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Dragons In Flight Tutorial

dalantech's avatar
By dalantech
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Given the choice I’d much rather shoot dragonflies on the ground, but there are some species that always seem to be in motion when I’m out with the camera. After a few attempts at shooting them in flight, and a lot of trial and error, I found a way to take shots of airborne dragons that seems to work pretty well –at least for me ;) Hopefully there will be something in this tutorial that you can use or adapt to your own style of shooting.

I don’t have a high end camera so my 40D only has nine auto focus points. Since I’m into composing with the view finder and will not allow myself to crop there never seems to be a usable auto focus point –the critter is rarely under one of them and the camera is much more likely to lock onto the background. So with the auto focus turned off on a 250mm macro lens (the 180mm L + a 1.4x teleconverter) I set the focus ring on my lens somewhere between the 2 and 5 meter mark –the critter is going to have to be close otherwise it’s going to look too small in the frame.  I have the phrase “Clockwise gets close” stuck in my head, since turning the focus ring clockwise will bring the focus point toward me…

I set the camera to manual mode and either F5.6 to F11 depending on how much natural light is in the scene and how close the subject is to the background -higher Fstops will give you more detail in the background and sometimes it can be distracting. One of my best dragon in flight shots from last year was with the Fstop set to 5.6. I want to keep my shutter speed at or higher than 1/640 of a second since I’m hand holding a long lens (forget the 1/focal length rule for this type of shooting –it doesn’t work) and while looking through the lens in the general area where I expect to take the photo I want to see that the light meter is hovering around the -1 EC mark. I’ll adjust the ISO as necessary, but it’s pretty common for me to shoot natural light close-ups at ISO 400. NoiseWare Professional is extremely good at removing sensor noise and preserving detail, and for this type of shot I don’t need to see every lens in the dragon’s compound eye anyway.

Lately I’ve been using a 580EX II camera mounted with a 1/8” grid (to keep from throwing light everywhere) and with a ¼ CTO gel (to warm up the light from the flash). Since I’ve got an 81A warming filter on the lens I can turn what would be a rather harshly lit scene into one that looks more like it was shot in the early morning or late evening. Adjusting the white balance in post does not have the same effect, but if you don’t want to use the warming filter then you might not want to use the CTO either. In post you’ll have two completely different light sources (harsh ambient and warm flash) and there won’t be much that you can do to fix it.

I have the flash in E-TTL mode without any flash exposure compensation and it seems to work really well for subjects that are at least one meter from the front of the lens. Closer than a meter and I’m usually at -1 FEC or more. The reason for using the flash is simple: In post I’m going to raise the exposure and the gridded flash causes the subject to be exposed at a slightly higher level than the background.  When I raise the exposure I can keep the background darker relative to the subject and it makes the dragonfly “pop” off of the page. I can also keep the background under exposed a little to keep the colors saturated –so that mid day sun doesn’t look like mid day sun…

Now all I have to do is wait for the dragonfly to get within range and hover, and I can usually tell where to stand by watching its feeding habits. Most insects are creatures of habit and dragonflies are no exception –they’ll get into a pattern of stopping in certain places. Once the critter hovers I quickly course focus the lens by turning the focus ring and then fine tune the focus by slighting moving my body back and forth. I refocus for every shot and I take, and I delete a lot of frames…

In post I raise the exposure, bump the contrast, sharpen the image with the auto focus option in Elements (easier to use than USM –less of a chance that I’m going to over sharpen the photo), run NoiseWare to remove sensor noise, adjust the levels to set a black point,  add my copyright info to the EXIF data and save the image.
A tutorial on shooting dragonflies in flight.
Comments43
anonymous's avatar
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BeautifulGav's avatar
Thanks heaps!, … of course it is pouring down in Brisbane at the moment and I want to go out and try. I really appreciate these tutorials.
dalantech's avatar
dalantechHobbyist Photographer
You're welcome :)
Toothrot's avatar
ToothrotStudent Photographer
Very good tutorial :-)

But that “Clockwise gets close” is only right for Canon!
Every other brand has the directions the other way round.
dalantech's avatar
dalantechHobbyist Photographer
Thanks :)

Doesn't everyone shoot with Canon?! Just kidding ;)
Toothrot's avatar
ToothrotStudent Photographer
Haha! Not every one ;-)
Though you might get the impression sometimes.. bad thing most the people who don't know a thing about photography will choose a Canon though an other brand might be better for their needs..
dalantech's avatar
dalantechHobbyist Photographer
I'm honestly not a Canon fanboy -I shoot with a Canon camera only because there is no other lens like the MPE-65mm macro. If there was a Nikon equivalent then I'd probably switch...
Toothrot's avatar
ToothrotStudent Photographer
Well for you it is a difference. You actually shoot with some kind of a pro lens.
Those Canon lenses are some fine piece of work, there is no doubt, as soon as you go for the expensive ones.
But everyone new to the topic will say: "Hey, all the pros are using Canon - so I'll have to get a Canon, too, to be able to get good photos"
And then they will buy a Canon in the lower price category where Canon is not outstanding from the other brands. Most time you will have better offers in the low budget area of photography than a Canon..
dalantech's avatar
dalantechHobbyist Photographer
Agreed!
WhiterDeath's avatar
Thanks for this, i should be able to use it soon... and some day i hope to own a Canon 180mm macro :]

i must ask though, does the 180mm lens perform well with the 1.4x extension?
dalantech's avatar
dalantechHobbyist Photographer
The 180L works very well with Canon's 1.4x teleconverter -plenty sharp! The only drawback is that you lose a stop of light so the view finder looks a little darker.
WhiterDeath's avatar
Oh okay, thanks for that.

That was the main issue i was wanting to resolve :D
ouwdiy's avatar
its an great tutorial,so glad theres some one still want to share and teach another,thank you so much..i love it...
dalantech's avatar
dalantechHobbyist Photographer
Thanks for the feedback :)
ouwdiy's avatar
thank to you sir..
ouwdiy's avatar
thank to you sir..
gonjonjokos's avatar
[link]
[link]

The pictures were cropped a bit.
I was using my EF4-5,6 Canon lens 70-300 mm. The hardest thing was focus. The first shot the autofocus was on centar image, the other manual. I had few second to do the shots.
dalantech's avatar
dalantechHobbyist Photographer
Well done!
PhotoLust's avatar
This tutorial has been collected in *PhotoLust's favourites gallery (home of loads of brilliant tutorials) and has also been featured in November's journal. Thanks for making such a great resource!
dalantech's avatar
dalantechHobbyist Photographer
Thanks for the feature!
Rhodaur's avatar
Rhodaur Photographer
Heya!

I was just going trough the deviations that are found when using "dragonfly" search term, and your in-flight photos caught my attention. Nice photography, and I'm adding this one as a :+fav: to make sure I'll find it and your gallery when i have more time in my hands...

But by first glance, nice pics.
dalantech's avatar
dalantechHobbyist Photographer
Thanks :)
Adi-Emus's avatar
Adi-Emus Photographer
very useful tutorial, John :thanks:
thank you to share your lore with us :wave:
dalantech's avatar
dalantechHobbyist Photographer
Thanks for the feedback :)
anonymous's avatar
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