Firefly Star Trails

One of my goals last summer was to photograph fireflies/lightning bugs/June bugs.  I've seen examples before online, so it was just a matter of technique.  Of course, photographing fireflies is pretty much out of the question in the New York City area.  If this was going to happen, it was going to happen where I grew up in Maryland.  Despite being plentiful in my backyard, I figured a single 30 second exposure, the maximum a camera will do by itself, would not capture enough fireflies.  Therefore, I would use the same technique from my star trails, take many separate photographs and combine them in post.  I did a test shoot on my first visit in June, manually taking an exposure when I saw a burst of firefly activity.

This was a total of 47 exposures, combined later in Photoshop.  The possibility of star trails didn't even cross my mind when I was taking this, hence the small gaps in the stars.  I processed these photos back home in New Jersey and didn't get another opportunity to  shoot again, until I returned to Maryland a month later.

This time, I only used 39 individual exposures.  Even though the elapsed time is just 11 minutes the stars seem to move a good distance across the sky.  But it's still imperceptible to our eyes.  A firefly will flash in a pattern based on species or activity.  These show up nicely as another type of trail when the exposures are combined.  I found the foreground from my test shot to be distracting, so I went for the silhouette instead.  Now that everything was figured out I tried again, for real.

This time I set up the camera and left it out until morning, while I went back inside to sleep.  This is made up of 177 exposures for a total elapsed time of 1.25 hours.  I tried something new and hid Polaris behind a tree thinking it would be a nice artistic touch.  Well, I was wrong.  Next time it will be fully in my shot.  Aside from that one faux-pas I'm very happy with the result.  The trails are long enough to appear as concentric circles, but they don't take over the sky.  The different firefly patterns are clearly visible.  The guy blinking four times in a row may be from one species while the guy blinking three times may be from another.  Or one is trying to get lucky while the other is trying to find a snack.

I really enjoyed taking these photos and seeing the results once the exposures were combined in Photoshop.  I definitely plan on trying again this year, hopefully in some different locations.  That tree line is becoming boring.