Photographing Dragonflies, Damselflies and Butterflies
3 Aug 2007
Much of my photography is macro and done with a digital Sony DSC-F828. I'm out with my camera in all sorts of weather now (mostly hot and humid), but recently in the rain. I've discovered the magic of a baggy and a rubber band to protect my camera although there are more expensive alternatives. It is somewhat difficult, but not impossible to know if you are focused through the LCD screen. A golf umbrella would be a good thing to bring along. Maybe someone who reads this will come up with an ingenious way to attach the umbrella to the photographer so you don't need three hands.
Living here where it's very buggy is where I first got my experience shooting insects, especially butterflies, dragons and damselflies.
Here are a few things to remember, but the most important thing to remember is that insects are exothermic, meaning they are most active in the heat. My best dragons are shot between 11a.m. and 3p.m. The sun is climbing, high, or slowly dropping, but the heat is still there. Of course, the light is very harsh at midday and the color will wash out at that time.
Dragonflies - They are territorial. Stand and watch them and you will find the patterns of flight and territory. Many of the smaller ones have require only 30-40 feet. Don't move much, just watch. Make mental notes of the heights they fly in (some stay close to the ground). They will find perches and return time and again to them once they get used to you.
Start with taking a long shot. Slowly approach a step at a time. I take a lot of photos like this using zoom. As you get closer, you can use your macro. You can get SO close if you take your time and move slowly. I have put their little faces within three inches of my lens, and as long as they become used to you, it won't matter. You've become safe.
Do dorsal shots first. That is, from the rear and down from the top. Slowly move around to the side, and then to the side of the face and finally the face. I have noticed that some field guides note posed individuals. That means the insect has been caught, cooled and placed immobile on an appropriate leaf or twig to recover from the chilled state later. I have never done this, and my rewards are sharp, clear digital images which are taken at very close range.
All perch differently. Large darners and cruisers like to hang in foliage near the water. Meadowhawks like to rest in grass blades. Hallowe'en Pennants are the only ones to perch with their four wings "askew" and face into the wind clinging to the very top of the tallest grasses (at least shoulder high on me) in a field.
Wet seeps and ditches are good places to find them. They spend much of their lives under water as nymphs, climbing up vegetation before splitting their shells and emerging as a dragonfly.
Just before sunset is a spurt of action. Mosquitoes are gathering then.
Take a breath, stop your heart, depress your shutter halfway to focus, take your picture.
Damselflies - although they are exothermic, seem to prefer the shade - dense vines, lots of potted plants and in the protection of the walls of your house. Because they are so small, they hunt where the air is still. They are cousins of dragonflies and predators, too. I just took a photo of one eating a mosquito, larger than the head and thorax of the damsel. Watch for them in the cooler areas of your garden. They seem to be very active just before noon and after 2 p.m., especially early in the mornings. They are brightly colored (often metallic or neon hued) and more skittish than dragonflies.
Watch for them in tall grasses and on lilypads if you are near water. Be careful of your footing. The edges have been known to give way, soaking the photographer and destroying the digital camera in hand.
You'll have to follow them along and have your camera set up for macro. Sometimes they are hard to detect; a blur out of the corner of your eye. They are not much heftier than an inch or so of flying thread. Just as their larger cousins do, they will kill and eat their own, occasionally. I have witnessed and photographed a Rambur's Forktail eating a newly caught Southern Sprite.
I just had the wonderful experience of finding a mating pair. I was walking around six in the morning and in the wet grass saw a male drop suddenly and come up clasping a female who was hiding. Assuming the wheel position, the mating lasted for over a half hour, and because they were occupied, I again took all the macro shots I needed.
They will watch you and try to keep a distance, but they are not fast fliers. Interestingly, I was wearing a hospital green shirt the other day, and had a Powdered Dancer decide it had to hunt all over me.
Watch for clusters of minute grapelike clusters attached to their bodies which are usually red, which you will discover in processing the image. These are water mites.
Damselflies also don't mind flying in light rain or mist.
Butterflies - The large swallowtails are a terrible challenge. Because of their weight, they need to flutter to keep their proboscis in the area of the flower which contains the nectar. You can stop their wing action if you are patient with a flash. However, the pattern the flutter makes on your memory card or film can make a unique exposure. It shows motion – part of the shot should be clear. Play with the image in your photo software program.
Butterflies are slightly territorial, but each species prefers certain flowers. This is key because when they are nectaring, they are concentrating. Here in Florida and elsewhere in the USA is a wild plant called Spanish Needles. It blooms along the roadsides and is perennial. It looks like a small, five-petalled daisy. It is an incredible resource for many insects, not just butterflies. If you can plant some from seed, so much the better. Our Gulf and Variegated Fritillaries love that plant, as well as Buckeyes, Hairstreaks, Monarchs, Tiger Swallowtails, and all of the skippers. Just move and observe quietly; do not have lens caps dangling, and you will get your shots. There are many resources available on butterfly gardening. And remember, the weeds you pull are really wildflowers.
The butterflies in my yard aren't seen until about 10:30 a.m. I have watched the sulphurs come down the street (before the road was paved), in a fluttering parade and come to the garden. Provide wet sand in drought conditions, set up a sprinkler, use overripe fruit in a brightly colored dish. Red-spotted Purples can often be found under pear trees on rotting fruit. Many butterflies like rotting fruit, urine and animal feces. If you are walking creekside, be ready to see drinking butterflies. Similarly, if you have livestock, watch moist areas where urine and dung is deposited. They are there for the minerals.
In the evening, just before sunset, stand in your garden and watch. A real thrill is to watch a butterfly prepare to sleep. It will fly to a twig, hold its wings together so that it resembles a leaf, pump the color from them, and bring their antennae together so that the tips touch. Suddenly it is lost in the leaves, and can rest undetected.
I use my LCD window even though it is difficult in sunlight. I use autofocus exclusively. At my age, I rarely use my viewfinder, not because I can't see through it (it has the diopter feature), but because with the LCD I don't have to worry too much about composition. You want to fill as much as the screen as possible with the image you're trying to catch.
Again, something is better than nothing for identification purposes, and if I am having trouble, I use the zoom first. Then I switch to macro.
Moths – You might come across very vivid, day-flying moths, which are great mimics. They can masquerade as wasps, or bees, but look closely at their antennae, despite their coloration. Feathery antennae indicate a moth. Here in August, goldenrod and lantana is sometimes covered with the metallic blue and red Polka-dotted Wasp Moth, spectacular and harmless; the wild ageratum draws Scarlet Wasp Moths with "windowpane" wings.
It's nice to record field notes on a small pad, but I usually forget. If you have trouble identifying an insect, there are endless places on the internet for help. A serious photographer can wear a fisherman's vest with lots of pockets, but that's a bit hot to wear on our summer afternoons.
Keep your batteries charged, your shutter speed at 400 or higher if you can, and always carry an additional memory stick. I can use up a 512 in an afternoon.
I hope this enhances your days on the prowl with your cameras.