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Light Painting with Moth Trails

Extra photos for bloggers: 1, 2, 3

OMG, it’s finally Spring!!! Get ready for the warm, lazy, insect-laden nights ahead!

Don’t wrinkle your nose — buggy nights are the best! Once you train flying insects to do your photographic bidding, that is.

Long exposures make moth trails show up as squiggles of light in your night photos: like light painting with bugs!

Grab a tripod and keep reading to learn how to harness the power of the insect kingdom!

Light Painting with Moth Trails How-To

p.s. We’re hiring in San Francisco! Must write sharp copy, know how to spread ideas, and eat social media for breakfast. info…

p.p.s. Thanks to new sponsor New York Institute of Photography for supporting Photojojo. Grab a free course catalog!

Thanks: @yayfiona, xenmate, estatik, Just Slip Away, and jpshannon44.

What’s The Deal?

We could tell you to take pictures of moth trails because it looks great, like light painting with little flying bug friends.

We could tell you it’s a fun way to get better at shooting night photography.

But mostly it’s an excuse to sit outside in a comfy lawnchair on a nice night, staring up at the sky and lazily clicking the shutter button.

What You’ll Need

  • A camera that can take long exposures
  • A tripod, Gorillapod, or big steady flat rock
  • A dark place with a big ol’ light source
  • Moths! Flying beetles! Creepity crawlies!

Good Places to Shoot

Before you get down to business, you need somewhere to shoot.

Let’s see, it needs to be dark, it needs to have a lot of bugs, and there needs to be a big ol’ bright light. Hmmm… how about:

  • The spotlights on the local playing field
  • Streetlights in the park
  • A porch with the light on
  • Anyplace with a bug-zapper (Oh no! Look out, moths!)
  • Just outside your tent (break out the camp lantern)

Don’t Go Into the Light!

Long exposures make for the best, loopiest, squiggliest moth trail photos.

To get the best trails without blowing out your photo, don’t shoot directly into the light.

Move behind the light or off to the side to put all the focus on those lovely loopy trails.

Play With Exposure


Like all night photography, getting the right exposure may take some fine tuning — the shutter may be open anywhere from one second to more than 20.

Shoot and preview a few test exposures until you like how it looks. If you’re using film, bracket like a crazy person.

Once your exposure’s set, shoot plenty of photos — each one will have a different pattern of mothly swirls for you to enjoy.

Pop the Flash

Wanna get all crazy?

Pop the flash during the long exposure so the moths show up superimposed on their own trails.

Set your camera on “night portrait” or “slow sync” and see what happens.

Change Colors

Different types of electric lights have different color casts on photos: tungsten looks yellow, flourescent looks green or turquoise, and so on.

Mess around with different white balances until you get a color you like. The “indoor lighting” or “tungsten” setting is a good place to start.

Take it Further

3 Things We Bet You Didn’t Know About Moths

  1. Insect flight paths look dotted in photos because electric lights flicker at 50 to 60 Hertz. This causes a strobe effect too fast for our eyes to perceive normally.
  2. Scientists say: moths fly toward bright lights due to celestial navigation by transverse orientation, Mach band visual distortion, and/or olfactory confusion due to infrared spectra. Whatever, science. They’re just afraid of the dark.
  3. The Atlas moth has a wingspan of up to 12 inches. That’s a big frickin’ moth.

Photo credits: L4leather, shiftshaping, estatik, Sentrawoods., jpshannon44, jonpayne, and Just Slip Away.

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