Dragonfly Photography; and Damselflies Too

Dragonfly photography is one of the highlights of the summer. They are one of the largest and most spectacular insects alive today.

The flying insect we see is just a small part of the dragonfly life cycle. The larval stage can last years whilst time on the wing can be a mere few weeks.

When the larvae are ready, they climb out of the water onto some vegetation where they prepare for one of the most remarkable transformations in the natural world. They emerge as adult insects from their exoskeleton called an exuvia.

If you look carefully at vegetation by water edges you may see the discarded exuvia:

Dragons And Damsels Wildlife Photography

Some people confuse Dragonflies and Damselflies. Dragonflies at rest have their wings spread open. Damselflies are generally smaller with thinner bodies and fold their wings back at rest.

The dragonfly has the largest eyes of any insects enabling it to see forward, behind and sideways at the same time. When perched they are very perceptive of anything approaching.

The damselfly can fly at 10km an hour. The dragonfly is faster at 30km an hour moving forwards, backwards and sideways. They mainly stop and hover whilst hunting because their vision is better when the head is still. This may sound challenging for Dragonfly photography but all is not lost.

Try patiently watching and you’ll find their flight patterns are predictable and you can be ready for when they land.

If you have scared a dragonfly off there is a chance that if you remain still it will return to the same spot.

Exploring Their Mini World

As with any animal the first step is knowing how them. What habitats do dragonflies and damselflies like?

Get yourself a detailed map and investigate ponds and slow-flowing rivers. Why not join a Dragonfly society or go on one of their walks? They will find your photographs useful in their conservation records.

They are most frequently seen from June to August in midday sun and still conditions.

They sometimes perch high up in trees out of camera lens range!

If you really want to put the effort into your dragonfly photography then the best shots will be at dawn or late evening. They’re much harder to find as they will be hiding in grasses as they sleep or wait to warm up.

Take care as a misplaced foot could be fatal for them as they can’t fly away at this time. The covering of dew droplets and lower temperatures renders them still. Add to this the golden light of sunrise and you’ll be rewarded with top dragonfly shots.

Leave the insect as covered as you found it otherwise it’ll be left exposed to predators.

Get the info you need from an illustrated field guide. The photos will inspire you. The information will help you out in the field. Not to mention it’s more rewarding to put a name to the big-eyed faces you’ll be seeing from behind the lens!

A macro lens will get the best hit rate of good images. Dragonflies are big insects so a telephoto will still get good results.


Whilst selecting your position, take care to keep the face of the lens as parallel as possible to the dragonfly. In the first picture the depth of field covers just the head.

By being parallel we haven’t increased the depth of field but we have made sure that it covers more of the dragonfly.

These mating Damselflies are an example of what can happen if not parallel. The top Damselfly is in focus but the bottom one is out of focus.

This was a bit of a grab shot. At the time being on a Dragonfly and Damselfly survey I didn’t have a tripod with me. I wasn’t able to get parallel which shows why you should always carry a tripod if possible.

Check out the difference when the Damselflies are now in the same plane of focus


Shoot into the sun and the dragonfly will be back lit. The most extreme form of back lighting is a silhouette.


Use of back lighting in dragonfly photography


You can even create you own back lighting using an off-camera flashgun. This works even on dull cloudy days!

Use of flash in dragonfly photography

A Bit of Background on Backgrounds

Backgrounds make a big difference in Dragonfly photography.

A nice blurred clean background makes the dragonfly stand out.

Vegetation in the background can be distracting. Often a small adjustment in position can give a completely different background.

This Common Darter Dragonfly is amongst quite dense vegetation.

The lens aperture is wide open, which for this lens is f/3.5. It may be tempting to stop down and get more depth of field on the insect but in doing so the background also becomes more defined:

Because this Dragonly is on a more isolated branch the background is free of distracting vegetation.

Focus on the eye

It’s essential to get the eye in focus. Due to the shape of damselflies this often means that other body parts aren’t in focus. This damselfly is eating an unlucky insect. The “tail” is out of focus but our eyes are drawn to the eyes of the damselfly anyway.

Think about how this would not have worked if the body was in focus and the eyes slightly blurred.

Further Reading

Whilst looking for Dragonflies and Damselflies you’re sure to come across Butterflies and other things to photograph close up.