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Taking Photos of Dragonflies

Taking Photos of Dragonflies

Summer is the season for many different kinds of bugs in Japan. One of those bugs are dragonflies.

I remember when I was a kid that I knew about dragonflies, but I have no memories of seeing one in real life as a child. I’ve always liked bugs. I remember learning about how fast dragonflies are, what they eat, etc. and looking at pictures of them. Their long bodies, big wings, and big, round, compound eyes were mesmerizing. The only bugs that I had regular exposure to when I was a kid were bees, butterflies, and mosquitoes. Of course, bees and butterflies are interesting, but as a bug lover, my heart yearned for more. After moving to Japan, I’ve been able to quench my bug thirst regulary, especially in the summer time.

There is a nice park near where I live that has some signs showing about 15 or so different dragonfly species that you can see there. Sounds nice to me! I went there with my girlfriend the other day and took some pictures.

There are some challenges with dragonfly photography. My girlfriend had a fisheye lens on her Pentax, and I had my telephoto lens on my Olympus. While it’s not actually that challenging to find dragonflies that will sit still on leaves, grass, rocks, etc., when dragonflies are in flight, they are fast little buggers. Getting close is critical with a fisheye. If your dragonfly is even arm’s length away, it will be far too small in the frame. You have to get within inches of them in order to get your shot. The good news is that fisheyes are ridiculously easy to focus. Put it at f16 and pretty much everything will be in focus all the time. lol

However, the same cannot be said of a telephoto. Although I don’t have to get super close to a dragonfly to get a good shot, when zoomed in, getting dragonflies in focus while they’re flying is nearly impossible.

Dragonflies fly in somewhat unpredictable ways and are very fast, so even if you manage to get one in your sights, and press the shutter button to focus and then take a picture, even if the dragonfly was in focus (which is a big if), between the moment of focus and the taking of the picture, the dragonfly will almost certainly fly out of your depth of focus. Your margin of error is literally razor thin.

I also thought that manual focus would be better for getting in-flight dragonflies in focus, but that didn’t work out at all. I thought that I could set focus and then grab a shot as the dragonflies flew by. However, that plan didn’t work out at all. Depth of focus was just too thin to be useful. Next time, I plan to try using automatic focus. My feeling is that back focus will be a problem using auto focus, but it can’t be worse than manual focus. lol

Although dragonfly movement seems unpredictable, there is some predictability to dragonflies that does assist somewhat in getting a good picture. I noticed that individual dragonflies will tend to fly around in a set area. I’m not sure if they are territorial or they’re simply displaying to get mates, but either way, if you find a dragonfly, it will probably be flying around the same area for a while. If you find one in a good spot, stick around and see if you can get a good shot. That’s what I did for the blurry photos above.

The same is true of dragonflies resting on leaves or rocks. If you accidently spook one while trying to photograph it, stick around for a bit. It’ll probably return in less than a minute.

In the blurry photos above, you’ll notice that some photos have two dragonflies in the frame, and it’s those photos that seem closest to being in focus. The reason is that, when the second dragonfly arrived, the two seemed to slow down, sometimes hovering in place for brief moments. I was hopeful to get a shot during one of those moments, but they came and went quickly, so I didn’t have any time to focus.

Of course, dragonflies will take a break and sit on rocks, leaves, grass, etc. Those are your best opportunities to get good photos. They also don’t spook all that easily. You can get very intimate with them. They aren’t bothered by the shutter noise either, so you can have extended sessions with them.

But, as you can imagine, there are still challenges to face even in ideal conditions. By now, you’ve noticed that focus is a big challenge in photography. Moving subjects, like jumping mudskippers or flying dragonflies, present the biggest challenge, but even getting good focus on stationary subjects can be tricky. Take this dragonfly for example.

This should have been a great picture, but unfortunately, I let my guard down. I thought I could get away with a lower shutter speed (1/80), but even at f8.0, because of a little wind, the shot is blurred. Bummer, dude.

Blur from movement is one problem, but another problem is not getting enough of a subject in focus. My girlfriend took some pictures of the same dragonfly above using a fisheye, so it’ll provide a good point of comparison.

She took this shot a 1/1250, so the shutter speed was plenty fast enough. However, surprisingly, even though she was using a fisheye lens (which will have a larger depth of focus compared to my telephoto lens) at f6.3, because she was so close to the dragonfly, only part of the body is in focus. The middle part and the front wings are mostly in focus, but it’s head and back half are out of focus. Damn.

There are a few ways to overcome this focus challenge.

  1. Increase your aperture. Instead of shooting at f2.8, shoot at f8 or higher.
  2. Change composition. Take the picture at a different angle to get more of the subject in your depth of focus.
  3. Focus stacking. More on that later.

If you increase your aperture, you will get a larger depth of field. For example, take a look at another shot my girlfriend took.

She took the photo at f29 with the fisheye. Even though she is quite close to the dragonfly, it and its environment are largely in focus.

…Or are they? There are limits to how much you can increase your aperture before you run into new problems. Here is a side-by-side of two photos taken at nearly the same angle. On the left is the one above (ISO 3200, 1/1250, f29), on the right is another picture (ISO 640, 1/4000, f4).

Something you probably notice is that details in the wing are more defined in the picture on the right. In fact, the dragonfly on the left seems to be in focus and out of focus at the same time. There are a couple of reason. One, the Pentax my girlfriend used doesn’t handle noise very well. At ISO 800 and above, noise becomes a serious issue. It will blur the details and reduce the color accuracy and definition. On top of that, at high apertures, light diffraction will reduce the sharpness of the details. F29 is near the upper limit of the Pentax’s maximum aperture, so it’s unsurprising that sharpness in the details has been lost to diffraction. High ISO noise and diffraction combined to drastically reduce the image quality of that photo. That’s why it’s important to know what your effective aperture range is for maximum sharpness.

The good news is that even if the image quality isn’t perfect, it’s still useable. If the photo isn’t too big, you won’t notice the lack of details anyway. For example, that image is perfectly usable for Instagram since most people will be viewing the photo with their phones.

Changing your aperture is one way to get more of a dragonfly in focus, but you can also change your composition. For example, compare these two images.

On the left, the wings of the dragonfly are largely out of focus, but on the right, they are all completely in focus. Of course, whether you like one or the other is up to you. Personally, I like the one on the left more because its wings and body aren’t very interesting, but its big, blue eyes are very interesting. However, sometimes the more interesting part of a dragonfly is its wings, like the photo near the top of the dragonfly with black and rainbow-colored wings. It’s actually the same species of dragonfly (they’re butterfly dragonflies), but depending on the angle you look at them from, the color of their wings changes. You can only see those colors from that angle, and you can only get the wings completely in focus from that angle, so the composition is perfectly appropriate for displaying those colors.

Well, they aren’t completely in focus. They are a little blurry along their edges. But, how do you fix that? With what’s called focus stacking or focus bracketing. Since this post is already too long as it is, I’ll cover focus stacking in my next post.

How to take pictures of mudskippers

How to take pictures of mudskippers

Last weekend, I visited the mudskippers again, this time with my girlfriend. We both came prepared with our telephoto lenses and proper outdoor-wear.

Micah taking pictures of mudskippers.

Takae smiling while preparing to take pictures of mudskippers.


One challenge faced when taking pictures of mudskippers is the fact that they look like mud, and mud brown is not a very inspiring color. Of course, mudskippers by themselves are interesting and fun to watch, but after you see about a hundred photos of them, they start to blend into each other. So, to make things interesting, I’ve found that taking pictures of them at golden hour helps make them more interesting. The brown mud takes on both blue and orange tones (blue in the shadows and orange in the highlights). It makes for more drama and interest. So, we went at around sunset for a photo session at the bridge I wrote about before.


Camera Settings

Getting interesting light isn’t the only challenge. From past experience, I’ve found that getting mudskippers in-focus is actually more difficult than you might imagine. There are several factors that contribute to the difficulty of getting mudskippers in-focus.

  1. Shutter speeds. Mudskippers move surprisingly fast in short bursts, so you need a high shutter speed to prevent motion blur.
  2. Depth of field. Shooting with my Oly 40-150mm f2.8 is fun, but even when shooting mudskippers far away, when they jump, they often jump out of focus. It’s also a problem when trying to get two battling mudskippers in focus.
  3. Both are compounded by the necessity to stop down and reduce shutter speeds at sunset or before sunrise (when the most interesting lighting occurs).

Shutter Speed

Slightly blurry mudskipper, taken at 1/800.

This photo was taken at a shutter speed of 1/800, which I though was more than enough when I was shooting that day. When I got back home and checked my pictures, I found that many of my pictures looked blurry. Bummer, dude.

To get ride of the motion blur I was getting, I had to increase my shutter speed to 1/2000, much higher than I expected.


No blur, taken at 1/2000



But, of course, even at 1/4000, if the mudskipper jumps out of my depth of field, it will be blurry all the same.

Mudskipper jumping out of depth-of-focus

Even stopped down a bit to f4.0, shooting at 150mm gives me very little wiggle room. I pre-focused on this mudskipper in anticipation of a jump, but it quickly jumped out of my depth of field. This happens regularly with mudskippers, and the only choice you have is to stop down some more, or hope that they stay in your depth of field.


It could also be the two mudskippers go to battle over territory or a nice lady mudskipper, and while one mudskipper is in focus, the other is just a bit out of focus. Notice how the face of the mudskipper in the water is in focus, but the face of the other one is out of focus a bit? It’s just in front of the depth-of-focus. In this case, my only option would be to stop down to give them some room to tussle.


But, if you are increasing your shutter speed and stopping down, then naturally you have to increase your ISO to compensate. When I first tried photographing mudskippers, I thought that an ISO of 200 would be possible since I was outdoors in “good light”. However, I found that at golden hour, an ISO range of 640-1600 was necessary. I would like to stop down some more, but ISO 3200 is really the upper limit in the useable range of ISOs on my OMD-EM1. The good news is that at 640-800, image quality is still excellent and noise is not a big problem.

So, if you go taking pictures of mudskippers, you should expect to use the following settings:

  • Shutter speed: 1/2000 or above
  • Aperture: f4 or above
  • ISO: 640 or above, depending on your camera’s high iso picture quality.


Mudskipper Behavior

If you go at the right time and get your camera settings right, you’ll definitely increase your chances of getting good photos, but there are still a few more challenges. It’s fun to take pictures of mudskippers scooping mud into their mouths or just hanging out, but those don’t usually make for the most interesting pictures. You want some action, right? But, even when you are absolutely surrounded by rolly-polly, flippy-floppy, hippity-hoppity mudskippers, it’s actually surprisingly difficult to have your camera on the right mudskipper at the right time.  Mudskippers don’t yell out, “I’m gonna jump! Get ready!”, the just suddenly put up their fins and go for it. They also don’t usually jump more than a couple of times before stopping for a break or returning to their burrow. So, how do you get the right moment?


  • Be patient. Yes, there are many mudskippers everywhere else fighting and frolicing, but you aren’t gonna get anywhere constantly reaiming your camera and trying to get the action in focus. Take your time, and focus.
  • Mudskippers that have jumped around during the breeding season are likely to jump again, as long as they aren’t bothered. So, if you see one jump and stop, just wait for it to jump again. It might be a few minutes.
  • When there are lots of mudskippers out, some will be roaming around in search of food, opening up the chance of a fight as the roaming skipper goes into another’s territory. So, if you see one moving around, just keep an eye on it for a while. If you see it approaching another mudskipper, you may have only a short window to capture the moment of conflict. Usually, roaming mudskippers aren’t looking for a fight, so they’ll quickly run off.
  • Those roaming skippers might go in and out of their burrows. Keep an eye on one if you notice it doing that. You might be able to capture some interesting moments as they enter or exit their burrows.
  • Sometimes mudskippers will engage in protracted territory conflicts or fight for breeding rights. They might fight for 5-7 seconds, separate for a while, then go back at it again several more times. If you see two skippers fight for a long time and then separate (but not too far away), then you should definitely observe those two for a while. It probably won’t be long before they fight again.


If you do things right, you’ll get lots of nice photos of our muddy friends.

Meeting the Mudskippers

Meeting the Mudskippers

Now that the breeding season has begun for the mudskippers, I decided to go try taking pictures of them yesterday morning. Timing for taking pictures of mudskippers is a bit difficult because you can’t see them until low tide. The breeding season hadn’t started until about a week ago, and low-tide hasn’t been at a good time until yesterday morning, so I had been waiting patiently.

But, yesterday was the day. I woke up extra early, strapped in, and rode off to the Ariake Sea and visited the mudskippers just as they were coming out of their under-mud burrows.

This was my first time coming to this area of the Ariake Sea. Like I wrote before, I’ve been to the neighboring dock. I was excited to finally be able to go to that bridge and take pictures, but I was surprised by one thing: the bridge was covered in mud. Because of that, it’s quite slippery. You practically have to waddle like a penguin to avoid taking a dive in with the skippers.

Another thing I didn’t know about was what the mudskippers were going to be like early in the morning. At 5:30, when low-tide was at 4:54, there were only a few mudskippers outside their burrows, all of them the younger ones. I think they were probably feeling a bit stiff, because none of them were jumping around. However, I did find some that were digging their burrows out of the mud. You can tell where there is some fresh digging going on because there are holes with darker mud, in the shape of pills, scattered around the edge of the hole.

As the sun rose over the horizon, I realized that I needed some face protection, so I went back to my bike to get a towel. On the way back, I noticed the crabs in the area scurrying back into their burrows when I walked by. I decided to wait for them to come back out and watch what they did. All of the young crabs would raise and lower their claws, like they were powering up or in a Baptist church, lifting their appendages up to their crabby god. I haven’t done any research on them, so I’m not sure why they do that. I’ve been told it’s to show off how strong they are, but I can’t confirm.

After finishing my short visit with the crabs, I went back to find a few of the adult mudskippers starting to wake up, but they weren’t ready to perform just yet. So, I enjoyed hanging out with the young early-birds.

However, I did get a few glimpses of the adult males giving their performances. It was tought to catch them in the act because they would only just a couple of times and then stop, often going back into their burrows.

One challenge of taking pictures of mudskippers jumping around is making sure the shutter speed is fast enough. The picture above is a bit blurry, even though my shutter was at 1/800. I was expecting that to be high enough, but clearly it wasn’t. In this case, I have a few options to increase my shutter speed: open my aperture some more, or increase my ISO. Opening the aperture is okay, but then the mudskippers might skip out of the plane-of-focus before I take the shot, so usually I like to stop down a bit to give myself some breathing room. In this case, I should have bumped my ISO from 200 to 400 or 800, but I thought 1/800 would be enough so I didn’t really think about it. I’ll have to remember that early morning, to get high shutter speed shots, I need to increase my ISO.

However, I did get one good shot of a skipper doing some skipping. One of the benefits I got from waking up in the morning was getting to use Golden Hour’s light. Also no problems with shutter speed since I was shooting into a bright reflection.

Looks like a scene straight out of a shojo mudskipper manga. Keep skipping, big guy.

After my short photo-session, I rode my bike to work. Unfortunately, Mr. Google sent me up a mountain, so my legs are killing me today. I’m resting today so I can have a longer session tomorrow morning. I’ll need to bring some water to wash down my shoes.