High-speed nature photography
In order to use natural light, I needed very bright backgrounds that included, for example, reflections in the water or the setting sun.
The arrival of high-speed digital sensors changed everything, increasing the opportunities for using natural light in ultra-rapid photography. To get the best out of them, I had to abandon the small-size sensor (APS-C or DX) and move to the 24x36mm. With this type of sensor, 200 mm f/2 is still an attractive option for some atmospheric shots. The soft blurring effect that the lens provides magnifies the environment around the dragonfly, and that’s a key aspect of my images.
To take closer shots while retaining a comfortable working distance, I needed to find a more powerful telephoto lens, without sacrificing luminosity in favour of magnification. Against all expectations, my choice of the 400 mm f/2.8 turned out to be ideal. Indeed, the latest generation of this type of lens, available from Canon or Nikon, offers relatively low focusing distances. For example, the Nikon model can focus at only 2.8 metres, which is equal to a magnification ratio of 0.17. This is the ideal compromise between magnification and working distance. Although it’s somewhat extreme, it’s certainly the dream lens for photographing dragonflies in flight!
400 mm f/2.8: the dream lens for dragonflies
The size and weight of this telephoto lens mean that a learning phase is required. I therefore increased the number of working sessions in the field, with static subjects, in order to learn to control the rendering, especially in the blurred areas. I initially used natural light, then added flash to see whether the 400 mm presented any particular constraints. In this way, I learned that, in order to obtain a really clear back-lit shot, I might have to place a flash directed towards the lens more than six metres away from the camera. Fortunately, these flashes can now be remote-controlled without using a cable, so you don’t need to move to adjust a setting. The beauty of the rendering by the water’s edge, especially with the light back-lighting the dragonflies, meant that I had no hesitation in choosing this extreme focal length.
My first few sorties into the field also showed me that I needed to adapt the tripod to the size and weight of the telephoto lens. After a few comparative tests, I opted for a Gitzo Systematic carbon 6X series 3 tripod that offered an interesting compromise between the rigidity of the legs, sturdiness and weight. I don’t use a centre post as I like to work very close to the ground. The choice of a joint adapted to using this heavy telephoto is also of prime importance. If you want to retain maximum freedom of movement, the best choice is without doubt the pendular joint. The most successful solution in terms of ease of use is the Wimberley II head. It’s particularly smooth and precise in its movement, and also takes up least space. It also requires you to use a dedicated tripod for your telephoto lens. It’s therefore not always the best choice for all photographers. As I wanted to use my tripod with a wide variety of lenses, I decided to compromise and combine the biggest joint from RRS (Really Right Stuff) with the Wimberley Sidekick.
A new problem arose during my early attempts to photograph dragonflies in flight with the 400 mm: one of the qualities of my light barrier turned against me and made life very difficult.
The light from the lasers that I use disperses instantaneously as soon as it touches an object of any size, even if it’s transparent. A thin leg or a transparent wing will release the shutter without fail, which is fine in normal conditions. But it doesn’t work if you try to photograph dragonflies with a 400mm f/2.8! The depth of field is so short that it’s essential that the dragonfly’s head triggers the camera. I therefore needed to slightly diffuse the light emerging from the laser, then adapt the electronic shutter control speed.
Despite these improvements, the success rate with the 400 mm is still much lower than with more conventional techniques; here are a few figures that will help to put the effectiveness of this equipment into perspective. Over a complete season, from spring to autumn, I only managed to take around thirty successful photos at 400 mm on full aperture. Each of them required an average of three or four days’ work and approximately 350 shots. When I started with the 400 mm, I even wondered whether I was on the right track after a series of dreadful failures, and whether I hadn’t gone beyond the bounds of reason! It just goes to show that it’s important to persevere when you’re involved in nature photography, and you need to know how to overcome an inevitable loss of morale!
A stunning bokeh !
When I chose the 400 mm f/2.8, I’d hoped to discover new atmospheres created by the combination of natural light and flash. My work in the field showed that the qualities of the high-speed 24x36 camera body were closely linked with those of the lens. The ISO setting became an exposure parameter in the same way as the aperture and shutter speed. I therefore selected speeds of between 200 and 1600 ISO without worrying about image quality. This allowed me to concentrate on the backgrounds when using mixed lighting. An outstanding bokeh is not just down to lens quality. You also need to choose the viewpoint carefully to magnify the background. It’s important that the background should be made up of elements at different distances behind the subject in focus to avoid images that are to smooth and uniform. The back-lighting is very interesting as it produces particularly graphic transitions in the blurred areas.
Compared to a standard macro lens, the 400 mm f/2.8 allows you to use a wider frame without having a problem in highlighting the main subject. This is extremely useful in taking photos of insects in flight. As in sports photography, fast action is made clearer if the framing leaves space in the direction in which the subject is moving. It places the animal in its environment and helps to give a clearer understanding of which way the dragonfly is moving. We too often tend to link lenses directly with a single use or specific subjects. In practice, photography doesn’t comply with and standards: anything is possible, the only limit being the photographer’s imagination. It’s also fascinating to explore new avenues, such as that of placing an enormous 400 mm in front of little dragonflies in flight.
The ultimate lens
After more than four years of practice in the nature with the Nikkor AFS VR 400 mm f/2.8G to catch dragonflies on the wing, it seems that this lens is the ultimate tool for high-speed photography when combined with the FX sensor of the Nikon D3 and now with the D4. At the end, the question is : Is there no more interesting lens to be released in the future for my very specific use ? To be honest, I made a dream. The specification of this impossible lens I have in mind are simple. It is a Nikkor AFS VR 300 mm f/2G featuring the closest focussing distance of 2 meters. Will Nikon turn my dream into reality ?
400 mm f/2.8
The dream lens for dragonflies
The 400 mm f/2.8 : the dream lens for dragonflies in flight.
The flash control unit SU-800 lets trigger flashes without any wire.
The unique Ai-S Nikkor 300 mm f/2. is the widest telephoto lens ever produced.
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