In late spring and early summer, Bulgarian photographer Hristo Svinarov has about one month to capture the fireflies in the forests of Ropotamo Nature Reserve along the Black Sea. During this brief window of time, the lightning bugs dance in the woods for just an hour after every sunset before vanishing into darkness.
Svinarov has been chasing fireflies for six years, and he’s photographed them all over. Ropotamo Nature Reserve is his favorite spot because of the number of bugs in the area; “During that specific time of year, hundreds and maybe thousands of them dance here each night,” he tells us.
Getting to the reserve is easy, but once he’s there, the photographer must abandon his car and move by foot. It’s a wild place, and fireflies aren’t the only creatures he encounters. He sees wild boars and birds regularly. “The woods are pretty alive at night,” he says.
One of Svinarov’s challenges comes in the form of mosquitos. Bug spray, he explains, will keep them at bay, but they will also drive away the lightning bugs. Clothing with sleeves is his only line of defense, and getting bitten is par for the course.
Sadly, firefly populations might be in danger. Last year, Tufts University biologist Sara Lewis published her book Silent Sparks: The Wondrous World of Fireflies, in which she addressed the current threats these creatures face.
Natural habitats have been destroyed to make way for land development and plantations, and man-made light pollution makes it difficult for the bugs to find mates. Pesticides are also taking a toll, both on the fireflies themselves and their food sources, which include earthworms, snails, and slugs.
Svinarov sees the signs. “Finding a good population of fireflies is getting harder,” he notes. Still, they continue to arrive at Ropotamo Nature Reserve in huge numbers every year, and as long as they do, the photographer will be there to witness their blinking lights.
“I have yet to see a face not light up with a big smile once the bugs come out flashing,” the artist admits, “Sometimes, on moonless nights, you feel like you’re in the middle of a galaxy.”
We put together this collection of magical firefly photographs by Hristo Svinarov in honor of the season. We also included some of his personal tips and tricks for catching some of your own, not in a jar but with a camera.
“I knew there was a decent image to be made with this tree, but I ignored it for years. One day, I went ahead and shot it to get it out of my system.”
Take time to know the place and consider all threats. The woods I go to are full of wild boars, and two out of three nights, I have encounters with them. Usually, wild animals want nothing to do with you, but remember you are the intruder, and act accordingly.
“For this images, I faced the problem of the firefly flashes being out of focus. I had to jack the ISO to 6400 in order to get good pictures of their flashing lights.”
Simply photographing the fireflies is not enough. The same rules for composition apply. You have to know your gear, mainly its ISO limits, as sometimes you need to go as high as 6400.
“I made this picture on a night out while I was helping some friends shoot some bugs for themselves.”
I shoot fireflies the same way I shoot star trails. Instead of making a minute-long exposure, jack up the ISO and make a series of 3 to 5-second exposures, which then you can stack in post-processing. You’ll get much brighter firefly flashes and less noise in the final image. Let’s not forget: the magic starts with the quality of the shot.
“This was, hands down, the night I saw the most fireflies ever. I shot so much raw material that when I attempted to stack it all, you almost could not see anything but yellow. In the end, I decided to use just about a minute of it.”
You’d need a tripod, probably a programmable remote control (provided you don’t have the built-in time-lapse function), and a good, fast lens. I’ve made my best shots with the Canon 50mm f1.4 and the Samyang 35mm f1.2 on a full-frame body, though I’ve also seen good stuff made with a 85mm f1.2.
“Usually, after the sixth or seventh straight night out shooting, you start feeling like you’re going through the motions. At this point, I wonder if maybe I need to move on to something else or take a break.”
“I remember this image felt urgent, as there was a storm brewing. Ten minutes into the shoot, Ii had to gather my gear and evacuate. I headed for the car and into the thundering night.”
“This photo is technically more complicated than the others, as it is a focus stack as well as a star trails and firefly-flashes stack. I first had to focus close-up in front of the lens to get the flashes, and I then focused way back to get everything else. It’s a result of my obsession with getting fireflies and star trails in one image.”
“For this image, I wanted the firefly flashes to accentuate the silhouettes of the trees. It was a matter of finding some quirky trees and focusing on them. The bugs in the back did the rest.”
“This is one of my later images. I was looking to do something different than my usual firefly photo, in which a tree is an object of interest.”
You need to think about the shot you want and visualize it while it is still light. The fireflies come out after sunset, when it is almost impossible to change your composition and still get a good shot. You have to know where they’ll be, and you have to be there before them with a thought-out composition. It’s a good idea to get to know your firefly population before you consider photographing them. I started getting good shots after I spent two or three nights just walking around the woods and exploring their behavior. Only then did I feel like I knew what I was doing in terms of photography.
“While making this image, I struggled with finding an interesting foreground, so I decided, “Bokeh it is!” and put everything completely out of focus.”
“I got this photo by accident. I was struggling to find good stuff, so I decided to call it quits for firefly season, and I headed back for the car. Walking back, I saw these pretty trees. I have had passed them by before and failed to see the shot.”
The best time to photograph varies with each firefly population. While researching, I’ve read about all kinds of behavior slightly different from what I’ve come to observe myself. Friends of mine living hundreds of kilometers away from me have reported a bit differently on their firefly population. Take your time to know your area, and you’ll start getting the shots.
“When I made this picture, there was a strange nocturnal bird who found me pretty interesting and accompanied me through the process, almost to the point where I had a “Twilight Zone” moment. Funny stuff happens at night.”