/ Rick Lieder / 8 am Wed, Jun 8 2016
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  • Do Robot Fireflies Dream of Electric Lights?

    Do Robot Fireflies Dream of Electric Lights?

    Rick Lieder's astounding backyard photography has inducted us into the worlds of bees, birds, and bugs, but his firefly photos (captured in his book Among a Thousand Fireflies, with a poem by Helen Frost) were astounding, even by his own high standards. In this piece, Lieder explains how he captured the intimate lives of the fireflies in his backyard to create a remarkable book.

    What could be more magical than the flickering glow of fireflies on a summer evening?

    When I began my quest to capture that firefly magic, I wasn’t sure it was possible, and my first attempts to photograph lightning bugs were failed, out of focus blurs. It took several years to make a reasonably good image.

    Not only was I photographing after sunset, with my best light source slowly disappearing, but I also never knew where the  fireflies would appear, so I had to be mobile, ready to move quickly.

    How to light is my biggest concern, and a poorly lit firefly photo has no magic. My best images use mostly available light. A firefly is really just a small, black beetle, and they can easily disappear against the darkness or any background vegetation, so the only way we see them in the dark is by their glow. The males are harder to photograph up-close as they flash in flight while trying to attract females on the ground.

    I’ve seen great images by many photographers capturing fireflies from a distance, and the cumulative long exposure or time-lapse images are beautiful. But I wanted to get as close as possible to individual fireflies, if possible while in flight. This is easier using speedlights, but the light is very unattractive and can overpower the glow of the firefly.

    Usually each night I ran out of time, the encroaching darkness forcing me to give up, but I learned from my mistakes and improved each evening. Firefly season where I live lasts from mid-June through the end of July, sometimes into August. At the beginning there are fewer fireflies and by the end you’ll find only lonely males, unsuccessfully looking for love in their last days or hours, all the females having found their mates.

    The most important tools are my camera support and any extra lighting I might need. I’ll get to my robots in a bit.

    I've always believed it's better to make your own tools if possible, rather than buy them, so I scavenge from equipment I already have or bits and pieces of junk I’ve collected.

    I sometimes use small mirrors to help direct the light and I position and support them using wooden sticks with a hinge and clamp at the top. It helps to make them light and not too bulky.

    Much of the time I use a ground-level tripod, but many of my best images were made with a homemade “spike” that I attach to my camera and can push into the ground wherever I need to be. I took the spike end from an old, decorative axe and epoxied  it to a 3/8” tripod mount screw, which attaches to the ball-head. This has a smaller footprint than a tripod, and is easy to move quickly. The wooden base and three bolts you see in the image aren’t really needed, but make it a little more stable.

    The biggest hurdle is overcoming the disappearing daylight. I usually have only about fifteen minutes before the skylight is gone and I have to rely exclusively on artificial light. The easiest solution is to use flash, but I don't like the harsh look and in this case light from the flash would overwhelm the glow of fireflies, so most of my lighting comes either from the sky or reflectors I build to help direct the skylight or possibly street or porch lights nearby. I sometimes use small flashlights with diffusers, which give just enough light to illuminate the deep shadows.

    Now about those robots. It took me a few years to come up with the idea, and it’s a stretch to call what I’ve made a robot. In essence it’s a colored LED attached to a timing circuit to mimic the flash of a female firefly, camouflaged just enough to hopefully fool a few males. Each firefly species has its own flash pattern and color, and mine is tuned to Photinus pyralis, the “big-dipper” firefly, the lightning bug most commonly associated with Midwestern summers.

    I didn’t have the expertise to design the circuit, so I turned to my friend, the brilliant Guy Wicker, for help. I used an LED scavenged from a broken flashlight, a 3909N LED Flasher IC, a capacitor, a resistor, and a battery, the fewest number of components to produce a small flash that can sometimes fool a male firefly to investigate it closer, and as physically small as possible. The white LED is coated with yellow-orange acrylic paint to match the color of the big-dipper’s glow.

    For one of the circuits we attached an on/off switch, but it’s just as easy to turn it off by removing the battery. Three AA batteries work fine, or you can use a 4volt Lithium battery to cut down the size of the finished circuit. Exquisitely unattractive, I think, but it gets the job done.

    Here’s the simple circuit diagram Guy drew, and constructing it took a bit of trial and error.

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    Everything is wrapped in black electrical tape, to hold it together and make it almost invisible in the near-dark. The parts were only a few dollars each, or else scavenged from leftover electronics. The circuit can certainly be improved, the whole package made more attractive, and the timing more flexible. If you make your own, please post the results! The world can always use more amorous robot fireflies.


    Rick Lieder is a photographer and artist. His 2016 book Among a Thousand Fireflies uses his backyard firefly photos to illustrate a beautiful poem by Helen Frost. You can learn more about it on his site. The PBS Nova documentary Creatures of Light features his robot fireflies.

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