My “thing,” photographically, is mass spectacles of wildlife.
My spouse, Sue, and I will travel to the ends of the earth to witness and photograph these gatherings: 100 million monarchs on a mountain top in Mexico, several thousand king penguins on a remote island in the south Atlantic, or tens of thousands of snow geese that darken a winter New Mexico sky.
As entomologists, a singular event that is at the top of our “to do” list is the annual firefly show in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Unfortunately, we have yet to witness the awe-inspiring conflagration of this unique group of light-producing insects.
Along with most folks on the planet, the Covid-19 pandemic has changed our lives; even our walking habits have been affected. While we used to walk a couple of times during the day, in order to properly “social distance” we have been walking late into the evening, often after dark to avoid the crowds.
This July we spent several evenings at Meadowbrook Park in Urbana, Illinois, and we soon noted that the area supported a rather large population of fireflies. They would emerge from the vegetation near dusk and continue to aggregate and blink away with their unique light patterns. We believe there were at least three species involved.
While not on the level of the Smoky Mountains show, each evening we witnessed the event caused a gnawing in my photographic gut as to how to best portray this activity. A single image would certainly not do it justice. With a little research, both on the web and in my collection of photographic books, I found several techniques for firefly photography. All involved technical aspects that included a sturdy tripod, long exposures, multiple exposures, etc., etc., etc.
At the peak of the firefly extravaganza, armed with this information, Sue and I decided to attempt to capture the firefly phenomenon. We arrived at the park around 9 p.m., walked the two-mile circuit a couple of times, and finally decided on the “best” spot to set up.
As none of the recommendations I found had yielded what I would call stellar images, I chose an amalgamation of several suggestions to attempt to capture the action in a single photograph. We used a very sturdy tripod, a 50 mega-pixel digital camera with a 70 mm lens, an ISO of 1600, and took 40 separate images of 25 second exposures.
The camera was set to only record the light flashes and little else. Each image was, shall I be blunt, less than remarkable; however, later in Photoshop™ I combined the forty images into a single shot, showcasing only the fireflies from each exposure.
Within seconds the image above emerged, with the sky illuminated by the full moon and the fireflies doing the rest. While it was not perfect, we were pleased and will always remember the firefly spectacle of Meadowbrook Park. It was as if the stars from the infinite universe had descended to spend the evening in the darkening woods.