On Wednesday 19 August, fellow member John Curd – a self-confessed “odonata obsessive” – revealed the knowledge and techniques required to take wonderful images of dragonflies and damselflies. And, if you know what you are looking for, there are plenty of sites around Leighton Buzzard to find these beautiful insects.

During “lockdown”, and thanks to Zoom conferencing, we have enjoyed a selection of fascinating speakers from places too far distant to visit us in person.  But sometimes you don’t need to look so far afield for your expert speaker.

The first rule of wildlife photography is “get to know your subject”.  Accordingly, John set out all the basics of dragonflies and damselflies in the first part of his talk.

Dragonflies and damselflies have been around for 300 million years.  They are of the order “Odonata” and they all have four wings which move independently, making them very agile.  They are predatory and carnivorous (eating larvae, flies, mosquitoes, and other small insects), but harmless to humans.  Males and females can look very different when they mature (“sexual dimorphism”).

There are 45 species of dragonfly and damselfly in the temperate UK (25 in Bedfordshire).  In the warmer climate of France there are 89 species, in Australia, 324, in the USA 479, and worldwide 6312.

Identifying the different species is very much a matter of detail as some of the difference between species can be hard to detect.  John has seen over 200 species and photographed all but one of the UK species (as well, of course, as many overseas).

Dragonflies are generally (but not always) larger and have fore wings that are difference in size or shape from their hind wings.  They belong to the sub-order “Anisoptera” (meaning “unequal wings”).  The wings are normally held out to the sides of the body at rest.

Damselflies are generally (but not always) more delicate and have fore wings and hind wings that are similar in size and shape.  They belong to the sub-order “Zygoptera”.  The wings are normally held above the body at rest.

Dragonflies and damselflies have scientific names following the Latin-based binomial naming convention invented by Carl Linnaeus (Swedish botanist and zoologist) in the 18th century.  Within the order and the two sub-orders this provides the genus and species.  Fortunately, there are also common/vernacular names which are more pronounceable and easier to remember.  Hence “anaciaeschna isosceles” is known in the UK as the “Norfolk Hawker”.  However, since it was so named, this species has been found far beyond Norfolk and is also known as the “Green-eyed Hawker”.

The timing and duration of all the various lifecycle stages of dragonflies and damselflies are species and climate dependent.

All dragonflies and damselflies are aquatic and spend most of their lives underwater as larvae.  Eggs are laid in or near water (often in or under vegetation), larvae hatch out and proceed through several moults as they grow.  Eventually, when fully grown, the larvae emerge from the water and then the fully formed adults emerge from the larvae.  Adults then go through a complicated mating procedure (John gave us the full particulars on this) to ensure fertilisation when progressing to “ovipositing” (ie, egg-laying).

In the second part of his talk John turned to the photography, setting out when, where and how to photograph dragonflies and damselflies.  He emphasised that his techniques were not the only ones, just “what works for me”.

In the UK the “flight season” for dragonflies and damselflies is generally from April to November but is, again, species and weather dependent.  Adult dragonflies generally live for two to three months but damselflies for only one month.  To see dragonflies and damselflies flying around you need temperatures of at least 15°C and sunshine.  About 11.00 to 16.00 works well.  But they can also be found where they roost in the early morning and in the evening.

Males can usually be found around fresh water.  Different species like different sorts of water (still, running, etc, but never salt).  Females are usually found away from water.  But they go to water to mate.

It is impossible to sneak up on dragonflies and damselflies as they have 360° vision and are skittish.  So you must move slowly and gently and keep low.  And wearing dull clothes helps.  John likes to get a first shot “in the bag” as soon as he is in range and then gradually move closer for more shots.

John’s main bits of kit are a Canon 7D Mark II (a professional quality crop-sensor DSLR), used with a Canon 100-400mm L f4.5-5.6 lens or a “consumer brand” 70-300mm f5.6 lens, and an Olympus EM-1 Mark II (a Four Thirds mirrorless) used with an Olympus 300mm f4 Pro (equivalent to 600mm).  He is not yet a fan of EVFs but reckons he will get used to them.  Image stabilisation is essential.  A macro lens – John has an Olympus 60mm f2.8 – will give you improved detail.  But you need to get much closer and it is easy to spook the subject.

John also uses a monopod for stability (much easier to use than a tripod for these mobile insects).  It is fitted with a monopod head allowing him to tilt the camera forwards and backwards as required.

As camera settings, for static subjects John suggests starting with ISO 400, f8, aperture priority, a single (central) focus point on continuous focus, and partial metering.  Depth of field is a problem, so you need to be perpendicular to the subject.  Even then, with a dragonfly with outstretched wings, it will not all be in focus.  John’s Olympus can do in-camera focus stacking, but subjects are usually not static for long enough.

Flight shots need to be handheld (ie, done without the monopod) and John suggests pushing the ISO to 800 and using a group of focus points.  He does not use “burst” mode.  Some subjects repeat their flight paths and some may even hover, albeit very briefly, which makes locking on to them a bit easier.

John gave us a huge amount of information in this excellent and entertaining presentation.  It was also richly illustrated with a selection of John’s superb images.  Apart from lots of odonata there were also some “gate crashers” to amuse us (butterflies, moth, spider, shield bugs, praying mantis, lacewing and more).  All very enjoyable – and extremely helpful to anyone wishing to photograph dragonflies, damselflies, or other insects.

More of John’s Work

[envira-gallery-dynamic id="tags-john-curd," ]