We report on V and R high-speed photometry of the dwarf nova EX Draconis (EX Dra) in quiescence and in outburst. The analysis of the outburst light curves indicates that the outbursts do not start in the outer disc regions. The disc expands during the rise to maximum and shrinks during decline and along the following quiescent period. The decrease in brightness at the later stages of the outburst is due to the fading of the light from the inner disc regions. At the end of two outbursts the system was seen to go through a phase of lower brightness, characterized by an out-of-eclipse level ≃15 per cent lower than the typical quiescent level and by the fairly symmetric eclipse of a compact source at disc centre with little evidence of a bright spot at disc rim.
New eclipse timings were measured from the light curves taken in quiescence and a revised ephemeris was derived. The residuals with respect to the linear ephemeris are well described by a sinusoid of amplitude 1.2 min and period ≃4 yr and are possibly related to a solar-like magnetic activity cycle in the secondary star. Eclipse phases of the compact central source and of the bright spot were used to derive the geometry of the binary. By constraining the gas stream trajectory to pass through the observed position of the bright spot, we find q=0.72±0.06 and degrees. The binary parameters were estimated by combining the measured mass ratio with the assumption that the secondary star obeys an empirical main-sequence mass–radius relation. We find M1=0.75±0.15 M⊙ and M2=0.54±0.10 M⊙. The results indicate that the white dwarf at disc centre is surrounded by an extended and variable atmosphere or boundary layer of at least three times its radius and a temperature of T≃28 000 K. The fluxes at mid-eclipse yield an upper limit to the contribution of the secondary star and lead to a lower limit photometric parallax distance of D=290±80 pc. The fluxes of the secondary star are well-matched by those of a M0±2 main-sequence star.