If you are fortunate enough to live in Firefly territory, you too can enjoy the pleasant futility to trying to photograph them! I will tell you how!
I am going to start with some basics: you gotta have the bugs and you need a lot of them. The Lightning Bug is most active in the late Spring and early Summer, dwindling in population as they mate and die off. The largest numbers are spotted in tall grass with numerous small trees and shrubs to shelter the insects during the day. You will see fireflies all night long, but their most active time is right at Sunset, which is good for you as a photographer. If you really want to learn about Fireflies, nip over to Firefly.org for more.
Next, you need the gear. Sorry folks, but your iPhone isn’t going to cut it for this kind of photography, you need a DSLR and you need to know how to take it out of Auto/Program mode. (If you don’t know how to do this…you need more help than I am willing to give you.) A tripod is not an option, you may be able to find a place to rest your camera on the ground or a chair, but plan ahead and take the tripod. Finally, leave your telephoto lenses in the bag. You want wide for this, the activities of the lighting bug are erratic enough without driving yourself mad with the narrow field of view from a telephoto lens. (I shot this on my Canon 50D, through a Sigma 24-70mm f2.8 and a Slik Pro 700DX tripod.)
Choose your location wisely, I recommend scouting for one the day before you plan to shoot. In the country, finding a spot is not difficult, find the bugs and go for it. In the City, you need a spot with minimal light pollution. It takes very little light pollution to wash out the Lightning Bugs entirely. Look for places with deep shadows, sheltered from streetlights, down hills or with buildings blocking the ambient light. If you are fortunate enough to have a back yard (I am talking about the urban firefly here!) then you may not need to travel at all.
Arrive early, have your equipment set up before sunset. (Note: You are going need to leave the bugs repellent at home, the same spray that keeps away mosquitoes will keep away the Lightning Bugs. You are going to be itchy when you are done, great art sometimes requires great sacrifice.) Compose your shot, turn off the auto focus and manually focus your camera and then leave it alone. (If you need to move or refocus, take a small flashlight with you, shine the light on the area you want to focus on, adjust and then turn off your light.) You need a moderately high f-stop for the best depth of field possible, between f11 and f16. You should be aiming for an exposure of about ten seconds for optimal flashes and streaks. Finally, you need a higher ISO as the light from the firefly is actually quite subtle and easily missed by the digital sensor at lower ISO’s. Use these parameters and underexpose each shot by two stops, minimum. If you shoot at what your meter tells you is the proper exposure, your fireflies will be washed out and almost invisible. (The shot of above was at ISO 800, f11 at 10 Seconds)
You have about a thirty minute window from Sundown to full dark to shoot when the bugs are most active. After that 30 minutes elapses, you lose the remainder of the light and the bugs are busy getting dey freak on, the amount of bugs per shot drops off precipitously. Depending on your location, population and time of year you may have shots straight out of the camera with hundreds, even thousands of little blurs of the insect light or you may have many shots with only dozens of bugs. If you have only few in each frame, never fear, we can still make few into many in Photoshop.
The best results are obtained with stacking your exposures, just like with Astronomy Photography. Open your base image in Photoshop, and then your next exposure, copy that exposure and paste it over your base. (Keeping in mind it must of the same composition, location and basic exposure!). From the Layers menu, set the Layer Mode to Difference, then reduce the opacity to the neighborhood of 50%, the Image will be darker but the fireflies will pop out. Next, Flatten the image, then use the Exposure tool to brighten the image to an acceptable level. (You should still be able to make out the background, but the streaks of the bugs should pop.) Repeat as necessary until you are happy with the results. (Save your work in between layers, trust me on this!)
Once complete, you should have a photo full of life and motion, suitable for framing or posting on your blog!
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