Readers’ wildlife photos

February 24, 2023 • 8:15 am

Today we have an unusual and gorgeous set of photographs from Pete Mauney: time-exposures of fireflies in their habitat.  BE SURE to click on the photos to enlarge them. First I’ll give Pete’s background, and then 14 photos followed by a technical note (don’t neglect the note at the bottom):

For almost two months every summer, I switch my schedule from day to night. For seven nights a week, I photograph fireflies around the glorious Hudson Valley of New York. Probably the only 9 to 5 job I have ever had, just the wrong 9 to 5.

Night is my favorite time to be out in the world, it’s been that way since I was a kid. Between my dad (who turned me on to WEIT several years ago) and my grandmother, I was also surrounded by photography growing up. It has since seemed right to me that the two eventually became one.

So, somehow, I have ended up with photography as both my day job and my night job. Not something I would suggest to anyone, financially, but I do manage to have a lot of fun and am never bored.

I have been photographing the fireflies methodically for the past ten years. At a certain point, it occurred to me that I had accrued a lot of local knowledge/recordings of the locals and that, maybe, this might be of interest to others. I am no scientist, just some dude who likes blinking lights and has lots of cameras, but I had a sense that I could figure out how to contribute something to the understanding and preservation of these stunningly beautiful and surreal insects.

With that in mind, I reached out to Dr. Orit Peleg and her team at University of Colorado-Boulder, having read a story on their studies of firefly population dynamics in the NYT, and offered up my services and data. They sent out recording devices and I spent a bunch of my time last summer, along with a large group of other volunteers spread out all over, crowdsourcing complex data (in a wonderfully simple way!) for their project. It was immensely satisfying and is becoming even more so as I am now getting to see some of the results of this research. Stay tuned…..

(For a little bit more on that, here is a story from NPR last summer). [JAC: do have a look at the story!]

Quick techie note for the photo people out there. I use standard, off-the-shelf, full-frame digital cameras, mostly Canon DSLR, but now experimenting with a Lumix as I prepare to cross over to mirrorless cameras…eventually (old dog, new tricks, less cash). I use no fancy technique, other than my own variations on an old theme: Image stacking/blending…plain and simple. My firefly exposure times range anywhere from 45 minutes to 5.5 hours (full summer night here) and the exposure is composed of sequential RAW files then layered. Each picture requires anywhere from 100 to 1500 individual exposures layered in Photoshop (I have a monster computer… purpose-built for this). If you are interested in experimenting with this technique, many cameras and phones can now do it (minus all the control of Photoshop). Slightly more control is allowed by using StarStax, or similar shareware, which are also more friendly to standard computers. There are many tutorials online. The sky’s the limit from there!

53 thoughts on “Readers’ wildlife photos

  1. Wow. I can’t help but repeat others. Stunning. Amazing. I’ll add, Very Cool.

    I’ve many fond memories of fire flies from my younger days. Unfortunately where I’ve lived for the past 20 + years I’ve never seen a single one.

  2. Wow! My 87-year-old mother lives in rural central Pennsylvania and, in the summer, enthuses about the abundance of fireflies. She loves them! Me too. I used to catch them in a bottle as a child. I see from the pictures that my collections had little effect on the population.

    1. I have a firefly rating scale I use for different locations as a real-time visual assessment. #4 is Bad Acid Trip and #5, the top, is Severe Head Trauma. Neither are common, but they photograph well….

  3. Wow! Amazing images. I don’t know how much sleep you have sacrificed altogether in producing these images but it was certainly worth our while! 🙂

  4. 1500 exposures layered! A 5.5 hour exposure! The mind boggles!

    I have done a few long exposures at night, but the longest was about 7 minutes. In case anyone doesn’t know, to do a 5.5 hour exposure requires the photographer to rig up a contraption with an external battery source to make the image – impressive.

    And 1500 exposures – Holy Crow. I assume you set the rig to take them automatically? I didn’t know you could accomplish such a thing, even nowadays. Gobsmacking.

    Well, your results are worth the effort and expense! They are fantastic images. 🙂

    1. Thanks so much! Yes, cameras are set to capture sequential images. Then I just have to make sure not to trip over the tripod in the middle of it! I usually work with 3-4 cameras simultaneously and run or drive around between them (I frequently leave them in camouflage on side of road, lol…haven’t lost one yet.)

  5. The light show from the fireflies alone is spectacular in these pictures, but having a star trail in the background is the icing on the cake.

    I had a big ah-ha moment with the mention of using stacking to build the images. It would be interesting to see what an individual frame looks like before stacking. I also wonder how you deal with light pollution, especially when sky at the horizon is in the background. There are light pollution filters for astrophotography, but those will pass the frequencies of light emitted by astronomical objects and not necessarily the color of light produced by the fireflies.

    1. Hi! Individual frames are usually about 8-15 seconds and have a few fireflies (or a lot….depends on night). Light pollution is just a fact of life and becomes a part of the composition and I use regular cameras with no filters. ONE interesting thing that I have found in light pollution? Over the past ten years I have been able to also, unwittingly, document the switchover to LED lighting from orange sodium vapor in different small municipalities. Sky over a town was one color in 2014, but another color now. Kinda cool.

  6. What amazing photos! Thank you for this beautiful post!
    They are fun and great bugs! Too bad we don’t have them where I live.

    1. Thanks so much! And sad you don’t have them where you live. BUT, I bet you have all sorts of other good stuff going on in the dark where you live. I highly recommend going out and seeing what you can find and you might find some other sort of magic…

  7. These are remarkable – all the work you’ve put into honing this technique is well spent. You’ve created images that are not only beautiful but help us see what we otherwise wouldn’t.

    1. Thanks so much! Seeing what we otherwise couldn’t is what keeps me going, I don’t stop at fireflies (gotta have something to do in the winter), so you are right on with that!

  8. These capture one of my favorite aspects of summer nights in ways I could not have imagined. I will look at fireflies a little differently now.

  9. By the way, anyone might be interested in Steven Strogatz’ work – check out the general-audience book Sync – AFAIK he / his research group studied chaos and sync of fireflies …

    Strogatz also wrote a _great_, _concise_ article which might have popped up on the radar – on Bayes’ theorem in the NYT – was a chapter of another book of his.

  10. Whoa …. that brilliant! (Pun intended.) The long exposure is very revealing. I can see why entomologists would want to see this data in this format – and everyone else, too.

    1. Thanks! Took me long enough to figure it out (that I had anything other than pretty pictures), but so happy to have hooked up with folks with whom I can share my data and further our understanding.

  11. Wow! That’s amazing, Pete! My heart always skips a beat when I see a firefly, usually just one or two or three in my garden. I might need some kind of resuscitation if I ever experienced what you’ve witnessed! 😛

    1. Thanks! And, I don’t admit this to many, but…..I have had to resuscitate myself in the field several times. Very complicated to operate a camera and a cardiac defibrillator at the same time, but years of experience help, lol.

  12. Astonishing and very beautiful. Very “science-fictiony”

    I’m someone who has never seen a firefly in person. Never lived in or visited the right place.

    1. Thank you! The experience in real life is completely opposite to the photograph, which can seem serene. When you find a swarm at peak it is visually and (my characterization) neurologically overwhelming. I sometimes have to go find a spot with fewer of them to hang out while the cameras are going. I deeply wish that you get to see some someday. Magic.

  13. Really nice photos! In an era of a billion snapshots, it’s great to see photos which have taken a lot of patience and skill to capture and process.

    1. Thank you so much! It is true that these take an immense amount of work – before, during, after – but, if it helps any…..I also take a crapload of disposable pictures of random stuff to clutter the interwebs, lol. These stupid phones are amazing cameras!

  14. I just finished the article. Very interesting, you should be proud. I also checked out your airplane photos- loved them!

    1. Thank you so much! I am very proud of all of it, and especially of the airplanes. I have spent the past four winters methodically mapping out the airspace around Newark airport and hope to do a book of them. All that being said, my mind is now switching away from airplanes for the season and back to upcoming fireflies. And sleep in between…

  15. VERY nice! I also shared this with my wife and son, who are into photography, and both were very impressed as well. A lot of work and effort, but the results are unique and well worth it.

  16. These are fantastic, thanks! If anyone is interested in reading more about fireflies, I highly recommend Sara Lewis’ book Silent Sparks. She’s a professor at Tufts University and has done a lot of work on firefly conservation — turns out “firefly tourism” is a thing.

    1. Thanks so much! And I certainly am familiar with Sara Lewis’ work. Fortunately, firefly tourism isn’t yet a thing here. Although it really should be. When I finally get tired of making the pictures, maybe I can switch to being a guide!

    1. Thanks so much! If I was a better business person, I would have added a link to my website, lol. You can find me at either or If you dig around, there is a store section (not fully developed yet….not enough hours in the day). But please feel free to email from there if you have any questions! I love questions!

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