Dragonflies and Damselflies of the East (Princeton University Press, 2011) by Dennis Paulson is the first fully illustrated field guide to all 336 dragonfly and damselfly species of eastern North America. With hundreds of color photos and complete species accounts that describe key identification features, distribution, flight season, habitat and natural history, this is the only guide you need in the field. The slideshow in this article's Image Gallery features 50 of our favorite images from the book, and the following dragonfly photography tips are taken from the book's introduction.
Damselfly and Dragonfly Photography Tips
Dragonflies and damselflies are wonderful photo subjects. So many of them are brightly colored and interestingly shaped that just sitting still they are photogenic. Many of them perch in the sunshine in conspicuous places, and walking around a wetland will provide photo op after photo op. Dragonfly photographers usually use lenses that are a combination of macro (for relatively close focusing) and telephoto (for magnification, especially of wary dragonflies). I use a 70- to 300-mm zoom lens that has macro capabilities at 300 mm, so I do not have to approach too closely and disturb my subject. I have also taken numerous photos with 400-mm telephoto lenses that focus down to 5 feet. If you are out photographing birds with such a lens, give dragonflies a try. In general, damselflies are easily approached, and they can be photographed with shorter lenses, but dragonflies can be quite wary. For whatever reason, some individuals will be much tamer than others, so just keep trying.
The best photos are taken with cameras on tripods, or at least with image-stabilized lenses, as you can make sure the dragonfly is in sharp focus and can shoot at a slow enough shutter speed to get a good depth of field on the subject and still gather in background light. Dragonflies may perch on flimsy stems, so they blow in the wind as flowers do, but if your subject is on a solid perch, you can often use a slow shutter speed. The alternative is to use a flash with a higher shutter speed. This works equally well in brightly or evenly lit situations, but the powerful flash on the subject means any distant background will be underexposed, even black. You can get around this when using flash by photographing dragonflies with backgrounds close enough to be well lit, but it is much better when they provide a smooth background (a dense bed of sedges all the same color, for example) than a cluttered one (a mass of twigs and leaves). However you do it, you will get better photos with the depth of field provided by a diaphragm opening of f/16 or f/18; f/22 or higher is even better. Otherwise, you are restricted to photos perpendicular to the subject and its wings—directly from the side for damselflies, directly from the top for dragonflies. Some photographers with an artistic bent may prefer subjects in partial focus.
There are really three components of successful dragonfly photography. The first two are science: familiarity with your camera equipment and its capabilities and knowledge of the subject matter. The third is art: taking photos that are beautiful and aesthetically pleasing. Perusal of the photos in this book will make it clear that the nature of the background is extremely important in photographing odonates. An uncluttered or out-of-focus background always shows the dragonfly or damselfly at its best, but the background can also furnish clues to habitat choice and behavior, so sometimes it will be an integral part of the photo. Few photos are as crisp and easy to interpret as those taken against a blue sky.
Digital photography is clearly becoming the medium for most of us. The biggest advantage of digital is that you can see your results immediately and know whether you have accomplished your photo goals then and there. One of the nicest advantages is being able to download your photos onto your computer and share them with friends and colleagues. Nowadays, a puzzling dragonfly photographed in the field might be identified by an expert at the other end of an e-mail message on the same day. Also, I find keeping track of digital images on the computer far easier than going through a huge slide collection (but many of us will have to do both).
Always, the hardest odonates to photograph are the “fliers,” the ones that perch hanging up and often at some distance from the water. With persistence, by watching many of these dragonflies, you will eventually see one hang up at a place accessible to your stalking. Many of us photograph fliers by catching them and chilling them, but this is necessary only if you have a burning desire for a photo of that species, as posed individuals rarely perch in an entirely natural way. Many photos of fliers in this book are posed, and one of the real challenges will be to get photos of all of them naturally perched.
In fact, we need many more photos of dragonflies and damselflies in general. While searching for photos for this book, I discovered that a few species had not been photographed at all in a natural situation, and in others, no females are represented in photo collections. For variable species, there can never be too many photos. Time after time, I thought I knew the color pattern of a species, only to look at another photo and see unsuspected variation. My descriptions of the species became longer as I looked at more and more photos on the Internet or reexamined my own. A good collection of specimens can tell the story of variation, but only in pattern, not in color.
Much of the behavior of dragonflies, of course, involves flying, and they are much harder to photograph then. I hope that the present generation of camcorder-wielding birders will pay some attention to odonate behavior. Because they are small and quick, they are more difficult to follow with a lens, and thus, their behavior is more difficult to document than that of birds. But it is worth trying!