My favourite kind of bird photography has always been working from a portable hide, moving in close with my favourite lens (300 mm) and spending hours ensconced, an invisible witness to the comings and goings of the birds going about their daily activities without their being aware of being observed. Much of this kind of photography I’ve done at nests, and in the farming environment where we live this is easy as hides can be set up and left for days without interference. Nest photography calls for special consideration of the welfare of the bird and I usually work a hide in slowly over a day or two, initially setting it up some distance from the nest, then moving it in stages. I make a point of not entering or leaving a hide at a nest unaccompanied. Its all old-fashioned, I know, but it is the sort of photography that I like most. Examples of my ground hide are shown alongside; the same hide is also shown here below on scaffolding at a Black-shouldered Kite nest (which is visible in the tree on the right) and there’s another hide pic shown on the “Jackal Buzzard” page. The hide can be set up anywhere, even on a canoe or fisherman’s float-boat, if need be.
Times have certainly changed, though, with the ultra cameras and lenses now available, and getting close to a bird to photograph it is no longer the mission it was. Thus many of my recent pictures weren't taken from hides at all but instead they were taken from a car-window, usually using a bean-bag for support, or else simply hand-holding the camera and approaching the bird slowly. My current camera is the 24 m-pixel Canon 5D mark III and my lens for this is the Canon 500 mm mark II, with or without a 1.4X extender. Who would have imagined, just 10 years ago, that one could get sharp images from hand-holding the equivalent of a 700 mm lens! I do not use call-up to lure birds in - if I can't get within range without harrassment to the bird, I don't get the picture.
I have always used Canon equipment but the lenses and bodies have changed over the years. My early photographs were taken using the 1Ds mark II body (the images taken with this are numbered, e.g. WT21037) and this body was followed by a 40D (the images taken with this are prefixed with a 'D'), then two 50D's (these pics are prefixed with 'E' or 'F'); then a 7D body (its images prefixed with a 'G') and images from the current 5D mk III body are prefixed with an 'H'. I also use flash when there is no light (the Canon 580EZ) and sometimes a flash extender (Visual Echoes Inc). I take all images on RAW + low-res jpeg, and I use these jpegs to do a quick elimination of the (many) dud pictures. I've included in the collection a small number of scanned transparencies taken in pre-digital days, their inclusion here being mainly for nostalgic reasons .......
Photographing perched dragonflies is much easier than photographing birds as these creatures are more approachable than birds, and they tend to remain in one position for extended periods. Also, most dragonflies are only out-and-about when it is warm and the light is good, so bad light is not usually a factor to deal with. The three principal things to get right when photographing dragonflies is to ensure that the background is not distracting, that you have sufficient depth of field to get the whole dragonfly in focus, and that you have the creature nicely lit. A frequent problem is wind and, because dragonflies often perch on flimsy stems, movement is usually the main obstacle to deal with. So there’s almost inevitably a trade-off needed between a high shutter-speed to stop movement and a high f-stop to maximise depth of field. I always use a tripod if I can, and the one I use is a small Manfrotto with a Kirk Enterprises ball-head.
I approach the dragonfly slowly, usually aiming for a side-on, slightly above-angle on the dragonfly, and wherever possible I try and seek out a plain background. Because larger species are less approachable than smaller species, I use the 300 mm lens for them, often with a 1.4X extender (and 25 mm extension ring if necessary).
Dragonflies are often perched in bright sunlight, so I use fill-in flash whenever possible to lighten up the creature’s darker areas. The flash (Canon 580EZ) is set on TTL at -1/3 stop and the camera is set on manual at ISO 200 and 1/250 shutter speed and it uses whatever aperture reading is given by the background. Too much flash results in dark backgrounds which look pretty unnatural in dragonflies.
For the small species (especially damselflies) I use a smaller lens (100 mm or 185 mm macro) and approach much closer, using the camera’s built-in flash for fill-in.
Flying dragonflies are largely a matter of luck, locating an individual that is repeatedly using the same flight path over a water body, setting focus manually on a point along that path and blazing away when it next comes past in the hope that something comes out sharp and in the frame. I use the 300 mm lens handheld for this and I manually set the focus at a point where I think it will fly through, with a high ISO (800) and a high shutter speed (1/1000 or faster). Occasionally luck will have the dragonfly hovering repeatedly at a point and then the camera’s auto-focus (on al-servo) will do the trick.