Choosing camera equipment
I have used many digital cameras over the years, from compact cameras to professional DSLRs. Any modern camera is up to the task of taking photos of dragonflies though, and you needn’t spend a fortune to get good results.
A DSLR or mirrorless camera is the best choice due to its flexibility and ability to use different lenses. It is useful to have a few good lenses if you can manage it, especially a prime macro lens in the 100 – 200 mm range. Longer lenses can be useful for taking pictures over greater distances of course, over water for example.
Not much else is essential, but a monopod is very useful for stability.
Modern cameras have good low noise levels at high ISO settings, allowing the use of smaller apertures, which helps achieve greater depth of focus. When shooting macro however, depth of focus is always very shallow, millimetres at best. Higher ISOs do allow the use of higher shutter speeds, and that is a big advantage.
Many lenses and cameras feature image stabilisation technology to counter camera movement when taking a shot. This allows the use of slower shutter speeds than might be possible otherwise. However, this isn’t such an advantage when shooting macro, and you will want a higher shutter speed to freeze any natural movement in the scene, something that image stabilisation can’t help with.
My camera bag
Today I use Canon equipment and nearly always use a 180 mm macro lens, always with a monopod for stability. I will often use a 1.4x converter for a bit of extra reach. I sometimes use flash, but rarely any filters.
I also use a 17-40 mm or 24-105 mm zoom lens for general scenery, but these aren’t as useful for pictures of dragonflies.
I carry a phone in case of emergencies and also for maps, and a spare camera battery and memory card. I have a pair of close focussing binoculars, and a small monocular/spotting scope.
I usually focus manually (macro lenses aren’t usually very fast to auto focus) and use aperture priority mode at around ƒ/11 or ƒ/13, ISO is usually 800 – 1600. Ideally, I want a shutter speed above 1/200s. If I’m using flash, I’ll set the camera to manual and allow the flash variable power settings to get the exposure correct.
By approaching slowly and with care you can get quite close to dragonflies and damselflies. I usually take a few shots, then move forward to take a few more. If you’re careful not to disturb the surroundings, and don’t move too suddenly you’re likely to get something usable. Try and avoid shading them though or they may fly away just as you take your shot.
I’d also recommend you resist the urge to check every picture immediately after taking it (‘chimping’). It is a useful way to check the exposure or focus, but I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve reviewed a picture only to find the dragonfly has flown away while I’ve been admiring my work!
Photographing them in flight presents the greatest challenge, and keeping them in focus can be tricky, especially if you are focussing manually. The best tactic is anticipating where they are going, and pre-focus as much as you can.
Digital photography has the very obvious advantage that you can take many pictures in a session until your satisfied. Now if only dragonflies would stay still long enough!