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How to Photograph Fireflies

In this guide, I will explain how to photograph fireflies. I will focus on the species found in Japan as I am based here, but the basic principles apply to all species. There are two species found in Japan: Genji (Luciola cruciata) and Hime (Luciola parvula). If you decide to research further, you may find that Hime fireflies are also referred to as Kin, depending on the region, but they are the same species.

From an entomologist’s point of view, there are many big differences between the two species. However, I will only mention the differences that pertain to photographing them. Hime are smaller and flash rapidly, while Genji pulse slowly. I find that Hime fireflies make much nicer images than Genji fireflies, so I primarily shoot those.

When Hime fireflies are photographed from a close distance, they will leave behind a pleasant trail of bokeh. In contrast, Genji fireflies leave long streaks that generally create a bit of a mess. One remedy for this is to step back and shoot the Genji from a distance, so that the trails appear shorter in the frame.

Genji fireflies near a river with tall grass
Genji fireflies near a river with tall grass.

Camera equipment for photographing fireflies

Before you head out into the dark, check the list below to make sure you have all the required gear. Much of this gear is pretty standard for any night photography.

  1. A camera that is capable of shooting in Manual mode and, ideally, has a Bulb mode
  2. A sturdy tripod
  3. A cable or shutter release (it can be done with a remote control but options will be very limited)

Some other items that I highly recommend taking are a bright flashlight, a smaller dim flashlight, and appropriate clothing. I also always bring a pair of rubber boots, as venomous snakes are usually found in the same habitats as fireflies here in Japan.

Hime captured with an 85mm lens
Hime captured with an 85mm lens

Where to find fireflies

This is something that you will have to research in your country or region. Fireflies live in very specific areas in Japan, and they simply may not live in your country or anywhere near you.

In my area, Genji fireflies are found near locations that have both water and tall grass, and Hime fireflies are found in damp forests where bamboo grass is present. Hime fireflies are the rarer breed of the two and are harder to find, but searching for them is part of the joy of photographing them.

Genji fireflies are usually found near water
Genji fireflies are usually found near water.

You may also wish to consider the surrounding scenery. Just capturing the light trails on a black background would not be very interesting, so a nice location is important. Unfortunately, many of the places where you can find fireflies are busy with people who come in cars and use other light sources that can ruin the shot.

I find that searching close by to these places can often lead to discovering a decent spot. Again, a little research goes a long way. Ultimately, you will want to find a visually beautiful location that is away from other people and light sources.

How to photograph fireflies

Before dialling in any settings, you should go ahead and mount your camera onto a tripod. First things first, roughly compose your shot and set the focus. In the dark, it is not always easy to get the autofocus to lock on to anything, but there are several solutions to this.

Some lenses will have distance markings, but some may not. Make sure you rotate the lens a full turn after infinity when possible, and then turn back to the desired distance to get a true measurement. Shining a light on the foreground subject while using the autofocus function may work if the flashlight is bright. If that does not work, go and lay the flashlight on the ground at the base of what you are shooting and focus on that.

Once you have achieved the glorious state of an in focus image, be sure to set it to manual focus prior to starting your exposure. If you don’t do this, it will start searching again when you press the shutter (unless you use back button focus) and you will lose your focus, having to repeat the whole process again.

Bear in mind that if other photographers are in the area, this will ruin a frame or two for them. However, this is not the end of the world as consecutive frames are not necessary.

Hime fireflies shot at 35mm
Hime fireflies shot at 35mm.

When I shoot the Genji fireflies, I usually use a wide-angle lens. As photographing these fireflies is more about finding the bigger picture, you are pretty safe to set your focus to infinity. For this species you do not need to be very close to get a nice shot, and you will find that the results looks more appealing when farther away.

For Hime fireflies it is all about the bokeh, so I suggest shooting with fast primes: specifically a 35mm, 50mm, or 85mm. Getting the focus for these will be a little more difficult. To get the bokeh you want, focus on something rather close. I usually find a nice looking tree or plant to make the subject.

So, you should now have your camera focused and set to manual focus (MF), and the shot roughly composed. When composing the shot try not to include any direct light sources (e.g. streetlights) in the frame.

How do I photograph fireflies?

In essence, shooting fireflies is just like shooting star trails. It is much easier to capture shorter frames and then stack them afterwards in post production into one final image. There are many advantages to this method, including the reduction of noise. Shooting hour-long exposures on a DSLR is just not practical.

Step 1: Check the composition

Firstly, you will need to check your composition with a test shot. Start by setting your aperture to f/1.4 (or the fastest possible) and then, depending on the available light, do a 1 or 2 minute exposure at a higher ISO to check your frame and focus. Keep shooting test frames until you are happy.

Cloudy skies with a half moon is ideal ambient light
Cloudy skies with a half moon is ideal ambient light.

Step 2: Get the foundation shot

Next, I work on what I think of as my ‘base’ background. This is the most important frame and it needs to be the right exposure. For me, the right exposure is about -1 stop. It should be dark enough for the viewer to recognize that it is night-time, but also for the trails to show up on the background.

If needed, increase the ISO or extend the shutter speed to get a decent shot in terms of brightness. Camera noise is the worst when the image is underexposed, so shoot a little brighter and darken it later. Test and repeat until you have a decent base image to work with. This image may be 1 minute or longer, and is the most important frame.

Captured using on ambient light.
Captured using an ambient light.

You will need to be in Bulb mode for this. I should also note that cloudy skies with a half-moon are the ideal conditions for ambient light. You may wonder what to do if the moon is full. For example, if the camera is set to f/1.4 and ISO 1600 for the fireflies then a 30 second exposure would be far too bright. In order to work around this, simply adjust for ambient lighting with the shutter speed. You may be shooting 10 second frames which will work, but it will triple the work in post production.

If there is absolutely no ambient light and you are in the pitch black, even extended shutter times will not record enough light. In this situation you can use a bright flashlight and bounce it into the canopy of the trees above, but be aware that this will usually leave a color cast that will need to be dealt with in post production.

This also only refers to Hime fireflies, as they are the species found in the forest. Genji fireflies are shot in the open, so there is usually a bit of ambient light that can be recorded with extended shutter times.

Foreground lit by bouncing a flashlight into the tree canopy
Foreground lit by bouncing a flashlight into the tree canopy.

Step 3: Shooting the fireflies

Now that you have a solid ‘base’ shot you will need to shoot for the ‘stack’. The stack is the series of images that you will layer over the base background image. For starters, try setting your camera to f/1.4 at ISO 1600 for 30 seconds.

I have discovered that shorter exposures that clip all blacks, and have nothing else but the firefly glow in them, yield the cleanest images in terms of noise. Long exposures generate more noise, as do higher ISO speeds, and so limiting exposure times to no more than 30 seconds will help since the background will remain dark.

If I am shooting in the pitch black, these settings will properly expose the fireflies and intentionally underexpose the background. If the moon is really bright you should shorten the exposure time. If you decrease the aperture or lower the ISO, the fireflies will be underexposed.

In summary, work from f/1.4, ISO 1600 and 30 seconds, with the shutter time being the setting to change in order to underexpose the background. Make sure your camera is in Manual mode, and that your drive mode is set to continuous shooting.

If you have bumped or moved your camera at all after shooting the base shot, you will need to go back and start again. Now, all that is left to do is to lock your cable release and wait.

Shot with a 50mm towards the end of the season
Shot with a 50mm towards the end of the season.

I suggest running your camera, shooting continuous frames, for a minimum of about 30-45 minutes and a maximum of 90 minutes. Of course, this all depends on firefly activity. I find that any longer than 90 minutes becomes too much. You end up with a frame that is filled with abstract light trails or bokeh that blocks all scenery, and just seems to lose any visible subject matter.

Too many fireflies in the image
Too many fireflies in the image.
Same image as above with some frames removed
The same image as above with some frames removed.

So, just repeat the process above until it is time to head home to bed! Try to get as many compositions as possible in order to make the most out of your trip. Multiple cameras can really increase the rewards from a night of photography, so consider using more than one camera.

Stacking your photos in post production

You now have a memory card that is filled with image sequences, and you are going to use software to stack them up to create your final firefly picture. There are several free options for this; each has easy instructions on their respective homepages that guide you on how to use them.

I generally start by importing my pictures into Lightroom, and then I use color tags separate them into their respective ‘stacks’. By ‘stacks’, I am referring to the one base exposure, with all the firefly frames for that composition.

The easiest way to do this is to sort by camera or lens in the library module. Make whatever adjustments you wish and then export them into separate folders. Generally, you really only need to edit the base frame, as the others are usually almost black with the light trails.

There are two common options for assembling the final stack. Photoshop is one option, but it is quite time consuming. My preferred option is StarStaX, and my favourite thing about it is the incredible speed. It is much faster than using Photoshop and much easier too, as it does not require you to create any blank documents to get started. Open up the program and import your images. Hit start, and within seconds your image is finished.

Original stack with too many trails
Original stack with too many trails.

Whatever method you choose, you may find that some of the trails in the finished image are out of place, or almost ruin the shot. Genji fireflies often prefer a certain tree in the frame, so that area of the frame may simply have too many trails and is not visually appealing. Find the frames with misplaced trails or intense areas and remove them from the stack.

Another option is blacking them out with an adjustment brush in Lightroom. Export the adjusted frames back into the respective folder, and then run that folder through StarstaX again. Repeat until you are happy with what you have.

A frame with some sections masked out in black
A frame with some sections masked out in black.

Once you have your stacked image, save it and drop it into your favorite editing program to continue editing (if you wish). One thing worth mentioning is that these creatures live in grass or forests, making the images full of green. Auto white balance compensates for this by heavily increasing the magenta. You may want to check for this in your final image. This is fixed by simply reducing the magenta in the final image.

The final image with the magenta set back to a normal level
The final image with the magenta set back to a normal level.

Ethical concerns

Now that you know how to capture the fireflies, one last important point is conservation. When photographing fireflies, we are essentially invading their territory. They are glowing during their mating season, and it is important that we respect their environment.

Treading on eggs and stomping on the breeding grounds is not sustainable for them. Please keep this in mind and stick to known paths, and just being conscious of where you are walking and what you are stepping on. Without any conservation efforts, the firefly population will just decrease every year.

Shot from the established path to avoid ruining the habitat
Shot from the established path to avoid ruining the habitat.

In conclusion

Shooting fireflies is similar to shooting star trails, but consecutive frames are not necessary. They can only be captured during a short season every year, and this is also dependent on temperature. This makes them somewhat elusive and even more exciting to photograph.

If this is something you have not tried yet, check online to find where the closest fireflies are to you and go give it a try. It is humid and there are venomous snakes and other itchy things, but with good company I truly believe that it is one of the most enjoyable forms of recreational photography.

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