See thousands of fireflies light up a Mexican forest

A photographer shifts her gaze from the ongoing instability and violence in Mexico to the fleeting beauty of one of the country’s natural wonders.

This story appears in the July 2019 issue of National Geographic magazine.

When an editor called to ask if I could photograph a story about fireflies in Mexico, I didn’t check my schedule before I said yes. I’d seen these insects light up the forests in Tlaxcala once before, and I jumped at the chance to go back.

While studying at the University of Colima, I began exploring Mexico, crossing the country several times by bus. I’ve spent time in 28 of its 31 states, and the variety of landscapes—Michoacán’s beaches, Colima’s volcano, San Luis Potosí’s plateau—captivates me in a way that no other country has.

Now I work as a photojournalist in Mexico and along the border, documenting desperate situations that rarely seem to improve for everyday Mexicans. I’m lucky enough to be able to leave when I need to; my Mexican colleagues face censorship and threats to their lives.

Though necessary and important, news stories don’t reflect the Mexico that I fell for and that is home to so many people I love. An assignment focused on the country’s natural beauty was a welcome reprieve.

I had three nights to capture the magical scene in the forest. Tripod in hand, I hiked with my colleagues into the misty forest at dusk. I set up, and we waited, our banter dissipating as the daylight waned and tiny specks of light emerged.

According to our guides, visitors are usually not allowed to photograph the fireflies because the presence of artificial light from electronics can affect their habits. As I started shooting, I adjusted my exposures constantly to account for the fading light. In order to get the composition that I wanted, I placed my tripod on a steep, rocky path and had to steady it during the long exposures. Normally this wouldn’t be a big deal, but the fireflies were very interested in the camera and, by extension, in me. I stood completely still while they crawled all over me—my arms, my hair, my face—and tickled my nose and cheeks. From what I observed, peak firefly presence happens for only about 20 minutes each night, so I had time for just a few tries.

On the last night everything came together. The weather cooperated. I had improved my method for focusing and composing in the dark with quick flashes from a powerful flashlight—and I’d grown accustomed to insects on my face.

I was rewarded with the image you see here. Each speck of light is one of several bursts that a firefly makes as it travels within a 30-second exposure. You can trace the insects’ paths: Some make small loops, like those in the bottom center of the frame, while others move steadily in one direction or another.

The first time I visited the fireflies, I didn’t have the pressure of trying to capture and convey this wondrous scene. I was just immersed and completely enchanted. That will always be my favorite experience with these luminous creatures.

Kirsten Luce most recently photographed wildlife tourism for the June 2019 issue of the magazine.

Every year, hundreds of thousands of fireflies begin their mating dance in the pine forests of Mexico. Filmmaker Blake Congdon captured this incredible phenomenon as never before seen.

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