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How To Pick A Photoshopped Firefly

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Photinus pyralis. Illinois, USA.

Now that firefly season is sparking up our eastern and midwestern summer evenings, I am starting to see not just the insects themselves but the attendant media buzz. That nature gets some public attention is a good thing, of course. But nature untouched isn’t apparently enough for everyone. A surprising number of common stock firefly images are digitally manipulated.

Here, I give a couple pointers to separate the real images from the altered ones.

1. Look at the position of the legs. Fireflies bend their legs back in flight, even to the point of curling their toes over. Indeed, fireflies splay so dramatically the effect borders on comical. Terry Priest’s unmanipulated photo shows the pose:

Photo by Terry Priest, CC-BY 2.0, and very real.

Fireflies that have been photographed standing often retain the wrong position when copied to a midair setting. These images look like bug zombies, an insect equivalent of the stiff-legged, off-kilter shuffle. Consider:

Getty's zombie firefly.

2. Look at the glow and the focal plane.

The only reason to see firefly glow spilling out into a diffuse orb is if the light organ is outside the focal plane, or if the lens is dirty enough to smear. When the animal is in focus, so too should be the light trail:

In contrast, here is the broader orb from an embarrassingly mis-focused photo I took recently:

It is physically impossible to get a focused firefly and an unfocused light organ in the same exposure. At least, not without dismembering the insect across the focal plane. But it is relatively easy to add a touch of digital glow in post-processing. For example:

© Dwight Kuhn.

Or here, with added lens flare:

From Dreamstime.

With these criteria in mind, I’ve assembled a quiz. Which of the following images are photoshopped?

1. Stocksy

2. Rick Lieder

3. Photo Researchers

4. Getty

5. Alamy

[Images displayed here retain the copyright of their respective owners, and are used as Fair Use commentary on the artistic decisions of their makers.]


Alex Wild About the Author: Alex Wild is Curator of Entomology at the University of Texas at Austin, where he studies the evolutionary history of ants. In 2003 he founded a photography business as an aesthetic complement to his scientific work, and his natural history photographs appear in numerous museums, books and media outlets. Follow on Twitter @myrmecos.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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