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
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
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
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.
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.