Yesterday I saw my very first dragon of the season when I was buzzed by a single downy emerald at Moors Valley. Today I saw a four-spotted chaser on the fence outside the kitchen window at breakfast time and found several others, newly emerged from my pond and waiting to fly.
However....what an utterly disastrous day to choose! We have had the worst weather in several weeks in the last 2 days and these poor dragons emerged into torrential downpours and gale force winds. I was worried they would be battered and their wings all torn and folded but miraculously most seemed OK. They did take all day before making their first flights, which is unusual but hardly surprising as it was cold too.
The chaser on the fence amazed me as I located the larval exuvia below it on the fence a distance of at least 6 metres from the pond! It had been on an extremely long walk! Here is this chaser and a pull-back shot showing its relationship to the exuvia.
Another emerged onto the stone that acts as the fountain and clung on all day weathering a severe battering. It actually looked stunning covered in rain. My photo gear was getting drowned and the wind meant no fancy lighting setups so I initially used the little Lumiquest mini-softbox on a Nikon SB900 speed light mounted on the camera hotshoe. I later took it off and clipped it onto a tripod leg using a Manfrotto clip fitted with a cold shoe on a ball mount. I triggered the speed light remotely using the Nikon on-camera flash as commander. I quite liked the somewhat high contrast lighting and how the light scattered and reflected off the water droplets. The weather really was dire and I was coming in every 5-10 minutes to dry the camera, flash and Sigma 180mm macro lens as they were literally running with water.
After total downpours which stopped play entirely it eased a bit so I tried a slightly more diffuse lighting setup using a Lastolite Easybox Speed light, which is a neat little soft box 25cm x 25cm in size. It has a double baffle, which loses some light but improves its quality significantly. I bought it a long while back as a handy way of getting better on and off camera flash at weddings and events when working in a hurry, but its just as good for macro. To get the best light I could I moved it very close and sometimes as close as 10cm from the subject, so the light source was much bigger than the subject.
Here is the set up clipped to the leg of a tripod using the neat Manfrotto clamp, which has to be one of the most useful gadgets I have as it can be used to secure off-camera flash at weddings, for macro or anything! The Nikon CLS was great and never failed to trigger the speed light, even when the speed light sensor was on the opposite side to the command flash. This set up is great as it gives directional light, takes all the bulk off the camera and you can move freely around composing images, while relying on TTL for flash exposure.
Here is one of the chaser on the fountain stone showing the light that this set up provides. Its clearly more diffused than the little Lumiquest, but obviously bigger and pricier too.
I located one larva close to the shallow end of the pond that had climbed a stem but seemed hesitant about emerging (can't think why!!). It eventually started to do so late in the day and I got a sequence of images. It happened much slower than normal, probably due to the bad weather and low temperatures. When poor light and my getting cold and stiff from lying and kneeling stopped play, it was still partly within its larval cuticle.
Here is a sequence of images from those I shot. It really was an awkward location being just a few centimetres above the water and among plants, so no chance of getting clean shots at the ideal angle. In fact, the larva slipped down the stem somewhat due to the violent wind and it certainly hung off the stem rather precariously during emergence, as only one leg remained attached! It was amazing to watch and you have to admire these little beasts for what they go through to become a flying adult. I felt rather attached to them and am hoping my subject for this sequence manages to emerge fully, fly away and be a successful adult.
I was shooting in manual exposure mode and mostly with an ISO between 200-400, shutter speed of 1/160-200 and aperture of f8-f11. Normally I would let ambient light register in the exposures and did where there was enough of it, but in many shots the flash was the only relevant light source. This was a deliberate choice as the wind was causing a lot of subject motion so using significant ambient light would cause subject blur at or below flash sync speed. Using flash alone, the flash duration is the effective shutter speed. Even at full power that is in excess of 1/800, but I was using far less than this, so duration was much shorter.
I used the Sigma 180 f2.8 macro lens. Its stunning optically and in many ways it was rather bigger and longer reach than I needed today for many shots, but the stabilisation was very helpful in the wind. The deep lens hood also kept (most) rain off the front element. Due to the poor light meaning higher ISOs and not needing the extra reach of APS cameras, I chose to use full frame for most shots.