Camera equipment suitable for photographing dragonflies comes in all shapes and sizes and to suit most budgets. So what should you look for when choosing a camera?
Digital vs film?
Firstly, I cannot stress the importance of going digital, with a nice big memory card. Macro photos only offer a very limited depth of field (the area in focus) and even your breathing or a gust of wind can knock your subject out of focus. I tend to rattle off up to 30 photos of each subject, knowing that until I get home and look on a big screen I wont know which ones have the best focusing. This is impractical and cost prohibitive for a 35mm film setup.
Can I use a compact camera?
Compact cameras offer great portability, and are considerably cheaper than their SLR counterparts, however they do have drawbacks. Firstly, although many are equipped with a macro (close up) capability, many only do this when shooting at the wide angle end of the zoom range. In other words you may get a great photo, but you will need to be almost touching your subject.
Naturally this is no good for Insect Photography, unless you wish to photograph the flightless varieties. If you do go the compact route, then find one that gives you a good Megapixel range (i.e at least 8 megapixels), and look for a quality brand. Optical zoom is also of benefit, but pay no attention to specifications referring to digital zoom capabilities, as this is little more than software processing.
Don’t be afraid to ask to try it in the shop, and take something along to photograph. A small fishing fly will be good as a start, see if you can photograph it from about three feet away (preferably outdoors in natural daylight), then zoom in on the captured image to check the quality, Poorer quality compacts tend to show colour bleeding and fringing when you zoom in close upon your subject.
What about SLR photography, which Lense should I get?
SLR cameras offer the greatest performance and flexibility for dragonfly photography. While they demand a comparatively high price tag, in the right hands they can deliver excellent results. For my shots I use a Canon EOS 7D with a selection of three lenses: a Sigma 150mm macro lens, Canon 100mm L Series USM Macro and a 300mm L Series Canon prime lense.. The lens is arguably the most important feature, and you should expect to pay the same - if not more for the lens than for the camera body. When shopping for a Dragonfly lens, look for one that is dedicated for Macro (close up) photography. The higher focal length ratings (in mm's) mean you can get further away from your subject to take the photograph (e.g a 180mm will enable you to take photos from a greater distance than a 150mm lens), but costs mount up exponentially with the increase in focal length. If you budget about £1000 for a combination of SLR body and Macro lens you can get a setup perfect for dragonfly shooting.
Remember you get what you pay for; you are probably better with a good brand on a 100mm macro than an unknown brand offering you twice the specification. You may be tempted to go for a zoom lens with Macro capability, which offers a range of focal lengths. However generally speaking, unless you go for a very expensive unit you will compromise optical quality when compared to using a fixed focal (prime) lens unit.
Do I need a flash?
No not really. Most dragonflies are photographed in blistering sunlight in the middle of the summer, but if you fancy hunting some down on a gloomy day or early in the morning then I would invest in one. Forget the on-board SLR flashes, they are not particularly good and cast really severe shadows. If you have a high budget then opt for a Macro ring flash setup, however I have had plenty of success with a regular top mounted flash unit.
What settings should I use?
Personally my advice is to always shoot in fully manual, giving yourself complete control over the camera shutter speeds, ISO and aperture settings. On a bright day, shoot with an ISO as low as possible to avoid ‘grain’, keep the aperture fairly small (i.e. f.7 at the largest) to maximize the Depth of Field (area in focus), and then play with the shutter speed to bring the light meter to just below the balanced setting. I always err on the side of underexposure, knowing I can fix this easier in Photoshop later if necessary. Shooting RAW will also give you greater flexibility when it comes to fixing up exposure problems later on in software.
Don’t be fooled into stopping down the aperture to a tiny f22 in the belief that everything will be in focus. While this works as a general principle it will often degrade the image quality significantly and will rarely give you a workable amount of light. Most lenses have an optimum f-stop setting to achieve best results. The only time I deviate from this approach, is if I am shooting an in flight dragonfly, and then I will look for a high shutter speed (at least 1000) and set the aperture and ISO to suit. Most of the time, my camera is set to: ISO 400, Shutter 800, Aperture 7.1, and I then modify the shutter speed as the brightness of the sun changes.
Do I need a tripod?
A tripod and remote shutter release mechanism form part of you ‘field’ kit bag. There will be times when a happily perched dragonfly will let you move into place with your tripod, and fiddle about extending the legs until you are ready to shoot; in other times it is about spontaneity and you will not have this luxury. A good compromise is to buy a monopod, that can stay permanently attached to the bottom of the camera, and allow access in places where three legs simply wont go. However, some of my best shots have been taken with a steady hand, or lying on my belly!. The bottom line is, a tripod mounted camera will give better results than a hand held one and can allow for slower shutter speeds (good if you want a smaller aperture), so give it a try and see how you get on.