Photographing Lightning Bugs (for Southerners) and Fireflies (for Everyone Else)

Mention certain times of the year and I automatically think about specific subjects. Say mid-April and I’m thinking spring ephemeral wildflowers. Early November? I’m thinking about camping on the Outer Banks at my favorite time. October? Well, you know. And if you say early June, I’m thinking about my favorite insect.

Fireflies Flying Under Night Sky

Fireflies and the Big Dipper. Nikon D700, Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 lens. Stack of 87 exposures for the fireflies at f/2.8, 5 seconds, ISO 6400 and 1 exposure for the sky at f/2.8, 25 seconds, ISO 1600.

In North Carolina, as in much of the eastern U.S., late May and June is the peak of firefly activity. In my yard, they remain active throughout most of the summer, but they are most active during the first half of June. And during the first half of June, I’m as happy as a cat hired to guard an aviary.

Okay, for my southern friends, when I say “fireflies” I’m actually talking about lightning bugs.

As a night photographer, you gotta love a little beetle that does its own light painting. I mean, how cool is that? Actually, I’m in awe of all types of bioluminescence and make a special effort to find and photograph the phenomena whenever I can. In fact, I’ll be doing just that in a week or so when I visit the Bioluminescent Bay on the island of Vieques in Puerto Rico. It’s like paddling a kayak through a billion fireflies, so you can see why I’m just a little giddy.

Fireflies Flashing-Milky Way-Meteor

Fireflies, the Milky Way, and a meteor. Nikon D700, Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 lens. Stack of 59 exposures for the fireflies at f/2.8, 4 seconds, ISO 6400 and 1 exposure for the sky at f/2.8, 30 seconds, ISO 1600.

Oops, I’m getting off topic. Back to the fireflies. I’ve been photographing them seriously for a couple years now and have learned quite a bit about them. If you want to learn a little about the natural history of the critters, read this article I wrote several years ago. This blog post from last year pretty well sums up the basic approach to photographing them, and this moldy article talks about a specific technique for photographing fireflies in jars. In this post, I want to expand on the jar article a bit and talk more about the concept of stacking multiple firefly exposures.

Fireflies In Jar On Porch-Meteor Streaking In Milky Way

Fireflies in jar on porch, with a meteor streaking through the Milky Way in the background. Nikon D700, Nikon 17-35mm f/2.8 lens. Stack of 54 exposures for the fireflies at f/4, 30 seconds, ISO 1600 and 1 for the sky at the same setting.

As with many night photo subjects, there isn’t a lot you can do in single firefly exposures. Closeups work fine, and scenics at twilight can work well in the right location and with a lot of patience. But if you want to include a lot of firefly flashes in a nicely exposed night sky scene, you’re going to have to shoot multiple exposures and stack them.

I know to some of you this doesn’t sound very appealing, but stay with me here. It’s really not that difficult and the results can be pretty amazing. The idea is simple: You shoot a lot of exposures of the critters at high ISOs and big apertures and stack them as layers in Photoshop. Change the Blend Mode of each layer to Lighten and, like magic, all the flashes from each exposure show up. If you want to include the night sky or other elements—perhaps a structure or tree or waterfall that you’ve light painted—you would shoot that as a separate exposure and then combine it with the firefly flashes.

Fireflies In Jar On Porch With Night Sky

Fireflies in jar on porch with the Milky Way. Nikon D700, Nikon 17-35mm f/2.8 lens. Stack of 54 exposures for the fireflies at f/4, 30 seconds, ISO 1600 and 1 for the sky at the same setting. I turned on the porch light during the sky exposure.

It sounds simple, but of course there’s a little more to it than that. If the frames for the flashes also include the night sky or other element—anything but black, really—you’ll have to brush out those elements before stacking the exposure you want to use for those elements or else the Lighten blend could cause them to show up from all of the frames, creating all sorts of weird effects. Imagine shooting 50 exposures for firefly flashes in a scene that includes the night sky. You’ll shoot the fireflies at, say, f/2.8, 15 seconds, and ISO 3200. Then you’ll shoot one shot that is properly exposed just for the sky, say, at f/4, 30 seconds, and ISO 1600. If you stack all 51 frames and change the Blend Mode to Lighten, you’ll end up with 51 exposures for the stars, all slightly shifted out of alignment.

The key is to stack the firefly flashes first and flatten the file, then brush out the sky with a black brush. Now stack this flattened frame with the exposure you made for the night sky and when you change the Blend Mode to Lighten, only the fireflies from one frame and the stars from the other will show up. Magic!

Fireflies In Jar On Porch With Star Trails

Fireflies in jar on porch with star trails and a meteor. Nikon D700, Nikon 17-35mm f/2.8 lens. Stack of 53 exposures for the fireflies at f/4, 30 seconds, ISO 1600 and 53 exposures for the star trails at f/4, 4 minutes, and ISO 200.

Except that it isn’t always magic. Sometimes the scene directly behind the firefly flashes causes problems when you stack. In those cases, the only thing I know to do…uh, maybe now is a good time to remind you that I AM NOT A PHOTOSHOP GURU. I barely get by on my own photos by hunting and pecking my way through. I’m sure there are better ways to do what I do and ways to do things that I don’t know how to do. But as far as I know, the best way to deal with stacking issues when backgrounds cause problems is to select only what you want, copy it, and then paste onto the properly exposed scene. For fireflies, I’ve found that using the Select>Color Range tool works best, albeit not without some frustration.

The first image, with the clouds and Big Dipper, is an example where I used Select>Color Range to isolate the fireflies. I stacked 87 frames for the fireflies, flattened them, selected the flashes using Color Range, copied the selection, and then pasted it onto the shot for the night sky. Before I selected the flashes, though, I brushed out the stars with a black brush so none of them would be selected along with the fireflies.

A window setup for photographing fireflies in a jar sitting on a window sill.

Window setup for photographing fireflies in a jar sitting on a windowsill.

I did the same thing for the second image of the Milky Way and meteor with the fireflies. By the way, I have been lucky with capturing meteors inadvertently during the first half of June. It’s like having an early Christmas when you check the exposures on the computer the next day and see a bright meteor in a frame.

To get the shots of fireflies in a jar, I had to do a little extra work. The old blog post I referenced above explains the basic process. The shot here that includes the meteor is the one I included with that post, but I shot more than just that one setup on that night. As with many types of night shots, once you get the basic setup in place, it only takes a slight variation to create an entirely new image. Whenever you can, you should take advantage of these opportunities and make as many different shots as you can.

Flashlight with no gel filter.

So I collected the fireflies, put them in a jar, and shot a few hundred exposures of them at high ISO. Then I refocused on the sky and shot a few images of static star scenes. (Composition remains the same so everything registers perfectly.) During one of those static star scenes, I got unbelievable lucky with the meteor, the brightest one I have ever witnessed. Then I turned the porch light on and shot a scene with it light painting the porch. Then I turned the light off and shot a series of longer exposures to capture star trails. The idea was to get the material for at least three different images that include the fireflies in a jar—static stars, star trails, and static stars with porch lit. I could also use the frame with the porch lighting to go with the star trails if I wanted. Of course, the meteor shot was just an unexpected bonus.

Flashlight with orange gel filter.

Remember that: “The idea is to get the material for…” When you’re out shooting at night, you rarely capture on the sensor the exact image as you will show it to your audience. With night photography, it’s often a matter of capturing multiple frames of everything you can think of and then staking them to create your images. Not real? Photoshop wizardry? Not the kind of photography you want to do? That’s fine. I understand and respect that. But here’s the deal. With many forms of night photography, it’s impossible to represent anything close to what you see with your eyes in a single capture. I’m not talking about difficult or time consuming. I’m saying IMPOSSIBLE. So if you want a photo of fireflies in a jar sitting on windowsill with the night sky in the background, you’re gonna have to do some layering.

Flashlight with magenta gel filter.

Speaking of fireflies in a jar on a windowsill, that’s a shot I’ve had in my mind for a long time. Unfortunately, the windows in my house are not positioned just right and they are new. I wanted the nostalgic look. You know, something reminiscent of when I collected fireflies as a child and put the jar on a windowsill. So when I remolded our 1950s era house, I saved out one of the windows to use for a setup. The photo shows how I set it up on the porch of my workshop. I draped a black cloth behind it so I wouldn’t have to brush out the window opening.

Flashlight with blue gel filter.

I shot multiple exposures of the fireflies in the jar first, then removed the jar and shot a few frames of just window. It was important to remove the jar first because the light painting would reflect off the jar and cause problems. For the painting, I used my workhorse flashlight. On one shot, I used the natural light from the flashlight, and for the others I used colored gels mounted in a GelGrip. I wanted to have as many options as possible in post. As it turned out, I found that the version with just the flashlight and no color worked best. The others definitely did not have a nostalgia look!

Flashlight with cyan gel filter.

The next shot was for the sky. Obviously, I did not shoot it from the same tripod setup as I did for the jar. I shot it from about 20 feet away, in the driveway of the shop. This is a rare exception to my rule of shooting everything from the same precise location on the same night to keep everything as “realistic” as possible. Yes, I could have set up the window in the driveway, but, admittedly, I chose the shop porch because it was MUCH easier. For what it’s worth, I was careful to use the same focal length for all frames, and I didn’t shoot a November sky to go with June fireflies.

Oh, in case you’re wondering, the black stuff on the windowsill is modeling clay. I bought a pack of several different colors from Michael’s craft store. It comes in handy for positioning small objects for photography. In this case, it allowed me to tilt the jar backward to maintain proper vertical perspective. Notice in the setup shot that the window is tilted forward, toward the tripod. This is so the camera would be parallel to the window as much as possible. But this also caused the perspective on the jar to be skewed. Well, not skewed exactly, but the jar didn’t look quite right. With a little bit of clay I could tilt the jar backward and have it show up better.

Fireflies In Jar On Window Sill With Night Sky

Fireflies in jar on windowsill with the Milky Way. Nikon D700, Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 lens. Stack of 33 exposures for the fireflies at f/3.2, 15 seconds, ISO 1600, 1 for the window at f/8, 2 seconds, ISO 200, and 1 for the sky at f/2.8, 30 seconds, ISO 1600.

I did the window shot last year and I’ve now had a full year to think of what I’m going to do this season. Alas, I probably won’t be able to follow through with everything, considering that I’ll be in Puerto Rico for the peak of the fireflies. I don’t think they have fireflies there, so I guess I’ll have to settle for paddling my kayak through an ocean of glowing dinoflagellates.

I’ll manage!

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