Flashing a damselfly

Flash isn’t everyone’s cup of tea but when it comes to small subjects like this damselfly then it can prove incredibly useful, writes Andrew James. There’s nothing special about this little damsel, it’s one of the common and tiny electric blue damsels you see everywhere. Common maybe, but still absolutely beautiful and well worth photographing. I’ve never been one to ignore the ‘common’. Photograph what you can see on your doorstep – just do it well!

In one of our recent Buzzcasts, Jon and I talked about photographing insects – I think we were talking about butterflies specifically – and how important it can be to find them early in the morning when they have not yet warmed up. Well this article reiterates this point, plus I want to emphasise the importance of opportunity when it comes to photography, particularly nature photography. You snooze, you sometimes lose! I realise that we are coming towards the end of ‘insect’ season as the weather is becoming increasingly autumnal but there are still plenty about and actually, they are likely to be less active for even longer giving you more photography time.

This is where it was perched (below) when I spotted it at about 7.30am. I have a very small pond in my garden purely for the wildlife and that attracts visitors like this. They don’t stick to the pond area either which is why I wasn’t that surprised to see it nestling among one of the flowerbeds. Being not much more than 2 – 3cm long and hidden in a particularly dense patch of flowers in my garden I was amazed I spotted it at all. Okay, the image doesn’t look like it’s in heavy vegetation but trust me, it was. There was only a small gap in the plants to poke the lens through and I nearly decided it wasn’t actually possible to photograph it at all!

Hidden right in the middle of a vegetation I nearly decided I couldn't photograph it at all.

Fortunately I love a challenge so nipped in, grabbed my camera, a 100mm macro lens and some other bits and pieces and the old grey matter started working. The sun was not yet illuminating this area of the garden so the damselfly was cold. It was moving, just a little, so was clearly in the process of waking up. When I looked at the image (above) on the LCD it looked flat and dull. Actually, it looked like the image above as I’ve done nothing to attempt to improve it.

The problem was, without any better natural light falling onto the insect I was a bit stuck. This was about the best I could do. I thought about trying a reflector, probably a silver one just to bounce whatever light was there back onto the insect’s body but there was no way I could angle it among all that vegetation and anyway, cold or not, the sight of a large and round circular reflector being wafted about was going to scare the bejesus out the damselfly.

My next option was a daylight-balanced LED light. I use these a lot as a continuous light source when shooting video and one of them positioned carefully would certainly have worked and given me a ‘what you see is what you get’ preview. Trouble was, I didn’t have one handy and there’s always a chance they’ll warm up the insect a little and therefore reduce shooting time. There was only one thing for it – old fashioned flash! With the improvements in LED lighting, flash is losing some of its appeal but I knew this was exactly what I needed to bring about the result I wanted. But, I needed it off-camera. This way I could control the angle of the light and its intensity simply by moving it back or forward.

By the time I had assembled what I needed – my flashgun and my Elinchrom flash triggers – the light had actually improved a bit. The trouble was, it was illuminating the background but not the insect. This actually made a non-flash shot even trickier, so I decided to stick with my plan, which was…

Position the flash and flash receiver on a little mini Gorilla tripod. This meant I could carefully place the light source right in the middle of the flower bed, slowly and carefully so I didn’t disturb my target. I angled it roughly at 45 degrees so that it wasn’t too directional. I also put a Stofen diffuser over the flash head, to soften the light further still. It’s just a white plastic cap really, but works a treat.

The receiver went into the hotshoe of my camera (5D MkIII), leaving me free to move however I wanted, and as the insect was in such an awkward space, this meant contortionist-style manoeuvring to get a good composition.

3 The flash was set to manual. I always do this when time allows. I just wanted the flash to kiss the front of the damselfly, crispening its form and giving a more 3D appearance, therefore helping it to stand out from the background. I set it to just an eighth power, then took a test image. The relatively low power of the flash did its job immediately. I wanted it to look natural and it did.

After a little exposure tweak I took this shot with the camera set to 1/160sec at f/8 and ISO 400. The now, more mobile insect had shuffled around so I had a different background to play with. But the balanced flash and the illumination along the body was just what I was looking for to take that first dull shot to a new level.

The little bit of backlighting was helping to bring out the hairs on its back and I moved the flashgun a few times just to get the illumination I wanted. By now the air was warming and my little friend was starting to warm up, too. However, it seemed reluctant to leave the shelter of the flowerbed so even if I disturbed it by moving the flashgun it would settle down again. This allowed me to get the next two vertical images. They have a slightly different background and there were a few leaves masking part of the damsel’s long tail but I quite liked the effect this gave. Anyway, there wasn’t anything I could do about it. I switched to f/5.6 just to limit the depth-of-field behind the insect as the backdrop was potentially more cluttered. By making sure I was as parallel to the damsel’s body as possible, the first two-thirds of eye, thorax and tail are sharp.

I liked this shot but felt that, at f/8, the background was just too sharp and slightly distracting. It moved again....
An aperture of f/5.6 blurred the background a little more.

With some good images on the memory card I could start playing more with my composition as long as my little friend allowed me. I tried this head-on shot with the body falling out of focus. Focus is absolutely on the eyes with the flash positioned slightly to the left of the subject but relatively head on. The background here is actually the lawn! The aperture is back up to f/8, but of course the distance from eyes to thorax is a long way in macro terms!

A change of angle is always worth exploring.
Stronger natural backlight balanced nicely with the flash on the front of the damsel here.

I couldn’t get parallel for this photo so lit it head-on so the eye and thorax really punched out those greens and blues. Yes, the main tail falls out of focus, but I like the shallow-focus effect. After taking this shot, I nipped in to put the kettle on and when I came back my subject was gone.

The final flashed image from the session.

Looking at the EXIF information there is one hour and 10 mins between taking my first unflashed shot and this final shot. I didn’t rush, just took my time and had fun. I never changed the flash power from an eighth power and simply altered its effect either by changing its distance and direction or the aperture of the lens. After every image I checked the Histogram to be sure that all detail was being retained. Considering that a) I nearly didn’t notice it at all, b) when I did I thought it was in too difficult a spot to shoot, and c) after taking my first shot I didn’t like the result, I am very happy with the fact I managed to get a good sequence of insect images. And all this was done by making an early start and seizing the opportunity.

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