My first night in the Allegheny National Forest led me to a familiar road. It’s always a bit of a gamble on the first night when you just don’t know if any fireflies are around. Fortunately this was my 5th year in the area and I knew the synchronous fireflies were in this area. This shot above is multiple 30 second shots taken over the course of an hour.
These are synchronous fireflies. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park was once thought to be the only place where you can see synchronous fireflies in North America, and is the most known. But in 2012, a colony of these fireflies was found in Pennsylvania’s only national forest, one that’s being heavily logged and cleared for gas drilling.
Just off to the side of the road was a small ditch that I could get down to. It looked like a nice spot, with a few moss and fungus covered logs that served as my seat to the show. On the other side of these young trees was a bit of a meadow, that was earmarked to check out if I go back.
I really like when I am able to capture the few blinks that happen in the low lying ferns. They serve as a nice contrast to the magical light dancing in the air just inches above them.
All of these photos are the result of 5 years of researching locations and a heavy dose of luck. While my cameras were shooting away, I took a walk along the dark forest road and found a nice hot spot of activity. I just had to find it when I made my return trip the following night. My idea was to use a super wide angle lens (14mm) to capture as much activity as I could. I wasn’t able to do so yet, so the challenge was on for the next night.
After packing up around 11:30, I drove to a spot for Milky Way viewing. As soon as I stepped out of my car I saw it, which shocked me since my eyes hadn’t even adjusted to the darkness yet.
How could I not try and shoot the dark skies after finishing up with fireflies? With skies as dark as they are in the Allegheny National Forest, it’s a must. This panoramic shot is the result of stitching 6 wide angle shots together.
Originally I planned on taking quick videos on a few locations and create a full video on YouTube. I still may at some point, but I’ll be sharing a few of the short clips in this article. This first video was taken on night 2.
I was wrong, there were bears. More on that in a later video. I also took a few 30 second videos trying to capture the synchronization of blinks. This one below was one of the better ones. You’ll see them blink a few times and then sink into complete darkness for 3-4 seconds before starting again.
This photo, “Twisted Twilight”, may be one of my favorite shots from this years trip. It was taken with my super wide angle lens, something that I’ve never been successful at with fireflies. This was the spot I scouted on my first night while my cameras were clicking away down the road. Along that walk I saw this absolute action packed scene going all the way up the hill side.
The third night was a wash out. There were isolated thunderstorms rolling through, combined with no cell phone signal where I wanted to go. I wasn’t going to stand in a forest wondering if I’ll be a fried meatball after being stuck by lightning. The weather for the rest of the week was forecast with no rain, so I welcomed the night off.
Landscape photography is often a case of hurry up and wait. I wanted to try out a new location for star trail and Milky Way photography at an old campground in the Allegheny National Forest. The pond was covered in a thick algae blanket but don’t let that trick you. I arrived before sunset and there was some natural and wild beauty all around.. I spent hours doing some research and came up with a perfect location.
I pulled up to this area around 8:30PM which was about 30 minutes before sunset. That gave me enough time to take in the sights and nail down the compositions. While scouting around I realized there was a lot of potential with so many beautiful natural scenes like this one I captured right at sunset.
Here’s a video of the area just after the sun had set. I was standing on the exact spot that was to be my Milky Way panoramic shot. One of my favorite things with scouting for night shots during the day is trying to preconceive how it will look at night.
The first composition was easy as shown above. I was to pull the car right up to the water, and wham-o, there’s my milky way shot. The second photograph was to be a star trail shot that was about 100 yards away. I found a really nice wooden bridge to do a star trail over during the walk about. The North star lined up just over the end of the bridge and would have made for such a great shot. It was just too far from where I was taking a Milky Way shot though. It had absolutely NOTHING to do with hearing a pack of coyotes barking and howling.
The sun traveled below the horizon and then it happened. Not too far off in the the distance I heard them. A pack of coyotes began howling and barking. I’ve heard something similar in the Pinelands of New Jersey but this was louder, closer and there seemed to be a decent sized pack. It was at that point I decided to ditch the star trail. That decision bothers me still because it was such a great shot. There are some things I draw the line at doing in the dark. It was also almost the end of my trip and I can only take so much standing in the dark alone! It wears me out mentally. I captured some audio of it to remind me and share it. You may need to turn up the audio to hear better!
I was able to wait out the pack of coyotes as the night progressed and the Milk Way was revealed. In order to capture the full span I merged 10 photos together. With each photo taking about 20 seconds, you’re locked in to taking back to back photos for a few minutes. Just as I was wrapping up the last few shots, yet another animal made it’s presence known. I had never heard this sound before and it definitely rattled me. I looked up what types of animals were known to be in these parts and the conclusion I made was that it was a bobcat making a ‘barking’ call. I’m glad it wasn’t growling since that is indeed a nightmare inducing sound.
Waiting. I always question if the location I’ve decided on is just going to totally bust. It will grow darker and then there’s absolutely no sign of fireflies. As time approaches 10pm, it’s like magic when a small amount begin to flash. And by 10:15 you’ll know if you hit the jackpot. By 10:45 in most cases, it’s so dark you can’t really see what you are taking photos of. It’s just little yellow points of light that dot the summer night air. And for that time when they start, almost nothing else matters because nature is putting on a light show seemingly just for your eyes. You just need to wait.
This was a very cool temperature night, so there wasn’t a spectacular amount of activity. Another photo I’ve been wanting to get was one with reflections of the light in water. With water levels being so low in the area I was in, that was yet another challenge for the night. Here’s a video that walks you through my thoughts for this night.
After finishing up taking firefly photos for the night, it was time for the Milky Way! I was really lucky this year with a few nights of clear skies. I made my way to another bridge and set up the tripod to begin lining things up. It was another scene filled with fireflies twinkling all over the place. From the grass to the tree tops. It wasn’t my intention to capture them as well as the Milk Way, but it adds a dash of summer night to the scene.
On the previous night I went off into the forest on the left side of the path here. Let’s just say walking back out of the forest after the sun set in the dark was VERY disorienting. A few of my shots this year involve paths or roads. It helps me remember walking down these while the fireflies do their thing after dark. It’s like walking down some type of magical tunnel.
Here’s the last firefly photo from this years adventure. It’s become quite the test of skills for me every year. From planning and looking at maps, to actually driving to locations to scout during the day. Then there’s the meticulous process of editing each photograph by looking at 60-100 individual photos and picking out which ones look best. I really believe that hardly anyone else photographs them the way I do.
The final shot of the 2022 trip was a great one of the Milky Way! On my last night of photographing synchronous fireflies I wanted to return to this bridge one more time. It was way too cloudy on my first pass. Even at almost midnight you can still see the fireflies on the opposite side lighting up. It was a perfect 65 degrees, unlike the night prior where it slipped to just above 50.
Thanks for taking the time to check these out! Let me know what you think and leave me a comment below.