Magical Photos Shed New Light on How Fireflies Interact with the World

Pete Maney’s mesmeric, long exposures with fireflies provide insight into their behavior and are not only artifacts but also works of art.

Mauney’s enchanting photographs consist of anything from 100 to 1500 30-megapixel RAW files and the large data require custom computers to handle the processing.

“If I process them in 16bit the files, they will often be in the 150GB range, or bigger,” he tells PetaPixel.

fireflies

fireflies

fireflies

Mauney goes out every night in high-vis vests and flashlights in search for luminescent insects.

“I pay particular attention to dead end as they often live,” he said.

Armed with four Canon 5D mark IIIIs (he plans to move to mirrorless) he typically has all four rigs going at the same time.

“Frequently, I will leave them on the side of the road under camouflage netting for up to five hours while I am elsewhere, either scouting or photographing a super busy spot,” he explains.

fireflies

Once he has his huge files, Mauney will retouch “frame by frame,” to fix cars that have driven through his shot and “messed things up.”

“Editing, assembling, and basic color correction can take an hour. Or much, much more. He says, “When I proof after a night shooting I try and knock them out.”

“I have absolutely no real clue what they are going to look like when I click the button at the end of everything and the picture magically appears.”

fireflies

fireflies

If Mauney doesn’t process the photo right away then it can sometimes be years before he gets to see what the photo looks like.

All in all the file prep and retouching can take up to eight hours, depending on the complexity.

“The biggest I generally will go is 40×60-inches, but that is sort of nuts. I really like the 20×24(ish) range,” he says.

“The cameras are important, of course. He adds that the computer which processes these images is equally important.”

“I design my computers around this task and they always cost much, much more than any car I have ever bought.”

A Help to Science

Biophysicist Dr. Orit Peleg, who leads a research team that studies insect communications, tells NPR about the value Mauney’s photos have.

The photos of Pete are incredible,” he told the radio station. “They stand out in part because there’s so much activity in the areas where he’s working.”

fireflies

fireflies

fireflies

Mauney has been collecting data on fireflies for Peleg’s team at the BioFrontiers Institute of the University of Colorado, Boulder.

They sent him two GoPros that he can deploy when he’s already out in the field; positioned back-to-back, they capture 360-degree video that will be stitched together to create 3D models.

Peleg’s team used this method to offer new evidence that firefly swarms can synchronize their flashes.

Their goal is to create the first dictionary which matches firefly species with distinctive flash patterns.

“The bioluminescent insects are a tiny, tiny, tiny, tiny percentage of all the other insects that are out there that we’re not seeing,” Mauney tells NPR.

“They’re giving us an indication, through the photographs, of what else is there — which is a lot. There is a lot that we don’t see.”

fireflies

More of Mauney’s work can be seen by visiting his website and Instagram.


Image credits: All photos by Pete Zapatka.

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