Today I was out playing in the garden with my 4-year old son, when I saw a large hawker dragonfly fluttering clumsily into the hedgerow between us and next door. It was obvious from its somewhat fragile flight that it was a newly-hatched dragon trying to find somewhere safe to rest and gain strength. Close examination showed it was a Southern Hawker, a spectacular and fairly common species in this area.
Now anyone who knows anything about dragonflies will know that finding a species of hawker in a position and condition where it can be photographed is a very rare event indeed. They are normally incredibly active animals, almost constantly on the wing defending territory, finding a mate and feeding. I popped indoors to tack together a macro photography rig and I had the Nikon D600 DSLR and Sigma 180 f2.8 macro lens in the study to hand. I attached the lens and grabbed an SB900 speed light, to which I attached my already assembled Lastolite Ezybox Speed-lite, which is a fairly small, but perfectly formed double-baffle softbox.
The dragonfly had settled in a fairly tight area between the front porch and angled hedge so a 100mm lens would have been more handy, but I managed to get enough working distance with the big Sigma. The IQ of this lens is spectacular on a good sensor.
I had taken a few shots of my son using my Profoto B1 strobes on a light stand earlier on and the stand was still in the hall, so I used this for support and attached the speed light using a chunky Manfrotto spring clamp with cold shoe, which gripped the shaft of the stand.
Using the pop-up flash on the D600 as a commander, I set the SB900 up for remote triggering and the setup worked like a charm even without direct line of sight between the commander and receptor on the speed light.
I tried a variety of angles to vary the lighting but tried to get the softbox as close as I could to maximise the size of the diffuser panel relative to the dragonfly, to give the softest, most diffused, wrap-around light quality. I wanted to make sure I did not generate bright, specular highlights on the shiny exoskeleton, so turned the flash compensation down to between minus 1 and minus 2.7 stops depending on how the TTL flash metered each composition. With the subject in shade and the camera locked into manual exposure mode at 1/200th second, f11 and ISO 100, all the effective light for the exposure was generated by the flash.
I was really pleased with the results and the IQ of the D600 RAW files from the shoot is stunning in terms of detail, sharpness, tones, colour and lack of any noise or artefacts. I was not shooting anywhere near a 1:1 magnification and autofocus gave excellent results. The image stabilisation of this lens is fantastic, not only to help get a sharp image but in steadying for composition and focus too.
Here are a few from the shoot. The immature dragonfly has yet to gain its full colouration and has a vary pale appearance. This little animal was absolutely perfect in every detail, from each hair to every tiny panel in its wings, completely undamaged by the rigours of the life it will lead.
It still amazes me every time I look at a dragonfly like this and think that such a perfect flying machine emerged from a fully aquatic life as a nymph only a few hours before.
I was really delighted to have this opportunity to photograph such a dragonfly in circumstances where I could take my time and even fully control the lighting. Today I was in luck!