Tips on Photographing Dragonflies Hand-held

If you’re like me, one of the insect subjects that you may find challenging to photograph handheld is dragonflies. While on a recent tropical holiday I took the opportunity to practice my approach capturing images of these interesting creatures. This article shares some tips on photographing dragonflies.

NOTE: Click on images to enlarge.

Study dragonfly behaviour.

One of the most important things to do when arriving at a location frequented by dragonflies is to take a few minutes to study their behaviour. Like many animals, dragonflies are often creatures of habit, buzzing along the same flight paths, perching on the same branches, and hovering in similar locations. Once you understand these basic behaviours of your subject dragonflies you are better equipped to capture some photographs.

Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikkor CX 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300 mm, efov 810 mm, f/5.6, 1/1600, ISO-320

Often we can be quite excited to capture an image of a perched dragonfly, even if it is not in an ideal position to show off its unique beauty. Dragonflies are fast flyers, and can be extremely skittish. We need to remember that getting any kind of usable photograph is a success!

Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikkor CX 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300 mm, efov 810 mm, f/5.6, 1/1600, ISO-500

Look for unobstructed backgrounds.

Dragonflies are very delicate insects with beautiful, fine details. These are best shown if a specimen can be captured up against a monochromatic, unobstructed background. Look for protruding branches and twigs that dragonflies often use as perches. These are regularly found right along the shoreline of a small pond or very slow moving creek. This type of background will give you the best opportunity for some nice, detailed images.

Choose a favourable shooting angle.

As you can see in the image above, straight side angles can produce photographs that capture good detail of a dragonfly’s body. Unfortunately this angle does not provide a good view of a dragonfly’s delicate wing structure.

Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikkor CX 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300 mm, efov 810 mm, f/5.6, 1/1600, ISO-400

Using a rear shooting angle with a slight pitch can do a very nice job capturing wing details. The risk with this choice of shooting angle is that the tail of the dragonfly may be out of focus depending on the focal length and aperture used. That out-of-focus issue may be a small price to pay for capturing dramatic wing details.

Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikkor CX 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300 mm, efov 810 mm, f/5.6, 1/1600, ISO-320

If that rear shooting angle can be adjusted slightly to one that is shooting downward on the body of the dragonfly, the out-of-focus tail issue can be corrected as you can see in the image above.

Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikkor CX 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300 mm, efov 810 mm, f/5.6, 1/1600, ISO-720

Find even lighting, free of shadows.

It is typically very difficult to capture an image of a dragonfly from a front facing position. Rather than fixate on getting a front view, it is usually more productive to position yourself for a shooting angle that captures a nice, clear photograph showing a lot of wing, back, head and tail detail. Finding nice, even lighting that is free of shadows also helps produce good, usable images.

Capturing dragonflies in flight.

Trying to photograph dragonflies in full flight motion is extremely difficult. You will have more chance of success if you study the dragonfly’s flight patterns and take note of the ‘air space’ where they tend to momentarily hover. It is these split second pauses while in flight that represent your best chance of capturing a dragonfly in flight successfully.

Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikkor CX 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300 mm, efov 810 mm, f/5.6, 1/1600, ISO-500, 20 fps

For photographs of dragonflies in flight, it is even more important to find a shooting angle that puts the dragonfly up against an unobstructed, monochromatic background. Having this type of background gives your camera’s auto-focusing system a higher chance of success.

Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikkor CX 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300 mm, efov 810 mm, f/5.6, 1/1600, ISO-250, 20 fps

Pre-focus your lens.

I strongly recommend pre-focusing your lens at the approximate distance of the ‘air space’ you have selected for your attempt to capture a dragonfly in flight. This tips the odds in your favour by reducing the time it will take your lens to acquire auto-focus on your subject dragonfly when it enters your selected ‘air space’.

Practice eye-hand coordination.

The basic approach here is to wait for the dragonfly to come to you, at the desired angle (i.e. side view), and in the ‘air space’ for the photograph you have imagined in your mind. You will very likely only have a second or so to get the dragonfly positioned in your viewfinder and fire off your image run. It is important to practice eye-hand coordination regularly. Bringing your camera up to your eye at the correct shooting angle vis-a-vis your subject dragonfly needs to become second nature.

Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikkor CX 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300 mm, efov 810 mm, f/5.6, 1/1600, ISO-250, 20 fps

Choose an appropriate frame rate and shutter speed.

How much wing blur you want in your images is a matter of personal preference. The images in this article were captured using a shutter speed of 1/1600 and a frame rate of 20 fps. I shot in Continuous Auto-Focus (AF-C) with Subject Tracking.

You may only get one solid opportunity to get your image burst during an outing. Making sure you have your camera set up properly is critically important.

At 20 fps per second I got repeating wing patterns every 4th image. I also got a little more wing blur than I would have liked with the photographs featured in this article. Assuming good enough lighting, my next attempt at dragonflies in flight would use a shutter speed of 1/2000 or 1/2500 and a frame rate of 60 frames per second.

Photographing dragonflies is one of the subjects I discuss in my Photographing Birds, Bugs & Butterflies presentation that I deliver to camera clubs and community groups.

Technical Note:
All photographs in this article were captured hand-held using camera gear as per the EXIF data. All images were produced from RAW files using my standard process of DxO PhotoLab, CS6 and the Nik Collection.

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10 thoughts on “Tips on Photographing Dragonflies Hand-held”

  1. Hi,
    I recently got the V3 and your blog is such an inspiration. As you have stated many times, you use prefocus, AFC with subject tracking. As I am a beginner, I am having problems with it. First, for BIF, I am not quite sure where and what to use for prefocus . Then use subject tracking seems to be a lot of steps. I need to press ok to activate, move to the subject, press ok again to lock. Then press the shutter to start continuous shooting. By the time I complete these steps, the bird or dragonfly is long gone. I am not sure if I have done something wrong and if you can advise how to improve, it is greatly appreciated. Thanks in advance.

    1. Hi Ruby,

      In terms of what to use as a pre-focus subject it could be anything that is roughly the same distance away as you think your target bird subjects will be. It could be a tree, shrub, a branch… literally anything.

      Cameras are like musical instruments… much of the time you can play them in ways that suit you. I typically choose ‘subject tracking’ in terms of an AF-area mode selection (rather than selecting Auto-area, or Single-point in the menu) when photographing birds in flight. That doesn’t mean that I always choose to engage ‘subject tracking’ by using the OK button. I very often don’t.

      After I pre-focus my lens on something about the same distance as I’m expecting a subject bird, I wait for a suitable target bird to approach. I do not press the OK button. Once the target bird is at the pre-focused distance, if I have a nice clear background, I may choose to engage subject tracking by quickly double pressing the OK button. I then press my shutter release to begin my AF-C run. It takes some practice but this can be done fairly rapidly by simultaneously using your thumb on the OK button and your index finger on the shutter release. If I don’t think I have time to engage subject tracking or if the background is too busy, I fire off my AF-C run anyway and track the bird without subject tracking engaged. My V2s or V3s will typically grab focus very well even if subject tracking is not engaged on the actual subject.

      Not sure if this has helped… or muddied the water further.


      1. Hi,
        Thanks so much for the reply. It has greatly helped. I just need to practice the eye hand coordination more.

        Thanks again

  2. Great shots, especially in flight! When summer rolls around again, I’ll need to try again; I’ve had success with perching dragonflies, but much less with in flight. Your suggestion re pre-focusing seemed especially useful.

  3. This is a very difficult subject to photograph so any advises are very welcome. Thank you very much for the tips you gave.
    The photos are great.

  4. Wow! Totally amazing shots of the flying mosquito hawks! For a few years, there was not many around and I was worried, but last year I saw more of them. Very interesting insects! But I didn’t like them (the dragonfly nymphs) eating so many of my fish’s fry in my summer tubs.

    I like to try getting photos of them.

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