This article was updated in November 2023 with contributions from Richard Beech and Steve Berardi.
Dragonflies and damselflies are fascinating insects that can be particularly photogenic due to their bright colors and striking patterns. They’re a favorite of insect macro photographers, and when photographed well, the results can be breathtaking.
However, there are several major difficulties when it comes to dragonfly photography: your subjects get scared easily, and it often seems like they just never land so you can photograph them!
Fortunately, capturing great shots of damselflies and dragonflies might be easier than you think! With the right techniques and a bit of research, you can create dragonfly shots like a pro. Here are some of my favorite tips and tricks to get you started:
1. Choose the right equipment
Dragonflies are larger than most other insects, which means that you don’t need a specialist lens to get decent shots; in my experience, dragonflies can be photographed with anything from a point-and-shoot camera to a top-notch mirrorless body. And many of the principles remain the same whatever equipment you use.
That said, while a good zoom lens (in the range of 100-400mm) can produce decent results, a dedicated macro lens has the advantage of providing closer focus for high magnification.
Note: If you are using a zoom lens and you’re not able to focus as close as you like, adding an extension tube will allow it to focus closer and should produce good results. This is a cheaper option than buying a dedicated macro lens.
However, if you plan on photographing dragonflies on a regular basis, a longer (150mm, 180mm, or 200mm) macro lens may be a worthwhile investment; that way, you’ll be able to take frame-filling shots from a comfortable working distance so as not to scare away the dragonflies.
If it helps, I used a Sigma 150mm f/2.8 macro lens to capture many of the shots in this article!
2. Find a good location
During the summer months, dragonflies can be found anywhere there is water. Certain species come to small ponds, while others are found near rivers or streams.
Damselflies are often weaker fliers and tend to stay close to the water’s surface, whereas dragonflies can be seen flying farther away from the water and sometimes perching at eye level.
I encourage you to spend some time researching your native species of dragonflies and their preferred habitats before you go out. That way, when you’re in the field with your camera, you can at least find a few potential subjects on a regular basis!
Also, be prepared to get a bit muddy – you may need to get low to the ground near the water’s edge for good shots. Wear appropriate clothing, and respect the environment that you are working in.
3. Think about the weather
Dragonflies need the heat of the sun to warm their bodies and fly, so they’ll usually be most active on clear, sunny days.
But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t look for them on cloudy days, too. They’ll be a lot harder to find since they’ll generally be perching among vegetation, but they’re also a lot easier to approach since it’ll be harder for them to fly away without the heat of the sun.
Plus, you’ll get soft, diffused light with cloudy skies, which tends to look lovely and bring out plenty of details and colors on your subject!
Bottom line: Different weather conditions have advantages and disadvantages, so experiment and see what works best for your shooting style.
4. Observe your subject in the field
Once you’ve spotted a dragonfly, take some time to watch its behavior. You’ll quickly learn where it flies and where it likes to perch; some dragonflies prefer to settle on the ground, while others like to perch on grass or rocks.
Photographing dragonflies in flight can be pretty tricky, so when you’re just starting out, I’d recommend trying to get some shots of dragonflies at rest.
Rather than chasing a dragonfly around with your camera, I’ve found that it’s better to watch out for a spot where they land, set up your camera nearby, and then just wait. Dragonflies tend to come back to the same spot all day, so as long as you’re patient, you’ll have a good chance of snagging a great image.
If you see a dragonfly perched on a stick, you can try to approach slowly and carefully and avoid sudden movements. You may be able to get quite close. However, if the dragonfly does fly off, remain still and wait for a few minutes. It may well return to land on the same spot. Patience is key.
If you are lucky enough to find a dragonfly that is eating, you may be able to get closer; in my experience, they seem to focus more on their meal than on photographers!
Something that I have tried with some success is to take my own perch – a stick or a reed – and place it near the water, close enough to take some shots should the dragonflies decide to land on it.
5. Get up early
Dragonflies are more active during the hottest part of the day as they require the heat from the sun to warm them enough to fly. And when you’re a dragonfly photography beginner, more activity makes it a lot harder to capture sharp, frame-filling shots.
So if possible, I would recommend going out earlier in the morning, when it is slightly cooler and the sunlight is not as harsh. You may not find as many dragonflies, but those you do spot will likely stay still for longer, allowing for a closer approach.
If you head out first thing, you may even be lucky enough to get a shot of them covered in early morning dew!
6. Control the aperture for sharp images
Sharpness is vital in dragonfly and damselfly photography, and to ensure you get sharp images, you will have to carefully control the depth of field. You will need to have as much of the dragonfly in focus as possible; one way that you can maximize this is to photograph the dragonfly lengthwise.
You see, making sure that the camera’s sensor is parallel to the body of the dragonfly will enable you to use a wider aperture, to blur out any distracting background while keeping the whole of the dragonfly in focus.
Getting such a clear, side-on shot of a dragonfly will not always be possible. In such instances, you can increase the depth of field by narrowing the aperture. I have found it useful to start off with an aperture of f/5.6, then take a series of shots working down to around f/11 or smaller, changing the shutter speeds and ISO accordingly.
Regardless, always ensure that the eyes are in focus and as sharp as possible!
7. Capture lots of photos (from many angles)
One of the most rewarding parts of photographing dragonflies (or anything in nature) is that it gives you an opportunity to look more closely at your subject. There are many dragonfly and damselfly species out there, and they all are worthy of detailed examination.
However, sometimes the only thing that separates one species from another is a few dots on its wings. So it’s good to shoot photos from lots of different angles to help you identify your subject later on!
8. Pay attention to your settings
Getting the correct exposure can be tricky, particularly if you are shooting in bright sunlight. (You will get softer, diffused light by shooting earlier in the day or in slightly cloudier conditions, and this makes exposing correctly a lot easier.) It can be helpful to work in Aperture Priority mode, then make slight adjustments to your exposure by adding exposure compensation as needed.
Even when perched, dragonflies can make a lot of fast movements such as flicking their wings or twitching their heads. Therefore, you will need to work with relatively fast shutter speeds. I would recommend shooting in bursts of three or four frames – when you are reviewing your shots, you may find one is particularly sharper than the others.
You could increase the ISO setting slightly to allow for a faster shutter speed and a narrower aperture, but I wouldn’t recommend going beyond ISO 800 or 1600 to maximize the quality of your images. (That said, some cameras offer astonishingly good high-ISO capabilities, so it’s always a good idea to evaluate your camera model’s capabilities in advance and work accordingly!)
A tripod may come in handy if you’re forced to use slightly slower shutter speeds; however, the locations where dragonflies are found are not always very tripod-friendly. If you decide to shoot while hand-holding the camera, make sure you keep a steady hand, maintain a good footing, and ensure your camera or lens’s image stabilization is switched on (if available).
9. Switch off autofocus
It may surprise you to hear that you will often get sharper shots of dragonflies by switching off the autofocus and focusing manually.
You see, autofocus often struggles when working at high magnifications – so unless you’re capturing a dragonfly that’s small in the frame, it’s often worth using your lens’s MF setting.
At first, this may feel rather difficult. After all, you’ll be focusing using the ring on your lens, which can be quite finicky! But with practice, you’ll find that manual focus is not just possible, but very, very effective.
10. Pay attention to the background
When lining up your shot, pay careful attention to the background. In my experience, an uncluttered backdrop made of a contrasting color or tone to the dragonfly will produce shots full of impact.
However, some damselflies will land in vegetation closer to the water’s surface, making a clean background almost impossible. Larger apertures will help blur out any distracting elements; this works well if you can capture the damselfly lengthwise, as previously mentioned. A wider aperture will also help to produce bokeh in the background (circles of light from out-of-focus highlights), which can be gorgeous (though it does depend on your personal tastes!).
If possible, when selecting a spot to set up, try to place the subject as far away from any potentially distracting vegetation in the background. Moving a perch, or taking your own with you, may help with this!
11. Think about composition
Dragonflies offer a range of options when it comes to composition. It is not always necessary for the whole dragonfly to be included in the frame. If you can get close enough, you could attempt an extreme close-up of the eyes or part of the wings.
Alternatively, you could capture the dragonfly within its surroundings. For example, iridescent demoiselles can look great when perched low down on a riverbank. This works particularly well with slightly larger dragonflies, and as the insect does not have to dominate the image, a dedicated macro lens may not be required.
12. Try to capture some behavior
Dragonflies look great at rest, but if you can, try to capture some of their behavior for unique shots.
For example, damselflies mating can make shapes that look a bit like a heart, which can make for a pleasing image. Or – if you are up for a challenge – you can try to shoot a dragonfly in flight.
For this, I’d recommend using a telephoto lens in the 300-400mm range with an extension tube. Spend a few minutes watching how the dragonfly moves (they often follow the same path repeatedly!). Once you’ve observed them flying, focus on a spot in the flight path and wait for the dragonfly to enter the frame.
There is an element of luck with this type of shot. I have tried on many different occasions and sometimes the dragonfly will vary its flight patterns seemingly at random. Don’t give up, though; remember that patience is key with all wildlife photography! Just enjoy the process of observing and photographing these amazing insects.
Dragonfly photography: final words
Well, there you have it:
Plenty of tips and tricks to help you capture amazing photos of dragonflies.
Just remember that a touch of perseverance can go a long way – and if you stick with it and you follow the tips I shared above, you’re bound to create some stunning photos.
Now over to you:
Which of these tips do you plan to use first? Are there any techniques that I missed? Share your thoughts (and dragonfly images!) in the comments below!