Early summer on Westhay Moor is dry and dusty. The main road, if you can call it that leads from the busy mayhem of Glastonbury Festival out to tranquillity and a wilderness full of colour and life. It was just another girly camera day. We don’t do shopping. Our escape is with a pair of boots, a picnic and a selection of lenses. Heading along the track, the first damselflies start dancing around us. Green and brown they hover, taking us in before darting off to the next thing that takes their fancy. Dotted amongst the grasses are small plants. Lovers of the dry, flourishing like frivolous party goers the morning after a rave.
Following the dancing damselflies we are drawn away from the main path. Seeking moisture and shade in equal measure as much as basking sun these darting blue streaks tease and delight. The moor creaks and booms with the life hidden in the reed beds. The harsh call of a coot merges with the boom of a bittern. Instantly over-ridden by the chuckle of a blackbird in the tree tops above. The senses bubbling with sight and sound as well as the distinctive scent that this warm peat moor exudes. Along the edges of the now green and shaded paths the uncurling bracken fronds support the daily activities of the damselflies.
Immersing ourselves in the damselfly frenzy surrounding the lakes showed different stages of life. From basking to gain energy for flight, obelisking to lose heat and the bizarre mating wheel that forms as they reproduce, these jewel encrusted beauties kept our attention. Time and again we were going to leave and move on. Only to be drawn back into the moment. Time is precious, but so is time away from your mind. Watching the damselflies allowed the mind to relax, to unwind and absorb the beauty that these creatures present.
Time and patience are valuable commodities in this busy world, but both provide the results when photographing damselflies. Moving quickly from plant to plant will only scare these tranquil beauties. They flit and fly but need calm from us humans. Sitting and waiting to see what happens will reward you well!
It is essential to have a lens that is long enough to keep your distance. Getting up close is not an option. One small movement and the damselflies will be off, dancing away and laughing at your attempts to get close. I used a 60mm lens for this adventure and it was far too close. I will be back with a longer lens very soon!
It is no good going out to find damselflies! You may get lucky, but your chances are greatly improved if you do a little bit of work. Target a species, research where they live, find out about their behaviour. Out in the field be prepared to get wet and muddy. However, remember to protect their environment, their home.
As with humans, these little critters will all behave differently. Some will enjoy basking, giving you time to compose a shot. Others will pause before being off on their next adventure out. Take time to watch them and learn what individuals do. What is the hurry, this isn’t a quick sprint, it’s a marathon with a planned result.
Get out of bed!
This is a hard one and one that I fail on with mum duties. Early morning may not provide the vast numbers of damselflies seen later in the day. However, getting up early gives better light. It also provides calm damselflies. Roosting in grasses and reeds they are hard to find but easier to photograph. By midday they have warmed up and are literally buzzing.
Control the aperture
Damselflies need to be photographed as a macro subject. Some are less than an inch long. Ensuring that the camera sensor is parallel to the damselfly will make life easy (something that I strive for on a daily basis). If you can’t manage to get the damselfly parallel then at least ensure the eye is in focus. Starting at f/5.6 and working towards f/11 will give a range of images to choose from once you are home and reviewing your attempts.
Getting the correct exposure
I’ve talked about flitting and buzzing. Does that give an indication of the problems with capturing damselflies? They flit, they fly, they don’t stay anywhere for long. To capture these little creatures a fast shutter speed is needed. To achieve this the ISO needs to increase however show some restraint and keep it under about ISO400 to prevent noise creeping in. A tripod can help (although I have a poor relationship with mine!) and taking a burst of images is useful. By taking a burst you will hopefully get one good image amongst the collection.
This is a tough one! You need to be quick and accurate to capture these critters. So why am I suggesting you use manual focus? Well the autofocus will pick out what it thinks you want to focus on. It may be accurate if you are using a tripod, it may not be the same spot once you press the exposure button when you are hand holding the camera. Manual focussing on calm, basking or feeding damselflies will give far better results. Again take the time to just be with the damselflies in their home.
I get it! You are excited. You have found the perfect damselfly mating wheel. You take loads of shots. Just imagine the disappointment when you get home to find a piece of grass distracting you on every shot. Take time to look at the background. Gently move yourself to ensure that the grasses behind complement the image. Using a wider aperture (f/2) will gently blur the background and produce bokeh, especially if there is distance between the damselfly and the surrounding plants.
There are so many choices with these stunning critters. Look at every angle, think of different behaviours, different angles, big picture, part of the damselfly, just the wings, just a mouth, an eye. The list is endless.
Once you get to know the damselflies you can start to understand their behaviour. You will know when they start to get ready to move, when they are basking and will be there a while or when they are about to form a mating wheel. They will all fly in set paths. Take time to watch an individual. Watch their pattern and then focus on the leaf of branch they keep returning to. Waiting for that perfect shot takes time but your patience will eventually be rewarded.
After a morning of ambling around, finding muddy corners to retreat into and lots of great moments it was a slow wander back to the car. It is always like dragging a kid away from the beach. Time to go always comes around far too soon. Reality is hard but memories sustain and feed my enthusiasm until the next adventure and escape from reality.
Geocaching at Westhay Moor
Westhay Moor has a number of geocaches, which combine really well with a walk around the reserve. As always, care needs to be taken as the area is full of muggles. These are a special sub-species of muggle – great at emerging from nowhere as you go in for the hide or watching when you don’t realise you are being watched! The Yellow Trail and Somerset Lacertilia are not within the reserve but so close they may as well be found on the same trip.
A Short Circuit GC4D87T
Home to Roost GC4D85Q
Tower Hide GC4D871
Wind in the Willow GC53KT8
Bittern’s Boom GC53KQ0
The Yellow Trail GC58VBX
Somerset Lacertilia GC58V8Y