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We have a lot of fireflies (lightning bugs) in our back yard right now. I would like to photograph them, but previous attempts have not turned out well. With different exposures, it ends up either too bright to see the fireflies, or too dark to see the yard. If I zoom out too far, they end up looking almost like sensor noise, but zooming too close only shows a handful instead of the effect of a yard full that I want to achieve, as well as making them more blurry due to more relative motion during a blink.

What tips as far as time of day, exposure settings, and zoom/framing can you give me? I'm open to postprocessing techniques like HDR if that's what it takes, but prefer a more traditional approach if possible.

  • I would use long(er) exposure with a tripod. – Max Jun 20 '14 at 19:24
  • I would too use long exposure and let the fireflies fly around. Their lights would then create a beautiful effect on the foreground – Noldor130884 Jul 2 '15 at 8:00
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I would approach this in the same way I approach photographing star trails, which is also my approach to photographing busy city street scenes at night. That is, you will take a series of time lapse photographs. Then in post, you will 'stack' them to add the brightest pixels of each image. You'll need a tripod, an inexpensive intervalometer, a full battery, and one of the free or inexpensive star trail software tools. I would start with exposure times of about 10 seconds, but try other times perhaps as low as 5 seconds, but perhaps as long as about 30 seconds. A series of shorter exposure photographs will give you bright fireflies with this technique. Longer exposures will reduce the average brightness of the fireflies.

Some of the star trail software packages add a few of your images to create a brightened 'foreground' image. In your case they will create the brightened backyard image. Then they will add only the bright pixels of each image. After stacking the images, you'll have a clear, fairly bright backyard and as many fireflies as were visible.

I would also shoot in RAW so you have some more control.

In regard to the intervalomter, I bought a cheap one ~ 15 USD on Amazon. It works perfectly fine.

EDIT: Based on re-reading your question, I would amend my answer to include shorter exposures if you don't want to see any motion of the fireflies. You would still apply the same technique of 'stacking' the series images you shot on your tripod.

V/R

B. Shaw

PS. A few days ago, I traveled to a part of the country where I had a chance to try this. It worked perfectly. I tested a few different parameters. In each case I shot a series of 15 images with my cheap intervalomter. All of the variations worked as expected. I varied shutter speed from as low as 2 seconds to as high as 20 seconds. I kept ISO low, between 100 and 400. I used a gray card to ensure a had a good WB, (cameras auto WB typically aren't as accurate as it gets darker). I used a free Star trails software tool. It all worked perfectly well.

However, to me, my compositions were quite boring. I think this would be more appealing if the scene would have been appealing with out the fireflies. For example, a field of flowers.

Interestingly, in just the few minutes I tested this, I noticed the fireflies glow in waves. That is, they will all blink on for a minute or so, then they will all stay off for a couple of minutes. Then blink on for a bit, then stay off for a bit and so forth. Also, I noticed that as the evening darkened, passing cars' headlights appeared to start their glowing frenzy - but I'm not 100% sure that wasn't just a few happy coincidences.

Let us know how your shots turned out.

  • 3
    Long exposure will cause unrealistic trails of the flies. And body of the flies will not be visible. – kBisla Jun 21 '14 at 4:03
  • I would agree with you if he were taking macros of the bugs. However, he stated that his intent was "yard full" of fireflies. Regardless of length of exposure, it's necessary to take a bunch of images and 'stack' them as you would for star trails. – B Shaw Jun 21 '14 at 20:45
  • I still think it'd look unreal... Just specks of lights. Not fireflies – kBisla Jun 23 '14 at 10:15
  • That's exactly what they look like in my backyard - Specks of light. However, we don't have the same density that Karl B is describing. I like his idea of the image, too. Hopefully, he'll share the result. – B Shaw Jun 23 '14 at 13:18
  • Another option if doing 30 second or shorter exposures is you just use a cable or wireless remote, and set the exposure time in the shutter/manual mode. Or just hand hold the remote, this is what I do for my star shots, play it by gut, base on previous shot. – Simeon Pilgrim Jun 24 '14 at 4:07
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Set up a tripod and shoot the yard. Long exposure. Then, without changing the composition, shoot them flies. Short exposure. But this will present another dilemma, too long exposure and there are trails of light. Too short, and those flies are nothing more then speck of lights on black background and that doesn't look real.

What might work, and am not 100% sure of this, is to use flash. Reduce the flash compensation down to the minimum and exposure time as long as possible without causing trails. I'm thinking 1/50". This will capture some of the flies' body but low flash compensation will not make their body as bright as their lights. If lowest flash compensation isn't low enough, bounce an external flash off a wall to reduce the effect of flash (use a wall out of the frame).

Then comes post processing. Load the long exposure one and the flies pictures as layers in Photoshop and play with blend modes. Am sure one of them will give you good results. Worst case, erase the top "yard" layer to show through the flies. This might get tricky but I think it won't be needed.

Tip: you can load multiple flies shots at once to increase the density of flies.

And use manual focus for flies with wide aperture.

Rear curtain sync flash can give you amazing results. Give that a try too.

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Well they move way too fast for stacking photos.
You may want to use a wide aperture lens with ISO 1600 or more and capture trails of the fireflies using bulb mode. Shoot it in such a way that the fireflies are bright while the yard is quite dark.
Next, shoot with proper settings so that the yard is bright enough. Ignore the fireflies.

Then in Photoshop, put the second photo as background layer and put the first photo in a layer on top of that. Then try out different blend modes and see what works out for you. You may duplicate the layer for a more prominent effect.

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