RG Naturfotographie

Howto photograph dragonflies


Dragonflies are sometimes called  "gemstones of the skies". Many of them look beautiful - the demoiselles, the emerald dragonflies, the emperor dragonfies and whatever they are called. They are great flying artists, who not only can fly very fast (up to 50 km / h), but also stay in the air or turn on the spot.

Her looks, her flying skills, the fine structure of her wings make her a fascinating photo motif.

First, two facts should be mentioned :

  1. Dragonflies are harmless. You can't be stinged and any biting that happens out of fear is not painful.

  2. Dragonflies are under protection. They must not be caught, injured or even killed .


People who want to photograph dragonflies, first think of  macro lenses. When choosing a lens one thing has to be considered: Dragonflies have an escape distance - like all other animals too. That means, they will escape if we come too close. It depends on several parameters how large this distance determined by testing.

Therefore, a macro lens should have a longer focal length. With lenses from 100mm you are well served. If you want to photograph flying insects you'll need a fast autofocus because flying insects are quite fast.

But there is an alternative to macro lenses: telephoto lenses. 300mm focal length, 600mm or (with teleconverter) even more. A longer focal length brings a greater magnification, but also reduces the depth of field. Nevertheless, a longer focal length has 2 advantages:

  1. The distance to the dragonfly (or generally to the animal) is larger and reduces the escape reflex.
  2. Often enough, the dragonfly is not reachable because it is in an area that is inaccessible.

If the minimum focusing distance is insufficient, extension tubes can be used.

Resting dragonflies

Part of the dragonflies are hunting their prey from a permanent place and return again and again. These are, for example, the Banded Demoiselle, the Four-spotted chaser or the Black-tailed skimmer . These are often seen sitting on branches or on the floor.

In these cases, I usually work with a telephoto lens to get a larger distance from the animals and not to scare them. Focal lengths of 100mm or more be used. Depending on the distance, I also use a 600 or even a 840mms. In that cases must be considered that a longer focal length gives a smaller depth of field.

If using autofocus I often use one sensor point or a maximum of a block of nine points, so that no surrounding elements may confuse the autofocus.

Shutter speed and aperture depend on the focal length. At a focal length of 600mm I use 1/800 s for the exposure time, usually at anaperture of11. The ISO value is set by the camera, which is relatively good for the Canon EOS 5D III.


Flying Dragonflies

The conditions are a bit different if I want to take photos of dragonflies in flight. Then there are two possibilities:

  1. A dragonfly that hunts from a raised stand usually returns to that stand. So, the camera can be easily aligned on the tripod and be focused manually.
  2. For dragonflies that do not or rarely settle, it's a good idea to observe the flight path. Thea are often the same, so that there are possibilities to photograph them. In that cases I am using either a tripod or no tripod..

In both cases, a shorter focal length offers advantages: a larger image angle and a greater depth of field. For example: an aperture of 11 at 4m and an fullframe sensor gives us adepth of field of 10cm.

Dragonflies hunting from a raised stand

In the case of dragonflies that hunt from a raised stand, you can focus manually and have time to do that.

The camera is set on the tripod and I use  an exposure time of 1/1000s at an aperture of 11 or 16. A larger aperture limits the depth of field too much. A longer exposure time can be used if the wings are to show a motion blur.

 I set on the camera to "Fast Continuous Shot", which means about 7 frames per second with the 5D III.

As soon as the dragonfly starts or lands, the cam is triggered with a remote release.

Non-resting dragonflies

Some dragonflies as Southern hawker, Brown hawker or Downy emerald seem to fly all the day. They always follow the same or similar routes on their patrol flights. Then you can set yourself up ...

The lens used should have a fast autofocus. For me, the Canon EF 300 f/4 or the Canon EF 100-400 f/4,5-5, are  the better choice than the Sigma 105 macro.

The camera is adjusted so that the autofocus reacts quickly and sharpens. This not only means the AI setting, but also in the basic settings in the menu.

In this case the autofocus is triggered with the shutter button, not with the AF-ON button like in other shots. Unlike when shooting seated dragonflies, I use all focal points in these aerial photographs.

For shutter speed and aperture, I use 1/1000s for exposure time and an aperture of 11 or 16. Again, "Fast Continuous" is set and the shutter button pressed for a longer time ...


After the shooting one task follows: The selection.

There are always captures to be deleted - captuers without a dragonfly or blurred shots.They will be deleted from me ...