Approaching insects to photograph them

Started Jul 14, 2008 | Discussions thread
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SteB Veteran Member • Posts: 4,603
Approaching insects to photograph them

Here is what I promised. To really get what I'm talking about across I need more space and probably to set up a blog or website which I am intending to do. However, for the time of being I'll just start this thread. Please feel free to post your own experience or insight, and I'll do my best to answer any questions.

The photos to illustrate this thread are on

I thought that it would be a good idea to start this thread so there can be a bit of an interchange of ideas with those interested in photographing insects and similar invertebrates. There are some excellent photographers who contribute to this forum. For instance I found JohnK's advice about holding onto the stem of a plant an insect is on with the MPE 65mm whilst supporting the end of the lens with the same hand very useful. So I'll start the ball rolling with my own insight into approaching and photographing dragonflies.

Not only have I been photographing dragonflies for a long time, but I've been interested in them generally. Most of the advice you read on photographing them either tells you to photograph them early in the morning, or to try a slow steady approach. Whilst both these techniques can be useful they are a bit misleading and many people will struggle because of this. Firstly, dragonflies can be very difficult to find when they are not active and in a lot of habitats you will struggle to find any early in the morning. Secondly, whilst the slow steady approach is a good general purpose method of getting close to them, it nevertheless does not work a lot of the time.

I called the technique I developed a long time ago rapid incremental habituation (RIH), not because I wanted to be pretentious, but because that it what it is. It involve incremental steps, with short pauses and the aim is to habituate the dragonfly to you i.e. to get it used to you so it ignores you.

Dragonflies, and all indeed all other animals, see the world very differently than we do. They don't say, oh look there is a person. They are aware of processes, but don't think about things. The problem with the slow steady approach is that it is typical of a predator, and something with exceptional vision such as a dragonfly reacts to this when they see it. They might not always fly off, but they become on edge. When you habituate them i.e. get them used to you, they take no notice of you.

Essentially, what you do is move forward in a small step and pause for about 5-30 secs, then move forward again in a brief movement, then pause again. When you are some distance away you can make bigger steps or movements, but the closer you get the smaller these movements have to be. This is simply due to the perceived angle of movement – it is why you need a higher shutter speed to hand hold a lens as its focal length gets greater, its all down to angles.

Dragonflies, as with most other animals recognise patterns and not things. Swaying branches or non-predatory animals either wave around a central pivot of movement or move randomly. Predators move steadily towards their target. Approaching a dragonfly to photograph it is a predatory movement. So movement up to a certain level is ignored, but movement passed this excepted level or towards the dragonfly alerts it to a possible predator. However, dragonflies don't have good memories, so even if you only pause for a very short while, it sets the clock back to zero for them.

It is also important to understand that side to side movement is more significant that forward movement. So once you are close to the dragonfly even a slight movement to the side, such as lifting your hand to the camera top plate can spook them. However, remember that most of what the dragonfly sees is the front of the lens/flashgun/camera close-up – so keep any movement behind the camera..

The degree of movement you can get away with, how close you have to start using this approach, and how much you have to decrease this movement when you get closer is dependent on the species and particular circumstances. It is a bit of trial and error to find out what works. Once you are in position with the camera keep it still for a few moments. The longer you are there, the more the dragonfly just accepts and ignores you. As my photos show, eventually you can lightly touch the dragonfly, and it will still ignore you. However, any sudden movement or vibration will spook the dragonfly. Okay it's got used to you, but not the sudden movement or vibration.

Unfortunately, without going into lots of detail it is difficult to explain all the thinking behind this. It is no magic bullet and you need to observe the dragonfly or whatever, to adapt it to each situation. You can also use this technique with other insects, and even other types of animals such as reptiles.

Please remember I have barely scratched the surface when it comes to explaining why this works and how you have to adapt it. Also please remember that this is not fool proof. I can give more specific information on how to approach certain species or rather groups of dragonfly if anyone wants it. However, all my experience has been in the UK, so I cannot say how adaptable this is for other species and climates.

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