The ancestors of today’s dragonflies, 325 million years ago, had wingspans of up to 30 inches. They’ve have been much easier to photograph!
Today, the order Odonata includes dragonflies and damselflies and goes back about 250 million years. They’re predators, considered beneficial by us because they eat mosquitos, flies and other irritating pests (not telemarketers, unfortunately). And they’ve hardly changed in all that time: the dragonflies that buzzed around the dinosaurs looked pretty much like those of today. Like sharks, they’re perfectly evolved for what they need to do and evolution considers them a finished work.
Dragonflies and damselflies have some obvious differences:
wings held horizontal at rest
very large eyes
back wings wider at base
wings held against body at rest
long, thin, tubular body
Here’s a dragonfly – a whitetail ‘skimmer’ – with all those distinguishing characteristics on display:
And here’s a damselfly (note the wings held against the body). That crazy extended abdomen looks most interesting when photographed at a clean right angle with everything in focus.
The beautiful Ebony Jewelwing is also a damselfly. I find these in trees down by the creek. Males are iridescent in the late day sun.
This handsome green darter dragonfly is actually wet. He’s just emerged from the juvenile aquatic stage, and needs to dry his new wings in the sun for a while. Then, he’ll be instantly airborne and hunting.
Photographing dragonflies is more about patience and luck than chasing them with fast autofocus; in fact most of these shots were done with a 100mm manual focus macro lens. At times dragonflies are hyperactive, as they snag prey out of the air. At other times they rest, and most times – they’re just not around. When one is resting, you might get surprisingly close – and their sudden decision to leave probably isn’t related to anything you did. If you’re getting ready to shoot one and it takes off, don’t give up – they’ll sometimes circle back and land again at the same spot.
For this photo I was able to move in slowly and quietly, and shoot a few frames for “stacking”.
There are thousands of species of dragonfly. Each has some degree of specialization in its preferred habitat and prey, so you’ll find them on different plants, and at different times. You will always feel you’re in the presence of an alert and purposeful hunter. They’re never boring.