In the blink of an eye [press L!]
How long is it the blink of an eye? You could measure it, if you really want to, but the truth is that we are so accustomed to blink our eyes that we are almost entirely unaware of the whole thing. Our brain compensates for it. So, in a way, we could say that a blink of an eye has an infinitesimal duration. The amazing thing I was thinking of while processing this fireflies shot - while recalling the actual experience - is that a whole, huge lot of things happen in the blink of an eye. Proteins in our cells are freshly synthetised; old, worn-out proteins are digested and reduced to aminoacids to be recycled; tiny yet powerful molecules of ATP continually bind to enzymes, allowing them to perform their "unlawful" duties at amazing rates; B lymphocytes produce and refine astronomical quantities and varieties of antibodies to fight some intruding pathogen; neurons alternately fire and rest in what we could envisage as, well, an astoundingly complex network of hyperfast fireflies. In the blink of an eye whole universes are born, and whole worlds are destroyed. We are so bound to our perception of time, to our own timescale, that it is utterly difficult for us to imagine what is happening on different timescales. In a mere hour a bacterial colony can proliferate enormously and, sadly, viruses can get huge hordes of self-copies at the expense of an unwittingly complicit cell.
There are further non-human timescales though, well beyond the microscopic word of cells or molecules. It is not by chance that for centuries people have been believing that the world had truly been created in seven days (well, actually six) and that everything - from geology to animals and plants - have remained basically unchanged since then. And that fossils were either remains of antediluvian creatures or tricks of the devil to test our faith and potentially lead us astray.
Well my friends, somehow this photo has reminded me that the world - both the micro- and the macroscopic - is something unutterably complex, almost beyond our grasp (almost being the key of everything). The quest for its understanding is a collective, neverending adventure. I often feel so small that even these fireflies, with their wonders, humble the feeling of being part of the species who believe to be master of the world. My mind is a minute firefly lost in a vast expanse of darkness. Yet I cannot give up. We cannot give up, since we "were not made to live [our] lives as brutes, / but to be followers of worth and knowledge" (Divine Comedy, Inferno, 26). Maybe our lives are the blink of an eye in the unutterable spatial and temporal vastness of the universe. But they are well worth living.
It has always been one of my unfulfilled dreams to photograph fireflies, which, sadly, are becoming a rarity in our countryside; the positive effects of the lockdown for the environment have probably favoured a blooming this year, so I decided to have a try. I followed the advices of a master of fireflies photography, the Bulgarian photographer Hristo Svinarov. However I will eagerly accept hints and positive criticism from everyone who will be so kind to offer it.
In my second fireflies session I have become a little more confident in my possibilities. I have tried to lower the ISO below 1000, and this is by itself a huge step towards better photos; moreover I have somehow dared more in composition. I am forced to use my Samyang 14 mm, which is the only fast-aperture lens I have in my gear, so I ventured nearer and nearer, until I was literally surrounded by dancing fireflies.
I have stacked 15 5-second photos with the Gimp. As the basic layer I used an image I have obtained by averaging the photos with John Paul ChaCha's Chasys Draw IES Artist: the fireflies themselves were almost obliterated but the landscape were effectively denoised, while the details were improved. In this photo I have processed separately the image which would have been the basic layer, just in the same way as any other photo - luminosity masks, and so on. When I was satisfied with the landscape I faced a new problem: it was just like I wanted it to be, so the 15 layers to be blended (those actually containing the fireflies) should not alter it - they should only add the precious fireflies. After a good bit of trial and error I developed my own workflow: a) duplicate one of the fireflies layers; b) extract LAB L component; c) in the bw image so obtained play with levels to force all the dark tones to black, then lower the light tones slider to better the fireflies signal; d) manually paint out the sky and the trees, and the other unwanted parts still visible (e.g. the water in the ditch); e) use this image showing only the fireflies as the layer mask of the original photo; f) set the blending mode to Addition: at this point the fireflies appear in the scene; g) duplicate 4 times the layer and then merge down the copies to get only one layer with the fireflies signal very naturally amplified; h) proceed in this way for all the (gasp) 15 shots; i) after all this, you can inspect the contribution of every layer to the result and, if needed, you can duplicate it and blend with Addition or Dodge to amplify it.