Photo Insight with Heather Angel

Heather Angel talks us through her shots of a dragonfly emerging from its larval casing and explains how you can find interesting images close to home

An internationally renowned photographer of the natural world and author of more than 50 books, Heather brings her expertise to AP.

One of the most successful and productive environments for macro shots that I have visited wasn?t in another country, another county or even in another street. It was just a few yards from my back door. My garden pond is an incredibly active location that contains all sorts of creatures that can make for some excellent macro images. Over the years I?ve taken numerous shots of things such as frogs, newts and pond skaters. I never know what I?m going find.

I?ll often wander out to the pond first thing in the morning and last thing at night to see if there?s anything that I can photograph. One evening I found a newborn hawker dragonfly just about to emerge from its larval casing, which is otherwise known as a ?shuck?.

Dragonflies tend to mate in the air and then the eggs are deposited in water, which on this occasion was my pond. The slender larvae then hatch and crawl up the nearest vertical object that is protruding from the water. In a pond location this will generally be reeds or flowering plants. Dragonflies don?t tend to emerge in the heat of the day because their bodies are very delicate and they would find the heat intolerable.

If you look at the first image of the dragonfly bending back and emerging from the shuck (see above), you can see that the wings are incredibly small and scrunched up. Once the dragonfly has emerged, it bends forward and attaches its legs to the casing where it pumps air into its wings. It?s mesmerising to watch the wings gradually enlarge. By the time the dragonfly has finished, the wings are fully formed and stretch right down to the full length of its body (see below).

For these shots I used a Nikon F4, which is a 35mm autofocus SLR, with Kodak Ektachrome 100 film. The lens was a Micro-Nikkor 105mm f/2.8. I?m sure regular readers of my Photo insight columns will know by now that this is my lens of choice. I set up my camera on a tripod and fortunately the dragonfly was close to the edge of the pond so I was able to position myself quite near it. The light was fading fast, so I had to make sure that my equipment and settings were just right. As there was no direct light on the dragonfly, I used off-camera flash ? a Nikon AF SB-24 TTL Speedlight ? to bring the image to life and introduce some vibrancy.

It?s not immediately obvious that I?ve used flash, but the small highlights peppering the body of the dragonfly provide a subtle visual indicator. There?s nothing worse than seeing a macro shot where the flash is overpowering. The green background is a lovely even tone so I metered for that and underexposed the flash by 1.7 stops. That gave me the coverage and light that I needed.

I set my shutter to 1/20sec and the aperture to f/8, which gave the image a nice blurred background. That shallow depth of field is important when working with macro because it emphasises your subject and makes it a little more three-dimensional, although it helps if your background is relatively uncluttered as well.

You could argue that using 1/20sec is risky. In macro photography, even the slightest movement of the subject is revealed, but in this case there is a lot of time where the dragonfly is doing nothing and allowing itself to become accustomed to its new form so 1/20sec is ideal. If I had been using a digital camera, I could have increased the ISO, given myself a fast shutter speed and not risked any visible noise. When I was using film, though, I hardly ever went above ISO 100.

If you would like to photograph dragonflies, now is the time to start looking as they generally come out in warm weather. You?ll find hawker dragonflies in most garden ponds as long as the water is clear and unpolluted, and there are lots of reeds and plants sticking out of the water. If you?re really hawk-eyed, you can study your pond and look for the abandoned shucks. Obviously, you?ll have missed your opportunity with those particular dragonflies, but their presence tells you that there are dragonflies using your pond. You won?t find an abundance of newborn dragonflies, but if you?re lucky and patient you might just get the shot you want.

Heather Angel was talking to Oliver Atwell

To see more images by Heather visit or Heather regularly runs workshops at the British Wildlife Centre. For information on courses run by Heather and her son Giles, visit