Fireflies of Lake Michigan

A lot of interesting animal behavior happens at the transitionary phases between day and night. At dusk in late spring and early summer, fireflies in Michigan begin to to illuminate meadows, gardens, and tree groves with their bioluminescent mating displays. Probably the most well known source of bioluminescence, fireflies are also the most photographed form of bioluminescent organisms. Despite these two facts, I was eager to add fireflies to my slowly growing photographic work on luminous living things. While on a family vacation to Lake Michigan this summer I was excited to see fireflies for the first time and have a go at photographing them.

Like all living things that glow in the dark, fireflies were especially tricky to capture, not least because they display during the exact period that mosquitos come out of the shade to prey on any exposed skin they can find. The window of time I had to use the last of the sun’s rapidly vanishing rays as an ambient light source was frustratingly short. This meant that I had to work very quickly, while struggling to achieve good focus in very low light levels. The fireflies performed their displays in the grass and shrubs so I was an easy target for the hundreds of mosquitos waiting there. It seemed to me, that while there was still light around, the fireflies were performing mostly aerial displays after one or two flashes on the ground. This multiplied the difficulty considerably. As soon as I would home in on one individual they would invariably take off and make a series of flashes mid-air. What followed, once the light from the sun had truly vanished, was a much slower paced and intimate affair. The female would remain stationary and flash in intervals as the males made their way along the ground towards her, making his own flashes as her went, and small flights to overcome larger obstacles, along his way.  More than once, the firefly I was focussing on would hop onto my lens and continue to display, perhaps attracted by the vantage point it offered. While endearing, this was also quite trying of my patience at times. I changed to a longer focal length so I could distance myself some more.

Failing in my goal to use the twilight to place the fireflies in their environment, I resorted to a flash gun to give context and illuminate their bodies. Eventually I came upon a good combination of sensitivity and flash power so as to not overpower the light coming from the animal. As with the Motyxia millipede, I will have to wait until next year to arrange a dedicated trip to get better results, including photographs of the fireflies glowing while in flight. For now, I have managed to come away with a handful of useable photos and many mosquito bites. Here’s to next time, and to hoping I can improve that ratio…

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