The Firefly Chronicles.
A season of striving for the perfect lightning bug photo.
I live in a housing co-op in Cincinnati. The only thing our Membership seems split on is whether we live in a resort or a nature sanctuary. The place is well manicured, but we have a variety of trees and wildlife, including deer, fox, coyote, possum, raccoon, a hawk, three vultures…and a whole lot of fireflies. I can walk 100 feet out my back door at dusk in June and July and our primped meadow is alight with rising golden streaks and twinkling trees.
This year I’ve made an almost-nightly effort to try to capture images of these bioluminescent beetles. The following is paraphrased from my daily journal.
June 13, 2022
Saw my first firefly of the season tonight.
June 18, 2022
Shot some photos with iPhone 13 Pro on a tripod. On a clear night they start to come out right at sunset. Night Mode in the built-in Camera app is taking 1-5 second exposures, not near long enough to capture an abundance of lightning bugs.
June 19, 2022
Created a Firefly preset in the Pro Camera by Moment app to shoot exposures up to a half hour. (Recipe below.) This saves the exposure as a Live Photo that includes a still as well as a crazy-long video of the process. A normal Live Photo contains a 3-second video, but this can build up the firefly lights over thousands of frames. The image reads as a couple megs when you examine the info in the Photos app, but on export, extracted videos shot over half-an-hour are revealed to be about 1.5 gigs.
How to create a Firefly preset in Pro Camera by Moment
- Open the Pro Camera by Moment app.
- Tap the X button to choose which camera to use. (The 1X camera is the most light sensitive and will give you a wider view. The 2x, 2.5x or 3x camera is great for compressing the view of fireflies as they rise.)
- Tap the mode icon on the bottom right and choose Slow Shutter. If it says Motion Blur on the bottom left, tap it so Light Trails appears. Bulb should appear in teal.
- Tap EV and drag the slider to set it to -1.0.
- Tap Preset.
- Tap Create a New Preset.
- Tap My New Preset and name it Firefly.
- Tap Save.
Pro Camera by Moment is $12 for the app and full capabilities, one of the better bargains out there for a pro camera/video app.
June 21, 2022
I’ve been shooting fireflies for 50 years, admittedly without much success. Numerous long exposures I shot in the days of film left the fireflies burned out or so underexposed the flickers weren’t visible. This preset in Pro Camera by Moment shows a lot of promise for keeping the both the fireflies and background exposed well.
It seems the period of the most firefly activity lasts about a half hour and starts about 15 minutes after the official time of sunset.
June 23, 2022
Summer Solstice was yesterday. I’ve had luck with the Firefly preset with all three iPhone cameras. The 1x is the most light-sensitive, but even the 3x works well. The problem is more the size the cameras perceive the light to be. I like the perspective of the .5x for capturing trees full of lights, but you have to be really close since the perspective makes the lights so small.
June 24, 2022
There are many more fireflies out than a week ago.
Since the Live Photo created by the Firefly preset is actually a still photo and a video, it’s can be useful to extract them separately. If you try to edit the Live Photo, the Photos app will perform the changes on the entire video which can take some time, so it’s practical to extract the still by: opening the Live Photo in the Photos app > tapping the Share icon > choosing Duplicate then > choosing Duplicate as Still Photo.
If you want to extract the video for editing: Open the Live Photo in the Photos App > Tap the Share icon > Choose Save as Video. The above is an extracted video edited in iMovie on iPad.
June 25, 2022
It rained today. That doesn’t seem to affect firefly activity. There were just as many tonight. The background of the sky on a clear or cloudy night affects the final exposure. A clear night will give you a darker sky when starting to shoot later and a cloudy night will give you a darker sky when starting earlier.
June 27, 2022
Been reading up. I knew that fireflies were beetles and the lights were mating calls. But each species has its own light pattern so they can tell species and sex apart. It appears here in Southern Ohio we have two predominant species:
- Photinus pyralis (Big Dipper). These make J-pattern flashes low to the ground just after dusk by hovering then rising in an arc when they light.
- Pyractomena borealis (Treetop Flasher) flicker in the trees about 50 minutes after sundown.
June 30, 2022
Official sunset is just after 9p. It was cloudy tonight. The light was dim and as a result the fireflies came out about a half hour earlier. So their activity is not based strictly on sunset time, but also how much ambient light there is.
Editing tip: If a final image looks like it was shot in daylight, try the Brilliance slider in the Photos app. This can dim the background and retain the golden streaks and dots.
July 1, 2022
We seem to be getting into peak season with more activity. The Firefly preset works well for capturing the background at the start of the shot without loosing the firefly lights to over or under exposure. But the ambient light levels of the scene when you start shooting will play a big role in overall image brightness. If shooting later (when darker) adjust the the exposure to 0 or +1.0. If you start the shot when it’s dark, the trees won’t lighten during a long exposure. It’s best start your shot when the camera can still catch some color and depth to the trees or the final image can look flat.
July 3, 2022
As the season progresses, it seems that Treetop Flashers are getting more prevalent. They like one of our blackberry trees. Temperature on most nights is 74º-84º and humid. A neighbor on the next road over has some wind chimes that signal the much-appreciated breeze.
July 5, 2022
On a clear night, not only the sky, but the whole scene will be darker since the’s no light reflecting off the clouds. I have a few shots where I started late and it got so dark during a half-hour exposure the iPhone camera lost focus. You can lock the focus with the Pro Camera by Moment app by tapping to focus and tapping again to lock. But I like the partially blurred lights of the one above.
July 7, 2022
I’ve been trying to get slo-mo video of opening my hand to reveal a firefly that lights and then flies. Turns out they’re not very good actors: They either don’t flash or fly from my hand quickly. I’m using the Slo-mo mode of the built in Camera app. The above was reversed in the Reverser app on iPad.
I’ve discovered the easy way to catch a firefly is to raise your hand up underneath it and it will land on it. You have to gently cup your hand gently since their double sets of wings are so delicate. I’m catching dozens of fireflies each night and shooting slo-mo video. There’s only a few minutes of window from the time when the fireflies come out until it’s too dark to see them and catch them when they’re not lit. I’ve been trying a Lumo Keychain Light to help spot them, but it only gives me a few extra minutes to catch them.
July 10, 2022
The light show has moved up into the trees as the Treetop Flashers seem to increase in number and activity. For a few minutes the blackberry tree twinkles like Christmas. Shooting later, when the sky is darker and the light is fading on the trees, you can reset the EV of the Fireflies preset to +1 and use the 1x camera. This also helps brighten the tiny flickers of the Treetop Flashers a bit.
The above video was created from a Live Photo shot with the Firefly preset. I then used my *FPS Shortcut (it’s free) to speed the video up 20x.
July 11, 2022
As we get later in the season I’m noticing the lanterns on some of the Big Dippers have a lingering faint glow that lasts a while after they flash. My neighbor joined me for a while and the bats were flying close overhead. We couldn’t tell if they were attracted by our voices or his cigar smoke.
July 14, 2022
It seems to be easier to catch them in my hand for slo-mo videos. I don’t know if I’m getting better or they’re getting slower. At the same time, there are fewer fireflies every night.
July 16, 2022
The Treetop Flashers are getting sparse and also seem to have inactive nights. Have gone all season without bug bites, but now…
July 17, 2022
For the above image, I took an earlier and later image of the same scene and tried mixing them in Image Blender on iPad. I did various adjustments to the two original photos and the final. The result is promising for getting a more balanced exposure but there’s some loss of firefly brightness with this method.
July 18, 2022
After shooting about 500 slo-mo videos of a firefly being released from my hand with the built-in Camera app , I finally got one I’m happy with. There’s a train horn in the background of the original footage. Whether conscious of it or not, the sound track I created (Beat Root Multiscale Tongue Drum in Melancholia > Malekko Sneak Attack > Pladask Bakfram Reverse Delay > ZCat Big Reverb > TC Wiretap) mimicked the train whistle so I blended them together in iMovie.
July 20, 2022
90º tonight and sunset is now before 9p. Shorter days and fewer fireflies. Started working with The Dog mount for the iPhone. This is a low-rent steady-cam for capturing video. Remembered a true story about my relatives catching fireflies for money that would go with the Dog video. There still appear to be enough Big Dipper fireflies out there to make it work. Wrote the poem “I had an uncle” for it. Went out at 3am and recorded the encroaching katydids in stereo on the Sony UX560 recorder for the video.
July 23, 2022
I think we’re down to the ugly fireflies. There are fewer and they all seem desperate. Like the bar at closing time.
The window of peak activity for shooting video of the Big Dippers before it’s too dark grows shorter. Shot a 25-minute clip with the Dog. Will try again Monday if it’s not raining.
Very typically at dusk there are dozens of robins in the meadow. (I’ve been told they’re looking for worms. And here we thought it was the early bird that got them.) Now there’s fewer robins and we seem to have a flock of swallows that’s adopted the bushes and wild grape vines at dusk.
July 24, 2022
Created a soundtrack for I Had an Uncle. Recorded the narration on the iPhone with Just Press Record and Apogee MiC. “Music” recorded with Beat Root Multiscale tongue drum (Melancholia) > ZCat hold > Particle 2 (LFO Delay) > ZCat Big Reverb > TC Wiretap.
July 27, 2022
Tried shooting some more video for I Had an Uncle last night but there are fewer and fewer lights every night. Went ahead and used last week’s 25-minute video.
I think I’ll call the firefly season over. We’re past the peak. All I’m getting are crickets. (Well katydids.) A lot of work: minimal magical results this year. Looking forward to next June.
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