Firefly Photography Tips

Photography is a useful tool for documenting and identifying fireflies. It is not without its challenges, though! Small, active subjects and dark conditions can make it tricky to capture the key details that allow for successful identification of firefly species.

The types of images that you make will depend on the type of fireflies you are observing and the whether the regulations at your site allow for catching and handling fireflies.

What Makes a Good Firefly Image for ID Purposes

  1. Close-up
  2. In focus
  3. Shows key body parts

Tips for Taking Different Types of Firefly Images

Close-Up Photos

  • Get as close as your camera will focus!
  • Use your camera’s macro setting, if it has one (usually an image of a flower).
  • While round jars or containers are convenient for temporarily holding fireflies for photography, they make it hard to focus and can distort the image. Use a transparent, scratch-free petri dish or plastic sandwich bag for clearer images.
  • Try to capture the following parts:
    • pronotum (head shield)
    • scutellum
    • elytra (wing covers)
    • the underside
    • the eyes, mouthparts, and antennae
  • Focus on dorsal (back) and ventral (underside) angles. 
  • If your camera is focusing on something in the background rather than the firefly, place a clipboard, piece of paper, or your hand close behind the insect to redirect your camera’s focus.
  • Use a piece of graph paper or ruler as a background to show the firefly’s size.
Firefly resting on a leaf, with black wings bordered with yellow and black, pink and yellow on the head shield.
A close-up of a female Photinus consimilis firefly, showing details of the pronotum, scutellum, antennae, and elytra. Photo by Tom Murray/CC BY-ND-NC 1.0.
A Photuris firefly against graph paper in a petri dish.
Using a piece of graph paper (in this case a 5 millimeter square grid) allows photos to convey the size of captured fireflies such as this Photuris. Photo by Richard Joyce/Xerces Society.
A firefly in a transparent plastic bag, pressed against a ruler.
Another way to show the firefly’s size is to put it in a clear plastic bag and gently hold it still against a ruler. Photo by Richard Joyce/Xerces Society.
Firefly in a petri dish, held over a ruler.
A low resolution cellphone photo may still allow for documentation and and identification of fireflies, like this Florida scrub dark firefly (Lucidota luteicollis). Photo by Richard Joyce/Xerces Society.
The underside of a firefly viewed through a transparent petri dish.
When using a petri dish, reflective glare can be hard to avoid, as in this photo of a Florida intertidal firefly (Micronaspis floridana). Try to make sure any reflections are in the background and not blocking key features. Photo by Richard Joyce/Xerces Society.
Underside of a female Photinus firefly showing small, central lantern.
Photos of a firefly’s underside are important for determining the sex of the insect. The single, central lantern is indicative of a female Photinus. Photo by Richard Joyce/Xerces Society.

Long-Exposure Photos

As well as creating beautiful images, long-exposure photography can document aspects of firefly flash pattern behavior–such as color, number of flashes, height of flight and shape of flash–that will narrow down the list of species that your firefly might be, if not provide a species-level ID.

If you create long-exposure photos, it is important to record information on the length of the exposure (seconds), the lens aperture, and the sensitivity of the sensor.

Similarly, if you decide that a composite image will be helpful for species identification, be sure to include details about how many images are combined, the exposure times of the component images, and what sort of manipulation occurred.

This post provides in-depth tips for taking long exposures and composite images of fireflies:

Strings of yellow dots against a black background show firefly flash patterns and flight trajectories.
A ten-second exposure captures the flash-train flash patterns of Photinus carolinus. Photo by Stephen Bucklin/ CC BY-NC 4.0.
Upward trailing streaks of yellow in the foreground of forested hills and a still pond at dusk.
A two-second exposure captures the characteristic J-shaped flashes of big dipper fireflies (Photinus pyralis). Photo by John Abrams/ CC BY 4.0.

Habitat Photos

Day-time images of habitats where fireflies are found can provide helpful clues to species ID, as well as useful information for our general knowledge about the species. Photos that capture terrain, vegetation structure, and vegetation species are especially helpful.

An arid landscape with rocks and shrubs, and houses and a waterbody in the background
The habitat of a Photinus firefly in New Mexico, with details such as vegetation, topography, and proximity to buildings. Photo by Anna Walker/ CC BY-NC 4.0.
A marshy pond bordered by tall grass
Photos may allow you to identify the species of plants found in firefly habitats, such as this pond in South Carolina. Photo by Richard Joyce/Xerces Society.


Videos allow for more detailed time measurements of firefly flash patterns (duration of flashes; spacing of flashes; period of flash pattern), as well as capturing the general appearance of the flash pattern. Even smartphone videos may allow you to record flash pattern details that would be impossible to document with just a voice recorder or stopwatch. Stabilize your camera or smartphone with a tripod or against an object like a tree trunk or boardwalk railing.


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This is a project of the Xerces Society, working in collaboration with the IUCN SSC Firefly Specialist Group and New Mexico BioPark Society.

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