BREATH TAKING BI O LUMINESCENCE
Amit Kamble ventures off the beaten track to capture glow-worms, sharing his top tips on how to photograph a bioluminescent cave worm at its best
‘Glow-worm’ is a common term used to refer to various groups of insect larvae of the fungus gnat, which emit bioluminescence in a blue-green colour, with the best-known member of the genus being the New Zealand glow-worm, Arachnocampa luminosa.
These live side by side on damp sheltered surfaces, such as the roofs of caves, or banks in our native forest and bush, and can be found in locations all over the country. The larvae are predatory, and use their glowing lights to lure small flying insects into a snare of sticky threads. Though they may sound vicious, they’re the prettiest things you’ll ever see.
HOW I FOUND THEM
As a young kid, I was always fascinated with twinkling stars and used to stay up at night on most weekends, gazing at the night sky and trying to match the stars to those I saw on the chart. I moved to New Zealand seven years ago, and fell in love with its night sky. Since then, I’ve kept myself busy shooting the night sky, and constantly keep searching for new places to shoot.
I live in Tauranga and, when shooting astrophotography, usually drive a few kilometres to get away from light pollution. One day, fellow photographer Jack Burden and I decided to explore one of the well-known places in Tauranga — McLaren Falls Park — which is not too far from the city. The plan was to find a nice dark place to shoot a night time-lapse, but, as the sun went down, the clouds rolled in, which meant we had to pack up and drive back.
As we were packing our bags, we remembered about the glow-worms that someone had mentioned to us a while ago. Until this trip, I’d never seen or shot glow-worms, so I was pretty excited. We started walking and searching for them: we were pretty disappointed in the first few metres, as we could hardly see any, and the groups we saw were pretty tiny. But, as we kept walking, all the disappointment disappeared as we came across the most crowded part.
It was like being in space, surrounded by stars: we had 360-degree views of the glow-worms twinkling. It’s no wonder Ma¯ori call them titiwai, meaning lights reflected in water.
THINGS YOU NEED
When it comes to low light, without a doubt, a tripod and an intervalometer (see p. 67) are a must. If you don’t own an intervalometer, don’t panic — most Nikon and Sony cameras come with a built-in intervalometer, but, if you shoot with a Canon, you can purchase one as an accessory or get the free firmware add-on, Magic Lantern.
You’ll need a fast lens — the faster the better. I have a Samyang 24mm f/1.4 lens, and, using this, I can bring the exposure time down to avoid any movement. I’d say anything up to f/3.5 would be an ideal lens, and, obviously, you’ll need a camera (duh). Don’t forget the batteries, card, or the tripod
shoe, either (yes, I’ve forgotten these on my shoots before).
CRANK IT UP
On my first attempt, I quickly pulled out my camera and, sticking to the settings I’d normally use for shooting stars, fired it off. Twenty seconds later, I discovered what was probably the most surprising result I could have expected: instead of beautiful glow-worms, all I could see was a blank screen. For a minute, I thought I had had my lens cap on (which I’ve also done so many times before) or had the ISO too low, but everything looked fine. Yet there was nothing on the screen.
After a lot of attempts, I realized the solution to shoot the tiny glow-worms was to crank up the ISO, extend the exposure, or utilize a combination of both. As these tiny worms don’t stay at the same place for a long time, going crazy with the exposure time is not really a solution. Cranking the ISO all the way up to 10,000 is not ideal, either — the images on a crop-sensor camera, or on any camera at that ISO, will be practically unusable. The solution of using a combination of both, works much better. I found exposure time anywhere from two to five minutes for a fullframe camera at ISO 6400 to ISO 10,000 is ideal, and, for a crop-sensor camera, five to 10 minutes and ISO 3200 to ISO 6400 work well. These settings are for a lens shooting at f/2.8 — if shooting faster than that, you can reduce the ISO by a stop. Punch these numbers in and you’ll be sure to have an image with bright, beautiful bioluminescence.
NO INTERVALOMETER OR FAST LENS?
Well, I have a solution for that too. While I generally use Magic Lantern as an intervalometer, there was a day when I forgot the card I had installed it on. My work-around was to use the longest exposure that the camera can do — 30 seconds. Put the camera on a two-second delay timer, and take several photos. The method I am describing here is ‘stacking’ (30s, f/2.8, ISO 3200). You can take images that total up to an exposure of five minutes, and use Photoshop or similar software to stack them. You can use this technique with a combination of the justmentioned to get a better signal-to-noise ratio or, in simpler terms, to reduce the visible grain in your image.
This is where personal taste matters. Everyone likes to take a different approach to processing low-light photos. I try to get as many details as possible when shooting low-light photos, and shooting
glow-worms is similar. Seeing tiny little blue dots in the image is excellent, but what adds to the image is being able to see their surroundings.
Start working with exposure. These images are dark, so increasing the exposure by a stop or two is ideal, and follow it by changing the white balance to a cooler temperature to get that beautiful blue glow. Also, make sure the glow-worms are not over-exposed by reducing the highlights. Once you are happy with how the image looks, export it to Photoshop and use Google’s Nik Collection (Dfine) for noise reduction. Low-light photos have strong colour and image noise, so this is the most important part of the processing.
Follow these suggestions, and you’ll be sure to achieve some amazing-looking glow-worm shots.
CANON EOS 6D, SAMYANG 24MM F/1.4 ED AS UMC LENS, 24MM, 120S, F/1.4, ISO 6400
CANON EOS 6D, SAMYANG 24MM F/1.4 ED AS UMC LENS, 24MM, 300S, F/1.4, ISO 6400
CANON EOS 6D, SAMYANG 24MM F/1.4 ED AS UMC LENS, 24MM, 60S, F/1.4, ISO 6400 CANON EOS 6D, SAMYANG 24MM F/1.4 ED AS UMC LENS, 24MM, 30S, F/2.8, ISO 6400 CANON EOS 6D, SAMYANG 24MM F/1.4 ED AS UMC LENS, 24MM, 300S, F/1.4, ISO 6400
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