Tuesday, August 09, 2005

ENV: Photo hints from a pro

This great post was on the se-odonata listserv and i asked for permission to reprint it here. Thanks May!

I just wrote this to help someone on one of my digital photo lists. I
hope it helps someone. -- May Lattanzio

Photographing Butterflies, Damselflies and Dragonflies

Most of my photography is macro and done with a Sony DSC-F717. I'm out
with my camera in all sorts of weather now (mostly hot and humid), but
recently in the rain. I've discovered the magic of a baggy and a rubber
band to protect my camera. It is somewhat difficult, but not impossible
to know if you're focused. A golf umbrella would be a good thing to
bring along. Maybe someone who reads this will come up with an
ingenious way to attach the umbrella to the photographer so you don't
need three hands.

Because I live in Florida, where it's very buggy, that's where I first
got my experience shooting bugs, especially butterflies, dragons and

Here are a few things to remember, but the one thing is that insects are
exothermic, meaning they are most active in the heat. My best dragons
are shot between 11a.m. and 3p.m.. The sun is climbing, high, or slowly
dropping, but the heat is still there. Of course, the light is very
harsh at midday and the color will wash out at that time.

Dragonflies - They are territorial. Stand and watch them and you will
find the pattern. Many of the smaller ones have a territory of only
30-40 feet. Don't move much, just watch. You will make mental notes of
the heights that they fly (some stay close to the ground). They will
find perches and return time and again once they get used to you.

Start with taking a long shot. Slowly approach a step at a time. I
take a lot of photos like this using zoom. As you get closer, you can
use your macro. You can get SO close. I have put their little faces
within three inches of my lens, and as long as they become used to you,
it won't matter. You've become safe.

Do dorsal shots first. That is, from the rear, from the top. Slowly
move around to the side, and then to the side of the face and finally
the face. I have noticed that some field guides note posed
individuals. That means the insect has been caught, cooled and placed
immobile on an appropriate leaf or twig. I have never done this, and my
rewards are sharp, clear digital images which are taken very, very close.

All perch differently. Large darners and cruisers like to hang in
foliage near the water. Meadowhawks like to rest in grass blades.
Hallowe'en Pennants are the only ones to perch with their four wings
"askew" and face into the wind clinging to the very top of the tallest
grasses (at least shoulder high on me) in a field.

Just before sunset is a spurt of action. Mosquitoes are gathering then.
Take a breath, stop your heart, depress your shutter halfway to focus,
take your picture.

Damselflies - although they are exothermic, like the shade - dense
vines, lots of potted plants. Because they are so small they hunt where
the air is still. They are cousins of dragonflies and are predators,
too. I just took a photo of one eating a mosquito, larger than the head
and thorax of the damsel. Look in the cooler areas of your garden and
against the house. They seem to be very active before noon and after 2,
especially early in the mornings. They are brightly colored (often
metallic or neon hued) and more skittish than dragonflies. You'll have
to follow along, and have your camera set up for macro. Sometimes they
are hard to detect; a blur out of the corner of your eye. They are not
much heftier than an inch or so of flying thread. Just as their larger
cousins do, they will kill and eat their own, occasionally. I have
witnessed and photographed a Rambur's Forktail eating a newly caught
Southern Sprite.

I just had the wonderful experience of finding a mating pair. I was
walking around six in the morning and in the wet grass saw a male drop
suddenly and come up clasping a female who was hiding. Assuming the
wheel position, the mating lasted for over a half hour, and because they
were occupied, I again took all the macro shots I needed.

They will watch you and try to keep a distance, but they are not fast
fliers. Interestingly, I was wearing a hospital green shirt the other
day, and had a Powdered Dancer decide it had to hunt all over me.

Watch for clusters of minute grapelike clusters. These are water mites.

Damselflies also don't mind flying in light rain or mist.

Butterflies - The large swallowtails are a terrible challenge. Because
of their weight, they need to flutter to keep their proboscis in the
area of the flower which contains the nectar. You can stop their wing
action if you are patient. However, the pattern the flutter makes on
your memory card or film can make a unique exposure. It shows motion -
part of the shot should be clear. Play with the image in your photo
software program.

Butterflies are slightly territorial, but each species prefers certain
flowers. This is key because when they are nectaring, they are
concentrating. Here in Florida and elsewhere in the USA is a wild plant
called Spanish Needles. It blooms at roadsides and is perennial. It
looks like a small, five-petalled daisy. It is an incredible resource
for many insects, not just butterflies. If you can plant some from
seed, so much the better. Our Gulf Fritillaries love that plant, as
well as Buckeyes, Hairstreaks, Monarchs, Tiger Swallowtails, and all of
the skippers. Just move and observe quietly, do not have lens caps
dangling, and you will get your shots. There are many resources
available on butterfly gardening. And remember, the weeds you pull are
really wildflowers.

The butterflies in my yard aren't seen until about 10:30 a.m. I have
watched the sulphurs come down the street (before the road was paved),
in a fluttering parade and come to the garden.

Provide wet sand in drought conditions, set up a sprinkler, use fruit in
a brightly colored dish. Many butterflies like rotting fruit, urine and
dog feces. If you are walking creekside, be ready to see drinking
butterflies. Similarly, if you have livestock, watch moist areas where
urine and dung is deposited. They are there for the minerals.

In the evening, just before sunset, stand in your garden and watch. A
real thrill is to watch a butterfly prepare to sleep. It will fly to a
twig, hold its wings together so that it resembles a leaf, pump the
color from them, and bring their antennae together so that the tips
touch. Suddenly it is lost in the leaves, and can rest undetected.

I use my LCD window even though it is difficult in sunlight. I use
autofocus exclusively. At my age, I rarely use my viewfinder, not
because I can't see through it (it has the diopter feature), but because
with the LCD I don't have to worry too much about composition. You want
to fill as much as the screen as possible with the image you're trying
to catch.

Again, something is better than nothing for identification purposes, and
if I am having trouble, I use the zoom first. Then I switch to macro.

Moths - You might even come across very vivid, day-flying moths, which
are great mimics. They can masquerade as wasps, or bees, but look
closely at their antennae, despite their coloration. Feathery antennae
indicate a moth. Here in August, goldenrod is covered with the metallic
blue and red Polka-dotted wasp moth, spectacular and harmless; the wild
ageratum draws Scarlet wasp moths with "windowpane" wings.

It's nice to record field notes on a small pad, but I usually forget.
If you have trouble identifying an insect, there are endless places on
the internet for help.

Never point your lens directly into the sun, and remember to keep the sun
over your shoulder.

Keep your batteries charged, your shutter speed at 400 and always carry
an additional memory stick. I can use up two sides of a 256 in an

I hope this helps.

May Lattanzio
Bayou George, FL

Freelance writer/photographer
Author: "Waltz on the Wild Side - An Animal Lover's Journal"


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