The Making of a Still: Fireflies and Lightning
July 8, 2017 -- TimelapseWorkshops.com -- This past week I led a storm chasing workshop for alumni of my timelapse photography workshops. The trip took us through eight states in America's heartland with the goal of capturing the development and progress of severe storms, and hopefully some tornados.
On the seven day trip everyone was able to capture breathtaking thunderstorms, sunsets, and were lucky enough to see four tornadoes. On one of the nights we stopped in a parking lot of a farm equipment manufacturer to watch a lightning show that was moving across the landscape. In the field just beyond the parking lot were fireflies leaping from leaf to leaf. I quickly set up my camera in order to capture both the lighting in the distance and the movement of the fireflies in the foreground. As this was a timelapse photography workshop I set out to capture this scene as a timelapse, taking picture after picture and assembling them into a video when I got back to my computer. In total, I captured 204 frames, which translates into a 6 second, 24 frame timelapse since there are roughly 30 photographs that make up each second of video.
When I had the chance to render the timelapse I realized that while the lightning show was nice, the fireflies almost went unnoticed in the video. The reason for this is that each individual frame of video only lasts 1/30th of a second, and since fireflies are constantly turning their light on and off, their glow doesn't last much more than a frame, so our eyes only get a 1/30th of a second glimpse of their magic.
Since the timelapse itself was underwhelming I decided that maybe the fireflies would show up better if I merged them together into a single photograph. This method is called stacking. I used a free program called StarStax, which makes stacking a simple process. I dragged all 204 JPEG frames into StarStax, set blending mode to "Lighten" and clicked "Start Processing." After a few minutes I had a single image with all the lightning bolts and light from the fireflies in a single photograph. While the image looked good, I wanted to remove the other artificats that were also blended together, such as the clouds, and leaves from the crops.
I saved the newly created still frame as a .TIF file by selecting "File--->Save as" in StarStax. I then loaded this image into Photoshop, along with one frame from the original timelapse. I layered the two images on top of each other and used a layer mask to mask out the blurred leaves and blurred clouds from the stacked image. I then decided to crop the image into a panorama in order to get rid of the tops of the clouds and bottom of the leaves that didn't add anything to the photo.
The image here is the final edit.