Behind the Photo: Firefly at Dusk

A male eastern firefly, Photinus pyralis, hovers to watch for signaling females. Urbana, Illinois.


We moved to Illinois from Tucson in 2008. The naturalist in me cringed at the relocation. Tucson is surrounded by rich natural deserts, national parks, and state forests. Champaign-Urbana is buried in a monotony of industrial corn/soy production. Illinois nature was more than 90% plowed under years ago and hasn’t returned.

Yet the midwest has its buggy bright points. What’s left of the local ant fauna remains mostly native and hosts an array of fascinating social parasites. The famous 13-year periodical cicadas emerged again in 2011. And the fireflies! The common eastern firefly Photinus pyralis launches a tremendous show in June and July. Western fireflies for the most part don’t glow as adults. I missed them when I live in Arizona.

I’d been telling Mrs. Myrmecos every year since the move, “this is the summer I finally shoot the fireflies!” and then, for various reasons, I fail to follow through. For a specialized insect photographer to not have photographs of the most spectacular local insect phenomenon was getting ridiculous.

My schedule this past summer finally conspired to allow plenty of evening firefly time, though, so I went at them with a vengeance. If you haven’t seen the results, I’ve uploaded them here: Phenomenal Fireflies.

Learning to shoot fireflies on the wing wasn’t easy, but I can distill the strategy down to one key point: spend a few evenings watching the animals behave. Each species has a particular courtship pattern, this pattern is predictable, and if you learn it you’re much more likely to know where to put the camera and when to time the shot. Photinus pyralis males have a six-second cycle : swoop upward while lit, hover for a couple seconds to watch for a female return signal, the fly forward a few feet to begin the next run.

After some practice hand-holding a pre-focused camera rig and flash, I was able to not only get a flying firefly in focus, I was able to plan for particular backdrops. The photograph above shows a male at the height of his ascent, watching for females.

If you’d like a print, this photograph is one of 30 I’ve included in the Holiday Print Sale, running until January 1.

photo details:
Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM & 12mm extension tube on a Canon EOS 6D
ISO 800, f/10, 1/25 sec
Lit with diffuse off-camera strobe

2 thoughts on “Behind the Photo: Firefly at Dusk”

    1. Thanks, Adrian! The part I neglected to mention was my neighbor laughing at me from his porch while I gracelessly clomped after fireflies in the dark.

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