situations where it will work properlybut don't use it for dragonflies.
Flash exposures for dragonflies are best set manually. You'llneed a different f/stop for each R.R. but these f/stops are easilydetermined by shooting one test roll of film with the same setupthat you'll be using in the field. As long as you don't changeyour equipment setup the f/stop for a 1:5 R.R. will always remainthe same, as will the f/stop for a 1:4 R.R. and so on down theline. Natural light may have some effect on the exposure for thedistant background in your photos but little, if any, effect onthe near objects in the frame (dragonfly, vegetation, etc.).
To sum up the subject of necessary features on your camerabody, the only thing that is essential is a flash synch speedof 1/250. Everything else is nonessential and may actually getin your way.
Desirable optional features are as follows:
If I had to choose between a motor drive or a clear matte focusingscreen I think I'd opt for the screen.
This is the point where things can start to get expensive.I said, can start to get expensive. However, it doesn'thave to. For the first 3 years that I shot dragons I used theold standard Nikkor 200mm f/4 lens that I bought in 1975. Itsnot a macro lens so it only focused to 6 ft and wasn't correctedto perform at its optical best at distances any closer than that.In spite of that, with the use of extension tubes of differentlengths I was able to use it and the sharpness was perfectly adequate.So if you already have a 200mm lens you can get by just fine andneed only purchase a set of extension tubes. These are usuallysold in sets of three different lengths allowing you to get progressivelycloser by mounting a tube of a longer length between your cameraand the lens. The only problem that I encountered was that I wouldsometimes be able to approach a dragonfly closer than I had anticipatedand would have to try to change to a longer tube in the middleof a stalk. Sometimes the critters will be patient with you whileyou change tubes, sometimes not.
There are a great number of zoom lenses on the market in focallengths such as 70-210mm and 80-200mm. Unless you have a premiumquality zoom from a major camera maker, I don't recommend them.They just don't have the optical quality necessary for the job.Nikon has come out with a true zoom macro lens, the Micro-Nikkor70-180mm which is an exception, being a very able performer, butits expensive and 180mm is a little on the short end for dragonflies.
If you already have a macro lens in the 90 to 105mm range youmight consider buying a 2X teleconverter. This will give you aneffective focal length of 180 to 210mm depending on the lengthof the original lens. Be forewarned, however, that all teleconvertersare not created equal. Some of them are the optical equivalentof smearing vaseline on the front of your lens. Yes, some of themare that bad! A good 2X teleconverter will run at least $150.00.Nikon's 1.4X and 2X teleconverters for the manual focus 200mmf/4 Micro Nikkor run $700.00 each. It wouldn't cost much moreto buy a 200mm macro lens in the first place and be done withit. If you own a 105mm f/2.8 Micro Nikkor, the 2X teleconverterfor that model is $200.00 to $300.00 dollars cheaper than the2X model available for the 200mm Micro Nikkor. In this case, thecost of the converter would be justified. Id be very wary of usinga converter if the lens wasn't a macro lens to begin with, however.
There is another disadvantage inherent in teleconverters. Usinga 2X converter will cost you 2 f/stops in light loss. Your 105mmf/2.8 macro will become a 210mm f/5.6 lens. When shooting withflash you will almost always be shooting at apertures smallerthan f/5.6 so there's no problem there. Where there is a problem,however, is in focusing. Your viewfinder will get pretty dim whenyou're shooting on a wooded trail through the woods. With a 1.4Xconverter there is a 1 stop loss of light, which is tolerable,but it will make a 105mm f/2.8 macro into a 147mm f/4 which istoo short a focal length for a lot of dragonfly photography.
The lens I currently use is the 200mm f/4 Micro Nikkor manualfocus model. Its sharp as a tack with extremely good contrastand focuses down to a R.R. of 1:2 without extension tubes. Unfortunately,the price is about $1000.00. Relatively speaking, however, itsa bargain compared to the autofocus 200mm Micro Nikkor f/4 whichfocuses to a R.R. of 1:1 (life size) and can also be used as amanual focus lens. This lens is almost double the price of themanual focus 200mm f/4 Micro. If I had a choice, Id choose theexpensive model because then Id hardly ever need to mount extensiontubes in the field, but money is sometimes the bottom line.
To conclude, my first choice would be a 200mm macro lens. Ifthe price seems prohibitive or your camera manufacturer doesn'toffer a macro lens in this focal length, my second choice wouldbe a 90 to 105mm macro lens with the best 2X teleconverter youcan get (preferably the one offered by your camera manufacturer).The third option would be a normal 200mm lens with extension tubes.All three of these options will perform well, although the true200mm macro is easily the best for quality images.
And now, on to the main event.
Electronic flash is the single best way to produce high qualityphotos with perfectly consistent color temperature regardlessof the natural light and beautiful exposures with excellent shadowdetail, even in the harshest sunlight.
When most of us think of flash photography, we visualize extremelyharsh light with ugly, black as ink shadows. This is a resultof using flash in the worst possible way. Electronic flash, atits best, is indistinguishable from the best natural light situation.There are many ways to accomplish this. However, most of thesetechniques are best used in a controlled environment, such asa studio. In the field our options are very limited. This verylimitation makes the solutions much easier to discuss becausethere are so few of them.
First, never ever use a single flash pointed directly at thedragonfly. This will produce those ugly black shadows and thedragon will look like a suspect in a police interrogation roomunder a spotlight. There are books and authors out there who claimsingle head-on flash works but they are shooting with a tripodand balancing the light output of the flash to be the same orslightly less than the intensity of the prevailing natural light.Shooting at 1/250th of a second which I consider necessary fordragons with a 200mm lens and slow speed film (more about filmlater) pretty much wipes out the chance of balancing your flashoutput to natural light. Almost all of the light in your exposureswill come from the flash(es). Therefore, you need to do somethingto soften the quality of the light that your flash emits.
There are several ways to accomplish this. I will begin witha flash setup that uses only a single flash unit. This will bethe most compact setup that well discuss and it delivers beautifulresults. The flash unit, in its normally used way, shoots a blastof unidirectional light straight at the subject. This is whatcauses the flat harsh quality of the light and those obnoxiousblack shadows. The light needs to be manipulated in such a waythat it reaches the subject from a multitude of angles at once.This will give you the appearance of clean north light still atthe correct color temperature (5500 degrees Kelvin) and the multidirectionallight can wrap itself around the subject and open up the shadows.
With a single flash unit, this can be done in several ways.One feature that you want on a flash is the ability to adjustthe flash head to point straight up. You then place a small reflectorby means of Velcro strips, normally provided with the reflector)on the flash head. In this way, when the flash is fired the lightshoots straight up onto the white surface of the reflector whichmounts at a 45 degree angle to the flash head. Thelight is then reflected back out and at your subject. This bouncingand redirection of the light gives it a soft, wraparound qualitythat looks remarkably like an ideal natural light shot. This ismy preferred method if I'm using a single flash unit. I currentlyuse the LumiQuest Pocket Bouncer.It fastens onto your flash with Velcro strips which are providedand folds up when removed so its easily slipped into a pocket.The reflecting surface comes in white and other colors such asgold. Stick with the white as it maintains the proper color temperature.To increase the amount of light reaching the subject the reflectingsurface can be lined entirely with aluminum foil. This will letyou shoot at a slightly smaller aperture as it is more unidirectionalthan the white surface but it is a slightly harsher light thanyou get with the white surface. A good compromise is to attacha few narrow strips of foil so you have some white reflectingsurface and some foil reflecting surface.
Another method is to place a diffuser over the flash head suchas a layer or two of tracing paper or a translucent plastic diffuserwhich are available from various makers. In this case, the flashhead is then aimed directly at the subject. There is less lightloss with this method than with the Pocket Bouncer but the resultinglight is a little bit harsher but still quite pleasing.
Please note that when using a single bounced flash, alwayshave the flash set on manual or full power to get the full outputof the flash every time it fires. Never set it on auto, and alwayskeep the shutter speed set to the fastest speed it will synchelectronic flash at, hopefully 1/250th of a second.
Everything in photography is a compromise and bounced flashis no exception. Bouncing the flash in this manner gives you preciselythe light that you want but the very act of bouncing it wastesa tremendous amount of light that was initially delivered fromthe flash. Unfortunately the only way to increase the amount oflight without giving up the advantages of bouncing it is to usea more powerful flash. Electronic flash units are particularlysubject to the law of diminishing returns. For every small increasein light output there is a very large increase in price.
To understand this better, perhaps I should talk a little bitabout Guide Numbers. To keep it simple Guide Numbers are almostalways given using ISO 100 speed film. The ever popular Vivitar285 is listed as having a Guide Number of 120 with 100 speed film.A good way to relate the potential of one Guide Number to anotheris to realize that the correct aperture to use with a specificguide number at a given distance is to divide the guide numberby the distance in feet. Therefore, if your flash has a GuideNumber of 120 and you are using 100 speed film and shooting at5 feet, then the correct aperture would be 120 divided by 5 whichequals f/24. In this case f/22 would be close enough. Using thesame formula, the correct aperture for a distance of 10 feet wouldbe f/12.
If you are using a film with a speed of 64 the Guide numberwould be less. Seeing as how ISO 64 speed is 2/3 of a stop slowerthan ISO 100, the Guide Number for the same flash using 64 speedfilm would be 120 (the Guide Number with 100 speed film ) multipliedby 2/3 which results in a Guide Number of 80 with 64 speed film.
To demonstrate how much light is lost when bouncing a flashwith a reflector such as the Pocket Bouncer, Ill relate my resultswhen using a Metz 45CL1 with the Pocket Bouncer and Kodachrome64 (ISO 64 speed). With this film speed the Guide Number was 99.Shooting at a distance of 3.5 feet with a 200mm lens for a R.R.of 1:3.5 (a good distance for medium sized dragonflies such asLibellula) the aperture for the correct exposure would be f/28using the calculations given in the previous paragraph. However,due to the light lost by lens extension (at close distances thelens elements in your lens are further from the film and deliverless light to it; in this case about a loss of 1 1/3 stops) andthe loss of light caused by bouncing the flash, the actual correctaperture was f/8. That is a major light loss and costs you dearlyin the depth of focus that your images will have. The smallerthe aperture you use, the greater the depth of focus you willhave and for objects as small as dragonflies great depth of focusis essential.
If I had been using the less powerful Vivitar 285, the exposurewould have had to be approximately f/5.6 which is basically unacceptabledue to its shallow depth of focus. Even with a monster of a flash,such as the Metz 60CT series, with a Guide Number of 131 withISO 64 speed film, the aperture for the correct exposure wouldstill be only f/9.5 which I consider to be only borderline effectivefor depth of focus.
So the Guide Numbers I feel are sufficient when bounced andused as the only light source are from about 99 on up for ISO64 speed film. These will be some of the biggest portable flashunits on the market and even the least powerful flashes in thisclass, such as the Metz 45CL1 cost close to $300.00 and the Metz60 series flashes start out at around $550.
There is a less expensive way that actually achieves betterresults but adds some weight to the setup. This is the methodthat I have used almost exclusively for the last 3 seasons.
It entails using 2 flash units. The main flash is fired headon, directly at the subject. This flash must have variable powersettings. The Guide Number for ISO 100 speed film should be around120 when used at full power on manual. I set the power settingon this flash at 1/2 power and use 1 layer of tracing paper overthe flash tube to soften the light a little bit. The proper apertureto use with this flash alone at a R.R. of 1:3 would be f/13.5(set the aperture ring on your lens halfway between f/11 and f/16).
The second flash should also have a Guide Number of 120 withISO 100 speed film. This flash, however, is used at full power,but with a reflector, such as the Pocket Bouncer. The correctaperture to use with this flash alone at a R.R. of 1:3 would bef/8. The light from this flash is 1 1/2 stops less than the lightfrom the main flash and has just enough power to open up all theblack shadows that are present from the main, head on flash. Italso has that soft, wraparound light quality that so resemblesideal natural light. These two flashes used together result inimages that perfectly resemble daylight exposures. The advantagesare numerous. First, you can always shoot at 1/250 of a second,even if the day is overcast or even if you're shooting in thedead of night. This is especially handy if you're shooting a larvaemerging as an adult at dawn. Camera shake is a thing of the pastand you're never at the mercy of the natural light. Second, allyour photos have the same color temperature and always displaythe true colors of your subjects. This is very obvious when youhave a large number of slides laid out on a light table. Shotstaken in natural light will be all over the color spectrum, rangingfrom red to gold to green to blue. The shots made with the 2 flashsetup will all have the same color quality and the colors betweenevery slide can be directly compared without making any allowancesfor differing conditions when they were shot. Third, you are alwaysable to shoot at small apertures, ensuring the depth of focusso necessary for dragonfly photography.
It's not strictly necessary to have flash units with the GuideNumbers mentioned above. What is most important is to have thefill flash (the bounced flash) exposure be within 1 to 1 1/2 stopsof being as bright as the main flash. If your fill flash has ahigher Guide Number than 120 with ISO 100 speed film, then youcan increase the power level on the main flash and shoot at evensmaller apertures. The setup above is what I use and it worksout well for me. With this setup the exposures for different R.R.swhen using Kodachrome 64 (ISO 64 speed) are as follows: 1:5 =f/9.5, 1:4 = f/11, 1:3 = f/13.5, 1:2 = f/16, 1:1 = f/13.5, allshot at 1/250th of a second or your fastest flash synch speed.R.R. of 1:1 is obtained with extension tubes mounted on my 200mmf/4 Micro Nikkor. The exposure of f/13.5 results from the factthat although I'm closer to the subject than I am at 1:2, thelight loss resulting from the use of extension tubes diminishesthe light reaching the film more the closer distance of the flashesincreases the light reaching it.
Equipment varies so I would recommend doing a series of testexposures at home before using this setup in the field. The wayI do it is to stand up an 8" x 10" Kodak gray card nearthe edge of a table and place some leaves, stones, and an acetoneddragonfly specimen in front of the card. Shoot a series of exposuresat different distances with different apertures, keeping detailedwritten notes on every exposure as to distances and apertures.With a setup similar to what I use, I'd suggest shooting exposuresequal to, 1 stop larger, and one stop smaller than those thatI use.
When you get the test roll back, study it closely, pick outthe best exposure for each distance and head for the field. Aslong as you don't change any components in your setup you'll alwayshave properly exposed images with good quality light and consistentcolor temperature.
If you have any comments on the article or on any problemsyou've had or any problems you've solved, I'd like to hear fromyou. E-mail me at email@example.com