Wildlife and Nature Photography Tip 24- Fencing with the Dragons

Ibis, Cosumnes River Preserve, CA

For those that are not readers, but are more into "info fishing" I have decided to include the technical data at the beginning of each article. My son informed me that my blogs could be TLDR, "to long, didn't read", for some. So for you non-readers:

I changed settings by a stop or two as I worked these subjects. These are approximately what I used for settings for these two locations.

Variegated Meadowhawk - Nikon D610, 150-600 Sigma Sport, hand-held

Green Darner dragonfly - Nikon D500, 80-400 AFS Nikkor lens, tripod

You will be shooting in full sun, so ISO 800, 1/3200, f/8 will be about right.

Dragonfly, Salton Sea, CA

Late in the Summer, the valley heat often ascends above the century mark. You can imagine this sends most people scampering into the cooler realms of their favorite air conditioned chamber. If they are like you and I, that would include a computer with many unedited images sorted and awaiting their final edits.

But for me, my chamber is also air conditioned and much more compact in size. I have a Toyota RAV 4. And during these "dragon hot" days, I am NOT following the rules of shooting in morning and late afternoon, but out hunting for the dragons themselves in the environment they love best - the heat. By the way, this is the same schedule I use for capturing images of lizards in the desert.

The nearby wetlands offer me a multitude of opportunities to observe and capture many aerial invertebrates - dragonflies and their smaller counterpart, the damselfly, being the most commonly observed. While slowly cruising the roads around these locations, I often stop to search for birds that may be resting from the brutal heat. (Ibis photo above) This could be at the edge of the cattails or tules. But this is also the best place for dragons to conduct their daily hunting forays.

Dragonflies are predators, feeding on other insects usually caught on the wing. They have two basic strategies I have observed. The first is what I refer to as "the ambush". A dragonfly will find a specific twig, bent tule or cattail, tip of a rush, etc. to perch and surveying the hunting perimeter(see above).

When they spot a possible target prey, they launch, snatch the organism, and return to the perch to consume them. Oftentimes, they will pause momentarily before they land on the perch. This is where I pre-focus on the spot and wait for them to land.(Photo below, dragon landing).

Dragonfly, Salton Sea, CA

The another hunting strategy they use is what I refer to as the "fly by" strike patrol. This consists of a specific route along the edge of the cattails or a stand of dried weeds. They will travel back and forth over the tops, or leeward water side, in hopes of spotting a small insect flying along the edges...and the pursuit is on. In this second strategy, you will need to either visit the area when the wind picks up a bit, or stand around and observe where they are choosing to hover and hunt during the patrol. There will often be three to four regular spots they stop to hover for a moment before continuing the patrol. I have found that when there is a small breeze they will hover longer in each location.

When choosing a shooting location, try, if you can manage, to establish a comfortable spot with the sun at your back. Dragons photograph well front lit. So lighting is important for utilizing fast shutter speeds.(Photo below)

Green Darner Dragonfly, Cosumnes River Preserve, CA

That brings up shutter speeds. Try to use 1/2000 second, or faster.They are small targets and you will be capturing these from four to eight feet away. I don't suggest using the longer lens any closer as you will lose the Depth of Field so important for this moving target. F/stops from wide open(if you have good glass) to one stop down from wide open are the best.

The focal length is a personal choice. I like a focal length of somewhere between 300 and 400mm. Those lengths do not provide the longer reach of the 500 or 600, but subjects will be much easier to locate and track with a shorter focal length. I also prefer using zoom lenses because in the event of a bird happening by, I can zoom to 600 - providing more reach for isolating the subject. (Like the gnatcatcher below) But let's get back to the dragons.

Gnatcatcher, Salton Sea, CA

This is one of those cases that having the camera settings in" manual" is a real advantage. The background will be constantly changing and your light meter will want to be jumping all over to compensate for the different lighting behind the subject. The insect should be in full sun. Choose a setting. Take a test shot. Look at your histogram. And if it looks good, leave it set there. Now all you have to do is locate and track.

One of other suggestions I always make is to provide yourself with "plenty" of time. You may be lucky and capture shots within a few minutes, but dragons are like people, they have various activity levels throughout the day - and they can change daily as well. If you find that you have plenty of subjects, but they are too active at the date and time you are there, come back the next day if possible.

Of course you'll want to be prepared for the dragon heat. Drink plenty of fluids, wear a hat, and use sunscreen if you are the type of person who burns. I don't use sunscreen. I prefer to use a long sleeved shirt designed for tropical sun and UV shunting.

Don't forget to use the air conditioner every once in a while. After thrusting with the long lens a while, hop back into the car to cool down before another attack. You are out to capture the shot, but you want to enjoy yourself as well.

So you are now ready for fencing with the dragon. Next Summer, when the dragons emerge, you will be ready for the heat and the inevitable capture. It will take time, be patient. And as always, happy shooting!

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