Tools of the Trade
On this page, I discuss all the tools that I use to enjoy and study odonates. This includes field gear, photography equipment, computer equipment and software for keeping track of your sightings and processing your images.
Almost everyone I know who looks for odonates wants to take photos of them. There are many cameras and lenses that take excellent odonate photos. The best cameras for taking photos of wild odonates are those with long telephoto lenses. Insect photography is often associated with short focal length "macro lenses" but these are not a good choice for wary odonates. A lens that focuses to 1 inch (a macro lens) is not going to help you with odonate photos. You need the magnification that comes from a telephoto lens. Close focus is a plus but long focal length is necessary. Photographing odonates is more like bird photography than beetle photography. Below I discuss how my choice of camera has evolved over the years and make some recommendations.
I started with "superzoom" cameras, like the Canon SX60, which takes very good photos and is recommended for those wanting something smaller, lighter, less expensive and less complicated. The main drawback of these cameras is it can be somewhat challenging to acheive focus compared to more expensive systems.
Most of the photographs on this site were taken with Canon DSLRs. The speed, control and image quality of a DSLR is hard to beat (but see below). My most recent DSLR equipment consists of a Canon 7D mk II, a Canon 1.4X mk III teleconverter and a Canon 100-400 mk II lens. This incredible setup gives you the equivalent of a 900 mm f/8 lens that focuses to 3 ft! See the image of the Blue-fronted Dancer below which is nearly full frame. Click on the image to view it full screen. If you can handle the weight (I no longer can), I still highly recommend this kit as probably the ultimate odonate photography system.
Recently I have switched to using a micro 4/3rds camera, the Panasonic G9. The camera/lens combination I am now using very nearly matches the specifications of the Canon 7D mk II set up above with one huge advantage - weight! The Canon 7D mk II combination above weighs 6 pounds. Thats a lot of weight on my old shoulders. My new Panasonic G9 kit weighs exactly half that - 3 pounds! It feels almost weightless on my shoulders. The kit I am currently using consists of the Panasonic G9, the Panasonic DMW-TC20 2X teleconverter and the Panasonic-Leica 50-200 mm f/4 lens. This gives me an f/8 telephoto lens with 800 mm of equivalent focal length that focuses even closer that the Canon (30 inches vs. 36 inches). At first, I was a little leary of the impact of the 2X teleconverter on image quality. I could have avoided this by using the Panasonic 100-400 mm lens but it only focuses to 54 inches. Luckily, the image quality of the Leica optics in this combination with the 2X TC turned out to be superb, easily the equal of the Canon. Autofocus is more accurate and the camera has automatic focus stacking which I am still experimenting with. The only real drawback is the "electronic, non-linear" manual focus which seems useless or at least incomprehensible to me. The more accurate autofocus compensates for this. I highly recommend this kit and the Familiar Bluet below illustrates the image quality possible. Click on the image to view it full screen.
I will also mention another micro 4/3rds kit that has become popular with odonate photographers. This consists of the Olympus OM-D E-M1 mk II, Olympus MC-14 1.4X teleconverter and the Olympus 40-150 mm f/2.8 PRO lens. This is a great camera with superb optics that is also very light weight and focuses to 27 inches. However, it only has an equivalent focal length of 420 mm, half of the kit above. For me, the longer focal length is a must so I do not recommend this kit unless your skill at getting close to odes is better than mine!
What about shots of odonates in the hand? These can be great to show details not always visible in naturally perched shots taken with a telephoto lens. However, of the cameras mentioned above, only the Canon SX60 is suitable for handheld shots. With the kit I use, I have to carry a second camera for hand held shots. I have tried various point and shoot cameras that can slip in a shirt pocket. These are very convenient, but I have never been happy with the image quality, partially because focusing with these cameras at such close range is problematic. Currently, I am using the tiny Canon EOS Rebel SL2, the smallest DSLR made, with the equally tiny Canon EF-S 35mm f/2.8 Macro Lens. Unfortunately, it is not pocket-sized, but it is small and light weight and easy to carry in my backpack. The big advantage is that it focuses flawlessly and has very good image quality. It can take photos of appendages and hamules in the field if your hands are steady.
A great feature of the Canon 7D mk II is that takes photos at 10 frames per second. How could this be important for odes? It is important because it allows me to use a technique called "focus stacking".
The bane of DSLR cameras is limited depth of field. For example, on a dragonfly, the body might be in focus but the wingtips are blurry. Focus stacking is a technique that combines several images focused on different planes to create one image with potentially unlimited depth of field. It is most often used in the studio, but I have been able to adapt it to the field with a cooperative subject against the right background.
To use this techique in the field, I take a burst of images while focusing manually through the subject. I drive my friends crazy because I sound like a machine gun in the field firing off at 10 fps constantly. However, I get a series of images that I later combine manually into one image with great depth of field. Many of the images on this site are actually composites of 4-11 images taken this way. It is especially important for odes when the subject is at an angle and you want to get both the head and the appendages in focus. For example, the image of the Blue-faced Meadowhawk below is actually a mosaic of 4 images. Click on the image to view it full screen.
As mentioned above, I no longer use Canon DSLRs. I have switched to the Panasonic G9. The lenses on this camera do not manually focus like a Canon lens, so they cannot be used in the technique above. The smaller sensor on the G9 gives it somewhat more depth of field than the Canon, so there is less need for focus stacking, but it is still hard to get an entire dragon in focus. Fortunately, the G9 has an automatic focus stacking feature (it actually has two ways to to this, but the one called Focus Bracketing is the way to go). I have only used it a few times, but it seems to work reasonably well on a very still subject. I am looking forward to continuing to experiment with it. Note that the Olympus OM-D EM1 mk II mentioned above also has automatic focus stacking, but, unlike the Panasonic, it cannot produce RAW images with this function, which to me is a big drawback.
The choices for image processing software today are overwhelming. However, many years ago I started using Adobe Photoshop to process my images and have never found a reason to change since it does everything you could possibly want or imagine. I also like Photoshop because it is easy to use. Wait a minute - what did I just say?!? Most people consider Photoshop hard to use, but consider this: If you want to do something in Photoshop and don't know how, then just Google "How do I xxx in photoshop." Hundreds of web pages and YouTube videos will pop up to lead you step by step through anything you want to do. No other program has this kind of support. Nevertheless, there are many other programs that will do a great job processing your photos. If Photoshop is too much for you, I highly recommend Topaz Studio as a cheaper easier to use alternative, especially because it supports the revolutionary plugin discussed next.
Another big advantage of Photoshop is there are lots of plugin programs available to extend its capabilities. For years I have used plugins from Topaz Laboratories. Recently they introduced a plugin called Topaz AI Clear which I consider to be revolutionary and which has replaced most of my other plugins. (It is now offered as part of a different plugin called DeNoise AI, but I prefer using the AI Clear model which you can select when you process your image in Denoise AI.) The AI in the name stands for Artificial Intelligence and it actually does seem to be very intelligent. There is a lot of processing power under the hood in this program. It completely removes noise, recovers an amazing amount of detail and sharpens images in a very natural looking way. It replaces a very time consuming, complicated workflow I used to use and does a better job. Needless to say, highly recommended.
Okay, you spent a lot of money on a great camera and lenses but you are still viewing and editing images on a low resolution laptop monitor from 10 years ago? Do yourself a BIG favor and get a 4K monitor. If you have never viewed your images on one, the beauty and detail will astound you. I use the 27" BenQ SW271 and love it, but there are less expensive options if you aren't as fussy about color space or viewing angles. It is pointless to buy a great camera without a great monitor. A monitor like the BenQ can be plugged into many laptops but works best on a desktop with a good graphics card (which accelerates Photoshop a lot too).
If you need to use a laptop, many today come with 4K screens, but they are not cheap. I have used laptops with both 15" and 13" 4K screens. Both are great, but I am sorry to say you really need the 15" screen (sorry about the weight) for serious image editing.
Anyway, if you don't have a high resolution monitor, stop what you are doing and get one now. Also, don't forget to hardware calibrate it. Datacolor Spyder5EXPRESS is a good choice, but use it with the free DisplayCal Software instead of the included software. Most monitors today come from the factory well calibrated but odes are all about color and you want to get it right.
Close focusing binoculars are a must for watching odes. If you can afford them, I strongly recommend either the Swarovski EL 8.5X42 or the Swarovski EL 10X42 Swarovision binoculars. I have steady hands and use the 10X42, but you might prefer the 8.5X because they are easier to hold steady. Both of these focus to at least 4.9 feet. With the 10X this is like carrying a long distance microscope. The optics are incredible and this allows you to closely examine key characteristics in the field. They are breathtakingly expensive, but they should last you a lifetime. However, they are a little too heavy for some people. A smaller version, either 8X32 or 10X32, is available. Unfortunately, these do not focus quite as close. Nevertheless, if you do not like a full size binocular, they still focus to 6.2 feet, which is still very good, and have the same incredible optics as the full sized versions.
A loupe is another piece of important equipment. It is a small magnifying glass for examining odes in the hand after capture in the field. I have been extremely happy with the Belmo 10x Triplet Loupe which is available here at a reasonable cost.
If you are new to watching odes, you may not want to hear this, but you are probably going to need a net. I resisted this for a long time, but there are many species that can only be identified by examining them in the hand. Sooner or later your are going to realize you need to carry a net. I recommend an 18" net bag with a 5-6 foot net pole. A pole that long allows you to use it as a walking stick and for probing the depth of the mud in front of you as you are wading. Most people, including me, use the reasonably priced and light weight nets from BioQuip. I use the BioQuip Collapsible Insect Net because if folds incredibly well for travel. The net itself folds over to about 6 inches for packing in a suitcase or backback (see photo which shows the net expanded and folded). I buy the pole with five 12" extensions. Again, these pack really well and are suprisingly solid when assembled together. I prefer the green net bag, but only because I feel less conspicuous carrying it around compared to the standard white net bag. Finally, you need to purchase the red net grip for the end of your pole to keep dirt and mud from getting into it. I strongly recommend you epoxy this on to the end of one of your pole sections because it has a tendency to come off when probing into deep mud where you can't recover it. Finally, I epoxy a rubber leg tip over the red net grip. This expands the tip area and makes it more stable when using it as a walking stick in mud. The BioQuip part numbers are 7118GR (18" Collapsible Insect Net with Green Bag), 7312AA (12" Collapsible Net Handle Extensions) and 7357 (Red Net Handle Grip) and are all available from the catalog page here.
It has been hard for me to find good footwear for odonate work. This is because you have to wade into water and mud to find and photograph most odonates. Rubber boots or waders are awefully hot to wear when odes are active. Therefore, most people give up trying to keep their feet dry and do what fisherman call "wet wading". For this purpose, you want shoes that drain and dry quickly. Avoid any kind of waterproofing like GorTex because this will prevent water from draining once it gets in. Sneakers are okay but they don't hold up, provide much support or do much to keep sand and gravel out. I have tried shoes designed for fisherman to use when wet wading, but I haven't found any that are very comfortable for long walks. Hiking boots would solve that problem, but most don't drain or dry very well. However, an exception to this is a shoe that a strongly recommend called the Merrell MOAB 2 Ventilator. This is a very comfortable, light weight, very breatheable hiking boot. It is popular among canoists who, like ode enthusiasts, are in and out of the water all the time. The shoes are sort of hybrid between a sneaker and a hiking boot. They have extensive mesh panels that allow them to fill with water when you step into the water and drain when you step out. The mesh is very fine and does a good job keeping dirt and sand out of your shoes. Unlike shoes with small drain holes, the mesh panels don't clog as easily. The only drawbacks are they don't dry out as quickly as I would like and they get somewhat stiff when they dry after being wet. Overall, they are very comfortable, reasonably priced and I think they are a great shoe for odonate enthusiasts.
Unlike for birds, there is currently no way to keep track of all your sightings online. Some keep their sightings in spreadsheets and others write up their notes in Word documents or even field notebooks. I prefer to use Birder's Diary which is computer listing software. It is definitely old school. There used to be many such programs but only Birder's Diary has survived. It can be used to track your bird sightings, but it also works for a great variety of taxa including odonates. It maintains a database of all your sightings and is very powerful in terms of the searches and reports it can produce. It definitely has a learning curve but their are some good tutorial videos to get you going.
The greatest hazard to looking for odes on the Delmarva Penninsula is exposure to ticks which puts you at risk for Lyme Disease and other tick-borne diseases. The mid-Atlantic has the highest rates of Lyme disease in the county. If you are going to see odes, you are going to have to do some bush wacking and this exposes you to ticks and chiggers. I have found that the combination of long and short acting insect repelents discussed below is reasonably effective. However, you should always check yourself carefully for ticks after any field excursion, remembering that first instar ticks can look like poppy seeds. You should also tuck your pants into your socks and tuck in your shirt so that ticks can't get under your clothes as quickly. Regularly check your clothes while you are in the field and remove any ticks you find.
For repellents I use a combination of permethrin treatment of my clothes and the new repellent picaridin on my skin and clothes. Picaridin is a new repellent that works like DEET but has many advantages. It seems to be as or more effective than DEET, lasts longer, and is odorless, non-greasy and most significantly it does not melt rubber or plastics (like your binoculars and camera!). It is available as an aeresol spray Natrapel Smart Spray and as a pump spray Sawyer Premium Insect Repellent. I spray it on right before heading into a field site, concentrating on my pants, socks, exposed skin and any openings in my clothing. I also use Permethrin which is completely different. It is a long acting repellent that you spray on your field clothes at the beginning of the season. It will last through multiple washes and probably only needs to be applied every 4-8 weeks depending how often you wash your field clothes. The big advantage of permethrin is that it is both a repellent and an insecticide. This means it kills the insects (slowly) that crawl on your clothes making it especially effective against chiggers and seed ticks which can be hard to find otherwise. The safety of all these chemicals is always an issue and you should do some research and make you own decision, but for me the risks of these chemicals are far outweighed by the risks of Lyme Disease.