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 achieve focus compared to more expensive systems.
Many of the older 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.
A couple of years ago, I 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 leery 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 Halloween Pennant below illustrates the image quality possible. Click on the image to view it full screen.
What about shots of odonates you are holding in your 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 shots of hand held odonates (unless you get someone else to hold the ode while you take the photo from a little further away). With the kit I use, I have to carry a second camera for shots of odonates in my hand. 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 or tripod shots, but I have been able to adapt it for use with a hand held camera in the field with a cooperative subject against the right background.
To use this technique 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 and easier to use alternative
In the last year or so, photography has been revolutionized by the introduction of Artificial Intelligence image processing software. You always want faster shutter speeds and narrower apertures when photographing odes. In the past, using both forced you to use higher ISOs which produced noisy images lacking detail. AI has freed us from this. These new programs completely remove noise and restore detail. I no longer hesitate to shoot as high as ISO 6400 and those with larger sensor cameras can probably go higher. This has revolutionized photography by breaking the "exposure triangle" that has dominated photography forever.
I currently use DXO PureRAW as the fist step in my RAW processing workflow. It is completely automatic and produces DNG files that are noise free, sharp and full of detail. I then open these files in Photoshop to complete other processing steps like cropping and color balance. Highly, highly recommended and it is a stand alone program that can be used with any editor. The Halloween Pennant photo above was shot at ISO 1600 and processed in DXO PureRAW.
Topaz Laboratories makes a similar program called Topaz Denoise AI which I used before DXO PureRAW came out. Still highly recommended although it takes some tweaking of sliders to get the best results.
I use my camera in Av mode (fixed aperture mode) with aperture set at f/11. I set my auto ISO range from 1600-6400 and my minimum shutter speed to 1/500. My reasoning for this is below.
As mentioned above, high ISO noise is no longer a problem, so I always shoot with a fast shutter speed, narrow aperture and high ISO. I set the Auto ISO range on my camera to be between 1600 and 6400. I set the lower limit so high to make sure my shutter speed stays high. Many perches that odes use will sway in the slightest breeze, so I set my minimum shutter speed to 1/500 second. I then use Av mode to keep my aperture at f/11 for good depth of field. In Av mode, the camera always uses f/11 and automatically selects the shutter speed and ISO within the ranges given.
Using such a narrow aperture is somewhat controversial. Narrow apertures lose sharpness due to diffraction around the aperture opening. This is physics that can't be controlled and is true of the finest lenses. If you look at lens charts, most lenses are at their sharpest around f/4 to f/5.6. However, I am not photographing a lens chart. I am photographing a three dimensional object. Narrow apertures give more depth of field. I think the overall image looks sharper if I sacrifice some sharpness at the plane of focus for greater sharpness around the plane of focus. This is especially true of dragonflies where the wings blur too much at wide apertures. I suggest you experiment and find the narrowest aperture that gives good sharpness. With my DSLR, I always used f/16 because the larger sensor gives less depth of field.
This advice does not apply to superzoom cameras, like the Canon SX60, with tiny sensors that produce too much noise at higher ISO. With these cameras, it is still is advisable to shoot at the lowest ISO possible.
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.
Although I own and have always been a big fan of Swarovski binoculars, I can no longer recommend them because I disapprove of their business practices. After introducing their new “NL” line of VERY expensive binoculars ($3200), they downgraded the specs of their “EL” line and changed the close focus from 4.9 feet to 11 feet. This is a very poor spec for a still very expensive binocular. They did this deceptively without changing the model number.
Fortunately, Zeiss makes the superb SF binocular which focuses to 4.9 feet in the 42 mm models and 6.4 feet in the 32 mm models. If you are looking for a top of the line binocular, I now strongly recommend either the Ziess SF 8X42 or the Zeiss SF 10X42 Victory binoculars. I have steady hands and use a 10X42, but you might prefer the 8X 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 6.4 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 specific Bioquip parts I use are part number 711GR Collapsible Insect Net (select Green, Collapsible Insect Net and 18" diameter for the three options), part number 7312AA Collapsible Net Handle Extensions (select 12" for the length and you will need five of them) and the part number 7357 Net Grip, Red Plastic.
If you take my advice and buy a long net pole so it can be used as a walking stick, you will find the pole becomes very slippery when wet which can lead to a fall if you are using it for support. What you need is a good rubber grip. After struggling with some inadequate solutions, I recently found the Regrip which is perfect. Unlike others I tried, this is incredibly easy to put on, stays put, looks neat and provides a great grip. The linked size fits Bioquip poles perfectly.
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. They also tend to shrink a little after being dried multiple times so go a little larger than your normal size. Overall, they are very comfortable, reasonably priced and I think they are a great shoe for odonate enthusiasts.
For along time, there was no way to keep track of all your sightings online. That changed with the recent massive upgrade to Odonata Central in March 2020. This website now allows you to enter all your odonate observations online and keeps track of all your lists. You are also contributing your sightings a citizen science project, so this is a great way to go. For those familiar with eBird, it is the same idea but the options for producing personal lists are much more extensive.
If you do not want to keep your list online, some keep their sightings in spreadsheets and others write up their notes in Word documents or even field notebooks. I still 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!). One good brand is Ranger Ready 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.