Astronomer Pieter Van Dokkum Photographs Dragonflies Up Close and Personal
A photographer better known for peering out to the edge of the universe gets up close to depict the life of the amazing dragonfly.
Pieter van Dokkum likes to see things normally invisible to the naked eye.
Mostly they are so far away that he needs instruments like the Hubble Space Telescope to see them. In looking at the farthest edges of the cosmos, he has discovered new stars and even whole galaxies.
But now, in setting his sights on an earthly creature inches from his eye, he has managed to create a photography book that depicts the entire lifecycle of the common dragonfly for the first time.
In the astronomy world, van Dokkum, a native of Holland and professor at Yale University, is best known for his discoveries showing that the universe is vastly more populated with stars than previously suspected. He specializes in the formation and evolution of galaxies, including our own.
For the past decade, when not studying the night sky through telescopes in places like mountaintops in Arizona and Chile, van Dokkum has been traveling regularly with camera and telephoto lens to a small pond outside New Haven, Connecticut, to capture the unseen life of the dragonfly.
Dragonflies and their close cousin, the damselfly, which is generally more slender and rests with its wings swept back, are found the world over—in fact almost everywhere other than the iciest places. Studies of dragonfly fossils show they have probably been around for some 300 million years, and were perhaps nature’s first flying creature. At one time their wingspans stretched up to two feet across. Their double-pair wings make them incredibly efficient air aces, almost never missing when they loop up to snatch their unsuspecting flying prey out of the air. Restless and relentless fliers, as they zoom and hover, loop and flit about, their metallic colors—emerald, black, lavender, yellow—shimmering gossamer wings, and bulbous humanoid eyes give them an alluring appearance, at once gem-like and graceful yet creepily alien.
That is, if you can get them to stay still long enough to observe them closely.
Very few of us have. That’s why van Dokkum started snapping pictures. Before he set out with camera in hand, nobody had managed to compile a complete photographic record of the entire dragonfly lifecycle, from underwater larvae through metamorphosis, hunting, mating, egg laying, and on to death.
The dragonfly project took him to 50 different sites in the United States and Europe, though most of his photography took place around the Connecticut pond. The beautiful and informative results are displayed in a new small coffee table book, Dragonflies: Magnificent Creatures of Water, Air, and Land.
I’ve known van Dokkum for a few years. We emailed back and forth about his project. Here’s an edited version of our exchange:
Marc Wortman: How does an astronomer become obsessed with dragonflies?
Pieter van Dokkum: There are actually many similarities between photographing dragonflies and distant galaxies. In both cases I use an instrument (a telephoto lens or a telescope) to uncover things that are very difficult to see. It’s also really exciting when you capture something on camera for the first time, whether it’s a dragonfly doing something amazing like mating in mid-air or making a picture of a never-before seen galaxy.
Why dragonflies in particular?
That goes back to my youth, as it turns out. I recently found a little book with text and drawings that I wrote when I was eight years old, and dragonflies take up several pages! But coming to the pond with my children and a camera, I just started taking photographs and it went on and on from there.
What makes the dragonfly a special creature?
Part of it is that they are all around us, beautiful, but actually not so easily appreciated. Their lives—particularly their larval stage—are more secretive and hidden than those of butterflies. Butterflies flutter around our flower beds. They move slowly and rest frequently and are more “in your face” than dragonflies. It takes some effort to really appreciate the colors, flight, and lifecycle of dragonflies, but then there are great rewards. In the early morning you can find dragonflies that have just emerged from the water, and are still pale and somewhat clumsy. If you watch a flying dragonfly closely you’ll see it make a little loop in the air every so often: that’s when it captures prey. Every loop is one less mosquito to worry about!
Did you learn things about dragonflies you didn’t know before embarking on this project?
Sure, I learned a lot—often by observing a certain behavior and then reading books and online material to figure out what it was that I had seen. It took me a long time, for instance, to find dragonflies that are undergoing metamorphosis—when I started I did not know that this process often happens at night (at least at the pond where I did much of my photography). I then stayed up and captured the whole process on camera, which was an amazing experience as it’s just you and this one dragonfly for hours and hours. It was probably due to the sleep deprivation, but by morning I really felt a connection to it and I was kind of sad to see it fly off.
How often did you go out to photograph? Did you use any special equipment?
I probably spent about 1,000 hours photographing dragonflies over the past five or six years in 50 or so locations. Many of the photos in the book were taken at a little pond close to where I live. In some seasons I went out every day, particularly when certain species did their metamorphosis. People would call me about astronomy work issues, and they’d realize I was standing in the middle of the pond. I used fairly standard equipment: a digital SLR, a telephoto lens, and a macro lens (sometimes on a tripod) for the close-up shots.
What were some of your most exciting moments in the process?
There were so many. It’s very exciting when something unexpected happens, like when a pair of dragonflies crash landed in the water and had trouble getting airborne again. The female was almost entirely submerged, but in the end the male managed to lift her into the air and saved her. I’ve got photos of this in the book. Sometimes, though, I missed cool shots. For instance, I remember taking photos of a dragonfly that was sitting on a leaf, and then suddenly a much larger dragonfly landed on top of it, grabbed it, and flew off. I pressed the shutter but was just too late to capture the cannibal moment. I felt a bit sorry for the smaller dragonfly, who had posed so nicely for me moments before.
Dragonflies are found almost everywhere. Most of us might ignore them because they are so common. Are there behaviors we should try to spot?
Find water—particularly wetlands, small streams, and ponds—then go out when it’s warm and sunny. You’re almost guaranteed to see dragonflies zooming over the water! Then you can look for vegetation at the water’s edge: the males of many dragonfly species perch on reeds, so they can patrol their territory and look for prey, rivals, and mates. Females are often hidden in vegetation a bit further from the water; they are harder to spot.
Did you find something in dragonflies that relates to your astronomy work?
Remarkably enough, yes, though mainly in working with modern telephoto lenses. I realized that they have excellent optics and that in joining a number of them together they might have properties for distant observations that go even beyond the Hubble. A colleague and I stitched together 25 telephoto lenses in a way that resembles the compound eye of a dragonfly, which is composed of 30,000 compound lenses. That’s why they’re such incredibly good hunters. We named the telescope the “Dragonfly Telephoto Array.” We actually discovered a new type of galaxy with it. The Dragonfly Array is actually set up in the desert in New Mexico right now looking at the sky every night.
What do you think comes next for you when you look to the sky and when you look at this small flying creature?
I’m not done with dragonflies—both the Dragonfly Telephoto Array and the dragonfly photography. We’re thinking of expanding the Array so we can survey the sky faster, and see even fainter galaxies than the ones we’ve already discovered. As far as the photography goes, I’d love to visit places I haven’t been to photograph some of the most dramatic dragonfly species. For instance, I’ve never seen the largest dragonfly species. They live in Southeast Asia, and have wingspans of 6 inches or more. Also, there is a damselfly species in South America that is even larger, with a wingspan of 7.5 inches. It would be amazing to take photos of those giants.