Fireflies. One of the most wondrous, awe-inspiring types of creature in the world, their gentle glow is synonymous with magical summer evenings, and a powerful point of nostalgia for countless adults.
Out favorite fireflies – or lightning bugs, if you prefer – are the Synchronous variety most commonly found in the Great Smoky Mountains, but they’re all pretty great. From the end of May clean through June, these luminescent little insects take flight and alight, illuminating for all to see.
We love’em. But man, are they hard to photograph.
Luckily, we’ve made a bevy of mistakes in trying, so that you don’t have to. With our tips, you’ll be photographing these natural wonders in no time.
How to Photograph Fireflies
First off, just because Fireflies don’t exude heat, that doesn’t make them any easier to photograph. Having said that, it’s much easier using modern digital cameras than with film, so if you like to go old-school, leave your film at home, and fill up an SD card. Trust us.
You’ll want to arrive at the site of your photo shoot early – definitely before sunset – and compose the scene. Get your camera set up, your focus dialed in, and any potential distractions dealt with before the little night lights come out to play. Make sure to bring a good flashlight, as you’ll be moving around in the dark, and Fireflies make for a poor lantern, as it turns out. Trust us.
If the sun goes down, and your “models” haven’t yet arrived, don’t panic and pack up your kit – the action doesn’t really get started until about a half hour past sunset.
Picking Your Camera Setup for Firefly Photography at Night
While some choices are stronger than others, you can get a good photo with pretty much anything.
Using a point-and-shoot
Set your ISO to 1,600 – or if you can’t get that, as high as it’ll go. Kill your flash, and brace with a tripod if you can (if not, stabilizing against a tree is a classic move), and shoot as rapidly as you can manage; if your camera has a multi-shot or “sport” setting, here’s when you want to use it.
Using a digital SLR
Same ISO as with your point-and-shoot, but you’ll want to set your shutter speed at 125 or higher to freeze the action (if you don’t know how to do this, check your camera’s owner’s manual). For a cool light-streak effect, set the shutter at 30 or less; this is also a lot of fun if you’re going to capture some fireworks.
Well, it can be done. You’ll want the fastest film you can get your hands on – 1600 ISO if it’s available – and accept that you’re going to waste a lot of it. Shoot early, shoot often, shoot many more images than you think you need, so you get one you really want.
Regardless of your medium, you want a wide-angle lens – 50mm and beyond, F-stop at 5.6 or more. Wide-angle lenses are great for this; their depth of field remains solid unless your subjects are right up on you, and the wide angle lets you use a lower ISO for less noise.
It can be fun to take multiple shots over time. 15 to 30-second exposures for somewhere between 30 to `100 shots. If you have an intervalometer (in-camera for many Nikon, but electronic release with Canon), use that. Then you can construct the image you want in Photoshop layers, using the lighten blending mode.
For added detail, consider “painting” some trees, rocks, or other scenery with light, such as from a spotlight, or high-powered flashlight.
However you decide to go about it, Fireflies are a delightful photography subject; enjoy the experience.