First foray into focus stacking macro photographs

August 31, 2015

On 30 August 2015, I spotted a large, mutant damselfly at Huntley Meadows Park. Kidding! It’s actually a small toy damselfly finger puppet that I bought at the HMP Visitor Center gift shop last year.

I used a Raynox DCR-250 close-up filter with my tripod-mounted Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ150 superzoom digital camera to shoot 13 focus layers, moving from front-to-back across the head and thorax of the toy damselfly. The toy was placed on an 8″ square sheet of white 1/8″ thick 40% translucent acrylic plastic. The subject was lighted from the side using a Sunpak LED-160 Video Light, and from below using a Qudos Action Waterproof Video Light for GoPro HERO by Knog. In retrospect, I should have used a third light source to illuminate the subject from the front, such as an off-camera external flash unit.

The Raynox DCR-250 close-up filter is a relatively inexpensive solution that enables my Panasonic superzoom digital camera to be used for macro photography. Set-up is quick and easy — the filter simply clips on the front of the camera lens using a universal adapter, just like a lens cap. I use a 52mm-to-43mm step-down ring to mount the Raynox close-up filter more securely. (See “Editor’s Note” at the end of this post.)

Since depth-of-field is very shallow with a close-up filter, I used Adobe Photoshop CC 2015 to create the following composite image in which the entire subject appears in focus.

Mutant-Damselfly_focus-stack_Ver2

Composite image (13 focus layers)

Look closely at the full-size version of the preceding composite image and you can see the toy is a little dusty — I should have used my Giottos Rocket Blaster Dust-Removal Tool before I started shooting photos!

The Raynox DCR-250, like other close-up filters and extension tubes, reduces the minimum focusing distance between the lens and subject. Each focus layer was taken using 6/24x zoom telephoto at an estimated working distance of six-to-10 inches (~6-10″) from the subject. It’s worth noting the in-camera manual focus digital distance scale incorrectly showed the working distance was between three and six feet!

A toy damselfly finger puppet, purchased from the Visitor Center gift shop, Huntley Meadows Park.

Focus Layer 1 (of 13) | ISO 100 | 29mm | f/6.3 | 1/8s | -0.33ev

The composite image isn’t perfect. For example, the nose seems to be slightly out-of-focus in Focus Layer 1. Also notice there is some “flaring” (for lack of a better term) on the sides of the thorax shown in both Focus Layer 1 and 13 that was retained in the final version. Overall, not bad for a first effort.

A toy damselfly finger puppet, purchased from the Visitor Center gift shop, Huntley Meadows Park.

Focus Layer 13 (of 13) | ISO 100 | 29mm | f/6.3 | 1/5s | -0.33ev

Imagine how cool it would be to create a focus stacked image of a real odonate! Easier said than done. I’m exploring several solutions, one of which seems do-able in the field. In the meantime, experience gained from my “studio” experimentation should help when it’s time to photograph several odonate evuviae I have collected.

Related Resource: Focus Stacking Tutorial for the Panasonic FZ200 and Raynox Close Up Lenses, a YouTube video by Graham Houghton. Two techniques for using manual focus are described in the video. For what it’s worth, I used the second manual focus method in order to fix the camera angle/position (15:52).

Editor’s Note: The generic step-down ring I use is currently unavailable from Amazon. A more expensive version of the step-down ring is available from B&H Photo.

Copyright © 2015 Walter Sanford. All rights reserved.

First Banded Pennant dragonfly (male)

August 29, 2015

Banded Pennant dragonfly (Celithemis fasciata) was spotted during a photowalk around Mulligan Pond, Jackson Miles Abbott Wetland Refuge (JMAWR). This is the first Banded Pennant I have seen in Virginia, although I have seen them in Maryland at New Marsh, Patuxent Research Refuge (North Tract).

A Banded Pennant dragonfly (Celithemis fasciata) spotted at Mulligan Pond, Jackson Miles Abbott Wetland Refuge, Fairfax County, Virginia USA. This individual is a male.

24 JUL 2015 | JMAWR | Banded Pennant (male)

This individual is a male, as indicated by its coloration and terminal appendages. (Female Banded Pennants feature yellow spots along their abdomen.)

A Banded Pennant dragonfly (Celithemis fasciata) spotted at Mulligan Pond, Jackson Miles Abbott Wetland Refuge, Fairfax County, Virginia USA. This individual is a male.

24 JUL 2015 | JMAWR | Banded Pennant (male)

I followed the same individual to several perches on different types of vegetation growing along the shoreline of Mulligan Pond.

A Banded Pennant dragonfly (Celithemis fasciata) spotted at Mulligan Pond, Jackson Miles Abbott Wetland Refuge, Fairfax County, Virginia USA. This individual is a male.

24 JUL 2015 | JMAWR | Banded Pennant (male)

Is that a head-tilt in the following photo?

A Banded Pennant dragonfly (Celithemis fasciata) spotted at Mulligan Pond, Jackson Miles Abbott Wetland Refuge, Fairfax County, Virginia USA. This individual is a male.

24 JUL 2015 | JMAWR | Banded Pennant (male)

See more photos of two other males spotted during the same outing.

A Banded Pennant dragonfly (Celithemis fasciata) spotted at Mulligan Pond, Jackson Miles Abbott Wetland Refuge, Fairfax County, Virginia USA. This individual is a male.

24 JUL 2015 | JMAWR | Banded Pennant (male)

Copyright © 2015 Walter Sanford. All rights reserved.

Male or female Widow Skimmer dragonfly?

August 27, 2015

Widow Skimmer dragonflies (Libellula luctuosa) display sexual dimorphism. Although mature males and females look different, immature males and females look similar. Terminal appendages may be used to differentiate immature males from females.

Step 2. Learn to identify male-versus-female terminal appendagesSource Credit: Five steps to the next level of dragonfly spotting.

This post features photos of two Widow Skimmer dragonflies that appear virtually identical: one is a female; the other is an immature male. The simplest way to tell the difference between the two dragonflies is by looking at their terminal appendages.

The first photo shows a female Widow Skimmer dragonfly perching alongside Plantation Drive in the community of Woodlawn Village (near Jackson Miles Abbott Wetland Refuge), Fairfax County, Virginia USA.

A Widow Skimmer dragonfly (Libellula luctuosa) spotted at Woodlawn Village (near Jackson Miles Abbott Wetland Refuge), Fairfax County, Virginia USA. This individual is a female.

24 JUL 2015 | Woodlawn Village | Widow Skimmer (female)

The last photo shows an immature male Widow Skimmer perching in a small meadow near a vernal pool at Huntley Meadows Park (HMP).

A Widow Skimmer dragonfly (Libellula luctuosa) spotted at Huntley Meadows Park, Fairfax County, Virginia USA. This individual is an immature male.

06 JUN 2015 | HMP | Widow Skimmer (immature male)

Related Resource: Widow Skimmer dragonfly terminal appendages.

Copyright © 2015 Walter Sanford. All rights reserved.

Who knew?

August 25, 2015

Who knew toads are more popular than dragonflies? I didn’t. That is, until YouTube sent a notification that one of my toad videos had reached 1,000 views during the first week in June 2015. 1,561 views as of this writing. Not exactly “going viral,” but hey, not bad for an amateur movie maker like me.

In contrast, the most-watched dragonfly video on my YouTube Channel has 202 views. Go figure!

C’mon, let’s be honest — toads are really ugly! I’m guessing “beautiful” is not the first word you think of when looking at the Eastern American Toad (Anaxyrus americanus) featured in this post. Good “camouflage” is the first word I thought of, so good that I didn’t see the toad until it moved when I almost stepped on it.

On the other hand, dragonflies are beautiful. Makes me wonder why toads are more popular than dragonflies, that is, as measured by YouTube views. I have two theories.

Theory No. 1: Toads are SO UGLY people think they look cool. “Ugly chic,” if such a thing exists.

Theory No. 2 seems more plausible: I’m guessing one or more educators, including classroom teachers and/or science resource teachers, featured my video as part of a lesson/unit on amphibians. I wonder whether it’s possible to see how many views originated from the “.edu” Internet domain.

Related Resource: Toad-ally in love! (Part 1 of 5).

Copyright © 2015 Walter Sanford. All rights reserved.

Black Saddlebags dragonfly (male)

August 23, 2015

A Black Saddlebags dragonfly (Tramea lacerata) was spotted in the hemi-marsh at Huntley Meadows Park. This individual is a male, as indicated by its coloration and terminal appendages.

A Black Saddlebags dragonfly (Tramea lacerata) spotted at Huntley Meadows Park, Fairfax County, Virginia USA. This individual is a male.

05 JUL 2015 | Huntley Meadows Park | Black Saddlebags (male)

It is uncommon to see the broad-winged skimmers from the genus Tramea perching. Dragonflies are classified as either “fliers” or “perchers,” based upon their feeding habits. Black Saddlebags are fliers.

A Black Saddlebags dragonfly (Tramea lacerata) spotted at Huntley Meadows Park, Fairfax County, Virginia USA. This individual is a male.

05 JUL 2015 | Huntley Meadows Park | Black Saddlebags (male)

Black Saddlebags is one of at least five major species of dragonflies known to be migratory in North America. Broad hindwings is an adaptation that enables Black Saddlebags to glide easily when flying. Dragonflies expend less energy when gliding, an aide to long-distance migration. According to the axiom in biology/morphology, form follows function.

Slaty Skimmer dragonflies (Libellula incesta), such as the mature male shown below, look somewhat similar to Black Saddlebags. Slaty Skimmers are “perchers.” Slaty Skimmers aren’t migratory; notice their hindwings are narrower than Black Saddlebags.

Related Resource: A sampler of male dragonfly claspers (Part 2). (See “Skimmer Family,” Black Saddlebags dragonfly.)

Copyright © 2015 Walter Sanford. All rights reserved.

Full Circle

August 21, 2015

A mating pair of Common Green Darners (Anax junius) was spotted at a bioswale near the head-end of the Hike-Bike Trail at Huntley Meadows Park (HMP).

The bioswale was designed to filter the runoff which comes from the parking lot, removing heavy metals, salt, sand, etc. from the runoff before conveyance to Dogue Creek. It is supposed to slowly filter the rain water in 48-72 hours, to clean and purify the water before entering the creek. Source Credit: David M. Lawlor, Natural Resource Manager, HMP.

The pair is in tandem (a form of guarding behavior): the male (upper-right) guides the female (lower-left) to places where she can lay eggs in vegetation (endophytic oviposition).

A mating pair of Common Green Darner dragonflies (Anax junius) spotted at Huntley Meadows Park, Fairfax County, Virginia USA. This pair is in tandem as the female lays eggs by the process of oviposition.

05 AUG 2015 | HMP | Common Green Darner (mating pair, in tandem)

Did you notice the odonate exuvia located on the same reed as the Common Green Darners? Although it’s usually impossible to identify an exuvia from a photograph like the one shown above, I consulted the experts of the Northeast Odonata Facebook group.

I can’t identify the exuvia to species, but I’m pretty confident about the family — Libellulidae, a skimmer. Possibly Blue Dasher, but I’m mostly guessing there. Source Credit: Christopher E. Hill, Associate Professor, Department of Biology, Coastal Carolina University.

A mating pair of Common Green Darner dragonflies (Anax junius) spotted at Huntley Meadows Park, Fairfax County, Virginia USA. This pair is in tandem as the female lays eggs by the process of oviposition.

05 AUG 2015 | HMP | Common Green Darner (mating pair, in tandem)

Eggs may hatch after a few days, or embryonic development may take a month or more. In some species, the eggs overwinter and hatch the following spring. Each egg hatches into a very tiny prolarva that looks like a primitive insect form, quite different from the larva that will succeed it. Source Credit: Paulson, Dennis (2011-12-19). Dragonflies and Damselflies of the East (Princeton Field Guides) (Kindle Locations 407-409). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.

As odonate larvae grow and outgrow their skin, they molt, on average 12 times. The duration of this stage of life can vary from a month to several years, depending upon both species and climate. The last molt, called “emergence,” is the metamorphosis from larva to adult; the “cast skin” that is left behind is an exuvia (pl. exuviae).

The juxtaposition of the exuvia and mating pair in the first photo is a metaphor for the circle of life, come full circle: eggs; prolarvae; larvae; emergence/adult males and females; mating pairs; males guide females to egg-laying sites.

Related Resources:

Copyright © 2015 Walter Sanford. All rights reserved.

A Southern Fortnight, Part 6 – Damselfly reproductive anatomy

August 19, 2015

The Backstory: A Southern Fortnight

For the first two weeks during May 2015, Southern Spreadwing damselflies (Lestes australis) were observed at a vernal pool and nearby drainage ditch in the forest at Huntley Meadows Park. I spotted approximately six males and several females during the fortnight. Their sudden disappearance seemed to coincide with a population explosion of Eastern Pondhawk dragonflies (Erythemis simplicicollis) in mid-May. Eastern Pondhawks, especially females, are voracious predators with a penchant for preying upon damselflies.


The following annotated image illustrates some of the reproductive anatomy of male and female Southern Spreadwing damselflies.

A mating pair of Southern Spreadwing damselflies (Lestes australis) spotted at Huntley Meadows Park, Fairfax County, Virginia USA. This pair is in tandem; the female is laying eggs (oviposition).

08 MAY 2015 | HMP | Southern Spreadwing (mating pair, in tandem)

The following annotated image illustrates some of the reproductive anatomy of a female Southern Spreadwing: two cerci (sing. cercus), superior appendages that have little or no function; two styli (sing. stylus), structures that serve as sensors in egg positioning; and an ovipositor  (shown above) that is used to insert eggs into vegetation (endophytic oviposition).

A Southern Spreadwing damselfly (Lestes australis) spotted at Huntley Meadows Park, Fairfax County, Virginia USA. This is the female member of a mating pair, resting after laying eggs (oviposition).

07 MAY 2015 | HMP | Southern Spreadwing (adult female)

According to Ed Lam, author and illustrator of Damselflies of the Northeast, “male Southern and Sweetflag cannot be separated in the field.” It is possible to reverse-engineer a positive identification based upon a single key field marker for female specimens of the two species: Southern Spreadwing females have a much smaller ovipositor than Sweetflag Spreadwing females, as illustrated in the following references.

Sidebar: Damselfly Hook-up and Copulation

After a male damselfly grabs a female with his claspers, he transfers sperm from the genital opening under the ninth abdominal segment (S9) to his hamules, shown above, located beneath the second abdominal segment (S2). Next the pair forms the mating wheel, then the male transfers sperm from his hamules to the female through her genital pore under the eighth abdominal segment (S8). The beginning-to-end process is shown in the following still photos and two-part series of videos.

Digital Scans:

Related Resources:

Copyright © 2015 Walter Sanford. All rights reserved.

Eastern Amberwing dragonflies (female, male)

August 17, 2015
An Eastern Amberwing dragonfly (Perithemis tenera) spotted at Huntley Meadows Park, Fairfax County, Virginia USA. This individual is a female.

05 AUG 2015 | Dogue Creek | Eastern Amberwing (female)

I prefer the subtle coloration of female Eastern Amberwing dragonflies (Perithemis tenera), like the one shown above.

Some people like the gaudy coloration of male Eastern Amberwings, such as the one shown below.

An Eastern Amberwing dragonfly (Perithemis tenera) spotted at Huntley Meadows Park, Fairfax County, Virginia USA. This individual is a male.

29 JUN 2015 | Barnyard Run | Eastern Amberwing (male)

Both individuals were spotted either in or near Huntley Meadows Park.

The female is perching in a field located just south of Dogue Creek, near the head-end of the Hike-Bike Trail.

Step 3. Spend time in the field, literally. Take time to look carefully. Search fields near water (sometimes far from water) where you may find immature- and female dragonflies. BEWARE of chiggers and ticks! Source Credit: Five steps to the next level of dragonfly spotting.

The male is perching facing Barnyard Run, waiting for a hook-up with a female.

Copyright © 2015 Walter Sanford. All rights reserved.

Glamour shots: Painted Skimmer dragonfly

August 15, 2015

Two new additions to my “Odonart” portfolio are showcased in this post. Please look at the full-size version of the following photographs in order to appreciate the exquisite beauty of this dragonfly.

A Painted Skimmer dragonfly (Libellula semifasciata) spotted at Huntley Meadows Park, Fairfax County, Virginia USA. This individual is a female.

22 MAY 2015 | Huntley Meadows Park | Painted Skimmer (female)

The beautiful model in this photo set is a female Painted Skimmer dragonfly (Libellula semifasciata), perching in a small meadow near a vernal pool.

A Painted Skimmer dragonfly (Libellula semifasciata) spotted at Huntley Meadows Park, Fairfax County, Virginia USA. This individual is a female.

22 MAY 2015 | Huntley Meadows Park | Painted Skimmer (female)

Copyright © 2015 Walter Sanford. All rights reserved.

Tiny Dancer

August 13, 2015

Family Coenagrionidae (Narrow-winged Damselflies) is comprised of 14 genera. Three genera are common in Northern Virginia: Argia (Dancers); Enallagma (American Bluets); and Ischnura (Forktails).

Several species of Argia are relatively common in Northern Virginia parks: Blue-tipped Dancer and Variable Dancer are featured in this post; Blue-fronted Dancer was featured in a recent blog post.

Blue-tipped Dancer

The first photo shows a Blue-tipped Dancer damselfly (Argia tibialis) perching on a sandy beach in the stream bed of Dogue Creek, Wickford Park. This individual is a male, as indicated by its coloration.

A Blue-tipped Dancer damselfly (Argia tibialis) spotted at Dogue Creek, Wickford Park, Fairfax County, Virginia USA. This individual is a male.

05 AUG 2015 | Wickford Park | Blue-tipped Dancer (male)

Variable Dancer

The next photo shows a Variable Dancer damselfly (Argia fumipennis) perching on vegetation along Dogue Creek, near Huntley Meadows Park. This individual is a male, as indicated by its coloration.

A Variable Dancer damselfly (Argia fumipennis) spotted at Dogue Creek near Huntley Meadows Park, Fairfax County, Virginia USA. This individual is a male.

05 AUG 2015 | Dogue Creek | Variable Dancer (male)

The last photo shows a mating pair of Variable Dancer damselflies (Argia fumipennis) spotted at Huntley Meadows Park (HMP). The pair is in tandem (a form of guarding behavior): the male (upper-left) guides the female (lower-right) to places where she can lay eggs in vegetation (endophytic oviposition).

A mating pair of Variable Dancer damselflies (Argia fumipennis) spotted at Huntley Meadows Park, Fairfax County, Virginia USA. The pair is in tandem.

05 AUG 2015 | HMP | Variable Dancer (mating pair, in tandem)

It’s helpful to get shots of mating pairs in tandem, since males and females of the same species can look quite different.

Sidebar: Scientific Classification of Damselflies

The following concise explanation of the scientific classification of damselflies is provided to help the reader understand where Argia (Dancers) fit into the bigger picture of the Order OdonataSuborder Zygoptera (Damselflies).

There are five families of damselflies in the United States of America, although only three families occur in the mid-Atlantic USA: Broad-winged damselflies; Narrow-winged damselflies (a.k.a., Pond Damselflies); and Spreadwing damselflies.

Family Calopterygidae is comprised of two genera.

Family Coenagrionidae is comprised of 14 genera. Three genera are common in Northern Virginia: Argia (Dancers); Enallagma (American Bluets); and Ischnura (Forktails).

Family Lestidae is comprised of two genera.

  • Archilestes (e.g., Great Spreadwing)
  • Lestes (e.g., Slender Spreadwing, Southern Spreadwing, Swamp Spreadwing)

There are relatively few genera of Broad-winged Damselflies and Spreadwing Damselflies. In contrast, there are many more genera and species of Narrow-winged Damselflies — more species, including many that look similar, makes this family the most challenging to learn!

Editor’s Note: Please comment to let me know whether the preceding information is helpful.

Related Resources:

Copyright © 2015 Walter Sanford. All rights reserved.


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