Approaching insects to photograph them

Started Jul 14, 2008 | Discussions
SteB
SteB Veteran Member • Posts: 4,505
Approaching insects to photograph them
4

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 http://forums.dpreview.com/forums/read.asp?forum=1029&message=28616620

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.

Gautam Majumdar Forum Pro • Posts: 13,264
Re: Approaching insects to photograph them

Thanks SteB for this very useful advice and technique. Waiting to see your webpage on this subject.

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Gautam

Ray in NC Regular Member • Posts: 181
Re: Approaching insects to photograph them

I'll have to practice your techniques! Much thanks.

oldfartwitha5d Senior Member • Posts: 1,477
Re: Approaching insects to photograph them

Very clever! It sounds like a good plan and I'm looking forward to try it out. Many thanks for taking the time and effort to post this!

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tleasa Forum Member • Posts: 51
Re: Approaching insects to photograph them

Hi,

As far as dragonflies go, I also find them to be creatures of habit. Often they will find a perch that they like and return to it time after time.

Thanks for the great post.
Terry

John A Richmond Regular Member • Posts: 199
Re: Approaching insects to photograph them

I'll agree with all that Seb has written. Dragonflies are very sensitive to movement, especially sharp movements towards them which their brains are primed to see as predator approaches. Damselflies tend to be a little less sensitive in my experience but both need the careful approach described if you are stalking them.

Most dragonflies are also fairly territorial and will often return to the same perch after a quick patrol of their territory. With observation you can often work out where this is and get set up in position. I noticed this Libellula depressa constantly returning to the same spot and even though I only had my 50mm macro I got a number of decent shots.

Some butterflies are territorial but they don't tend to use the same perch time after time so often your best bet is to find a good feeding spot and wait. However there are times when they throw caution to the winds and don't care how close you approach. I captured this mating pair of small whites in my garden. The background isn't as good as I would like - but I've only resized and sharpened for web use. 50mm macro again.

Mind you, sometimes you get lucky. I was by a garden pond a couple of weeks ago and this Aeshna dragonfly decided to lay eggs in the pondweed right by the bank where I was kneeling to try and photograph some damselflies. Because I was already there she didn't see me as a threat. 50mm macro - and I could really have done with longer.

SteB
OP SteB Veteran Member • Posts: 4,505
Part 2

Obviously what I've described only works when the dragonfly has settled. This is quite easy to use with damselflies or the smaller dragonflies that tend to perch a lot. However, it is obviously a bit more difficult with the larger hawker type dragonflies such as the one in the photos that don't settle as much. I realise that I forgot to describe what you need to get close to them.

The basic problem when trying to photograph the larger ones that fly a lot is waiting for them to land. This is time consuming. Often they can fly for a very long period of time and only land briefly. The males hold territories and so can be quite visible around water or near to it. They attack other males or other species that come into their territory. This territory isn't a fixed thing, and is generally just a certain distance from wherever they are. Whereas the females stay well away from water until they are ready to mate. You are also far more likely to find the females resting away from water.

There are 2 basic techniques I use to photograph the larger ones. Generally, every 20-30 minutes the large hawkers will briefly land for a few minutes. So I carefully watch one individual until it lands and quickly move in on it. This is difficult and time consuming. When they are fighting with each other it is difficult to keep locked onto the same individual. An ideal place for this approach is a woodland clearing or ride close to water. You can't do it very well close to a lake or pool, because you can't get around to where they land quickly enough.

The second method is to walk around in taller vegetation close to water where they like to rest. Generally, the large hawkers like to perch on taller plants, bushes and shrubs. They normally rest in a vertical position unlike the smaller ones, which tend to perch horizontally. Whilst you will find some resting, they normally see you before you them. However, when one does fly up watch it carefully and it will probably land again. Then move in quickly. You need to know exactly where it is to plan your approach. Often when they land you can't see exactly where they've landed and when you are trying to find them, they once again see you, before you see them.

In the UK anyway I have found out something that I have never read about. Most of the larger dragonflies don't emerge until later in July (there are exceptions such as the Emperor (Anax sp.)). Early in the season it is very frustrating as they rarely land and seem to fly continuously. However, later in the season (from late August on (I have seen them as late as November)) they tend to land far more. So concentrate your efforts in September. In the UK, the Brown Hawker and Common Hawker (Aeshna grandis and juncea respectively) are especially difficult to approach earlier in the season. I have found that Brown Hawkers (A. grandis) are especially difficult to approach earlier on, and often repeatedly fly off when you are as far away as 20-30 feet, 6-9m. It is very difficult to use the technique I have decribed when they are like this because by time you have managed to get close to them, they have finished their rest and are ready to fly again.

Also whilst you can get some good photos early in the morning if you are lucky to find some resting low down (most of the larger hawkers actually roost over night high up on the side of trees so photographing them would be impossible) be aware that just because they are too cold to fly, they are not unaware. You will notice that if they are spooked by you their thorax will start vibrating like mad. They are just warming up their flight muscles and as soon as they reach the right temperature, they take off. Once they start vibrating like this you are not going to get any of those lovely natural light photos of a dew covered dragonfly. So its important to approach them carefully.

Similarly, you will notice that once the sun goes in, all the dragonflies disappear. They do land, but finding where can be difficult. After only a few minutes they can get too cold to fly. However, be aware again, that just because they can't fly, does not mean they are not aware. Damselflies in particular will just drop off and fall into the vegetation if they are spooked by you and they can't fly. When it goes dull most of the dragonflies and damselflies crawl down into the vegetation (presumably so birds can't pick them off). It can be difficult to photograph them like this because there are always grass stems or other vegetation in the way. I carry a small pair of folding scissors to snip off pieces of grass in the way.

Sorry for any typos, but I'm not bothering to proof read it.

SteB
OP SteB Veteran Member • Posts: 4,505
Re: Approaching insects to photograph them

Nice photos. Yes the Broad Bodied Chasers (Libellula depressa) and their relatives are very predictable in resting on sticks or stems overhanging the side of ponds. In fact, if you hold place your own stick over a pond, or even hold on to it, keeping it still, they will settle on it. This is only the males as the females stay away from the water. The females look like huge wasps at a distance and are a lovely brown, yellow and gold colour.

The large dragonfly laying eggs in the pond is a female Emperor (Anax imperator) the largest species in the UK (and I think Europe).

jpr2 Forum Pro • Posts: 15,325
Re: oh, my...

...this is already one of the most interesting threads in a long while here

thank you,
jpr2
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SteB
OP SteB Veteran Member • Posts: 4,505
Re: Approaching insects to photograph them

Thanks. It's certain families of dragonfly that tend to rest on perches. Others species either tend to rest on the ground, or fly continuously and only rest very briefly in taller vegetaion out of the way.

John A Richmond Regular Member • Posts: 199
Re: Approaching insects to photograph them

Thanks for that ID on the Emperor - I don't get that much time and opportunity to go dragonfly hunting and I'm not as clued up on ID as I should be.

Good idea putting together this thread. It will give people a lot of useful info. Might be a good idea to refer to it in the Open forum as well.

SteB
OP SteB Veteran Member • Posts: 4,505
Re: Approaching insects to photograph them

Don't worry there are too many insect species for anyone to know them all. Even the best entomologists are just expert in certain groups. If I remember rightly there are 50-60,000 known species of insect in the UK alone (and even more as yet unrecorded ones). Dragonflies aren't too bad as there are only around 40 or so species in the UK (a lot more elsewhere). However, there are about 16,000 known species of beetle in the UK alone.

pahoo Regular Member • Posts: 379
Re: Part 2

Very interesting and in my experience very accurate. I think the seasonal timing in the Eastern US where I shoot is a little different, but I have gotten my best shots of Darners (probably similar to your hawkers) in September. Fortunately, I shoot in a park that has had 70 different dragonflies sighted over the years and I have started to learn where they can be found in the morning and late afternoon. However, I have found that these "hot spots" can change year to year and also the species vary year to year.

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SteB
OP SteB Veteran Member • Posts: 4,505
Re: Part 2

You're are lucky, we have only got about 40 species in the whole of the UK. You are very right about the hotspots, and that was going to be my part three. I find that where you get sun traps you get a lot of dragonflies concentrated into a small area. Typically, I find that these are circular or semi-circular clearings in woodland or scrub. As you rightly say these hotspots vary from year to year. I think it probably depends a lot on the general wind direction. Dragonflies only really like to fly when it is sunny and still. They tend to avoid wind if they can. So I generally find, that if there is a breeze, and you can find an area sheltered from it, but receiving direct sunlight, these are where they are concentrated.

dtuason Veteran Member • Posts: 4,410
Thank You Very Much! Those Are Great Tips!

Thank you very much.

Those are great tips!

When I was a kid in Manila....I was stupid (I was a kid!)...so I caught dragonflies...different varieties...small ones, big ones...medium sized ones....and really tiny ones...red wings...green wings...etc...

We call the really tiny ones "tutubing karayom" pronounced TOO TOO BING

KUH RUH YOM...."tutubi" means dragonfly..."karayom" means needle....they are really tiny...very fragile...

You are absolutely right! Sideways movement triggers a defensive mechanisim in these dragonflies. Moving forward triggers less reaction...but still be very careful. Moving backward doesn't affect them. Moving forward...do it very slowly.

Thanks for the great tips!

By the way...where can I find them in California? Thanks in advance!

Danny Tuason

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SteB
OP SteB Veteran Member • Posts: 4,505
Re: Thank You Very Much! Those Are Great Tips!

Thanks. I don't know about Califiornia, never been there. That name is interesting because there are no older English common names for dragonflies and they were actually invented in the 20th Century. The only older English names were things like Devil's Darning Needle.

I like your Ghandi quote. One of my favourites is when he was supposedly asked what he thought about Western Civilisation, and he replied that he thought it would be a good idea.

MDeep Regular Member • Posts: 122
Sunlight

This sounds exactly like what I've learned from experience. I loved bugs when I was little and when I took up photography, stalking them came naturally.

I've found the difficulty of stalking bugs on cloudy days and in the shade is noticeably lower than in full sunlight. Obviously this is tied to heat and perhaps visibility. You still can't get reckless and "charge" towards anything, but you can get closer faster as they're less inclined to move around. Applied to RIH (I like the term!), this means you're practicing shorter pauses.

This shot was taken in the woods, with just a spot of light touching the dragonfly.

The thing to note here is the working distance - between 1-2" using a 0.75x diopter setup, similar working distance to using a P&S for macro. This specimen was remarkably easier to approach than the ones just outside the treeline, where I usually have to resort to MFD on my 70-200 to get some standoff distance.

Still need a real macro lens with some working distance! 9-12" inches sounds like a dream compared to what I'm working with.

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Stiefbeen Contributing Member • Posts: 850
Shadow

Putting them in the shadow (by standing in between the sun and the insect) sometimes helps. For example with tiger beetles it works (beautiful insects but you only find them on sunny days and they tend to fly away as soon as you approach them).

dtuason Veteran Member • Posts: 4,410
Re: Thank You Very Much! Those Are Great Tips!

SteB wrote:

Thanks. I don't know about Califiornia, never been there. That name
is interesting because there are no older English common names for
dragonflies and they were actually invented in the 20th Century. The
only older English names were things like Devil's Darning Needle.

Oh! That's interesting!

I like your Ghandi quote. One of my favourites is when he was
supposedly asked what he thought about Western Civilisation, and he
replied that he thought it would be a good idea.

I like it too! I am a big fan of Gandhi! Regarding my signature quote...I don't think he meant to criticize the Christians in a negative fashion. I think it's constructive criticism. But I may be wrong.

I think what he is saying is you can be Christ like even without being Christian. But again...I may be wrong.

Anyway...in my experience...I have seen numerous people who are Christ like...and they are not Christians.

Last...I didn't put that signature to offend anyone here.

Thank you!

Danny Tuason

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Mohandas Gandhi

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SteB
OP SteB Veteran Member • Posts: 4,505
Re: Shadow

I'll have to try that with Tiger Beetles. I was at a site last month where I saw quite a lot of them. However, they all flew off before I could get close. They are beautiful insects and my favourite beetle.

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