By Frances Figart, Creative Services Director
One of our favorite products that we sell in our GSMA bookstores is Radim Schreiber’s book, Firefly Experience. The coffee-table book has a glowing cover and contains scores of amazing photographs of lighting bugs both in the Smokies and throughout the country.
For our latest issue of Smokies Life magazine, we created a wrap-around glowing firefly cover with one of Radim’s images of the famous lightning bugs of Elkmont, and that edition’s cover story featured a sidebar about Radim and showed many of his incredible photographs.
For those not able to travel to the park right now, both Smokies Life and Firefly Experience are available at smokiesinformation.org. We interviewed Radim to learn more about his work and some exciting new projects created from his experiences.
Tell us about where you grew up. I understand that you did not have many fireflies there.
Yes, I grew up in Czech Republic, now called Czechia. Fireflies do exist but are very rare in Czech Republic. Most people have never seen them, and certainly people do not have childhood memories with fireflies. When I was growing up, I saw them only once, deep in the marshy woods. It was something mysterious and magical, but I couldn't get a closer look at them.
Fireflies are almost considered mythical beings in Czech Republic. The myth is that they are spirits, “bludicky,” that can lead you into marshy areas to drown in the mud. Other cultures also have myths around fireflies. For example, in Japan, the myth is that fireflies are the spirits of dead people.
How did you come to the US and discover more fireflies?
I came to Maharishi University of Management (MUM) in Fairfield, Iowa, to learn English and planned to return home in just three months. Here, I was blown away by the number of fireflies and their brightness, which would later inspire me to focus my camera on their magical glow.
I still vividly remember the first time I wandered during the summer night into the woods near my town. It felt like I was being transported to another dimension. The forest was completely dark, only slow glowing lights—fireflies were floating around, as if they were fairies. I continued to walk through the forest, feeling as if I was levitating, while fireflies were slowly illuminating my way. I have traveled the world to see different fireflies, but these are still my favorite.
How and when did you first get into photography?
I got into photography at MUM, and I was probably one of the first people to get ahold of a digital camera in 1999. I started photographing insects on the way to school in the morning.
I was photographing things every morning—the giant eyes of praying mantises or grasshoppers and other alien-looking insects. It seemed I could discover things with a macro lens that my eyes couldn't see. The closer I looked the more detail was revealed for me. So many shapes, functions, mimicry . . . it was just incredible. So, you could say I “got the bug,” literally, and I couldn't stop. I was fascinated.
Closeup insect photography eventually became my BFA project, and I loved the school so much that I took the opportunity to finish my degree in photography and digital media. In the process, I met my lovely wife, Clara, from Mexico, and we got married right after I finished school. Now we have an eight-year-old son, a dog, a cat and a house, and to this day we are still in Fairfield, Iowa.
How did you first become inspired to photograph fireflies in the way that has become your trademark style?
The idea to photograph fireflies came to me in 2003 when I was on an airplane to a photography expedition in Oregon. The beautiful vision was a firefly up close, illuminated, on a blade of grass with moon behind, and dark evening sky. I drew the picture on a piece of paper, but I didn't have any idea how I would get this kind of a photograph, nor did I have any idea that it would later become larger project requiring many years of dedication.
How did you begin to learn about the different types of fireflies?
The first year I started photographing fireflies, I learned that there are different kinds. II met a firefly enthusiast from Iowa who shared with me lots of great information about the beetles. Nowadays I am connected with leading scientists around the world—like Lynn Faust and Dr. Sara Lewis in the US, and Martin Novák, Ph.D. from Czech Republic, and many more—who help me with specific information including my local species.
I can recognize about eight species here in Iowa, but I know we have many more. There are more than 2,000 species worldwide and more than 170 here in USA. Every kind of firefly looks different in a photograph. They can have different colors, sizes, brightness and duration of their flashes.
How did you figure out the way to take images of fireflies that would work for you?
I knew I wanted to have a photo of a firefly that would show their beautiful glow and I knew technology was ready when I took first couple photos of a firefly in my backyard in 2008. The following year, I upgraded to the latest camera and took a photo, “Amber Firefly,” that would eventually win first prize in the Nature Category of the Smithsonian Photography contest. I knew then that I had to continue photographing fireflies and perfecting my technique.
How did you decide to enter your photos in contests? Did someone encourage you?
One of my friends from college, Diana Yepez, encouraged me to enter the Rainforest Alliance Photography contest before I started photographing fireflies, and I won the grand prize two times in a row, for “The Butterfly Trumpet” and “Sally Light Foot Crab.” The prizes were trips to Galapagos and Costa Rica. This inspired me to continue applying to photo contests.
What was your reaction when you won some of the awards and contests?
I had my whole little town voting for my photography in the first Smithsonian award. When I got the jury award, first prize, in competition with more than 50,000 entries, I was ecstatic. My world turned around. I knew that I had something special, something people liked. This was one of the major steppingstones in pursuing photographing fireflies.
How did you decide to actually do a book of firefly photos?
I have known that I wanted to do a book since the beginning, but I didn't have enough good photos. It took me ten years to collect enough photography to make a book. Now people are already asking me about second book. I think I will make one, and hopefully it doesn't take me another ten years. This time maybe I can include fireflies around the world. Click to purchase Firefly Experience.
How did you come to quit your “day job” and completely focus on your firefly photography as a way to make a living?
This decision and process was not easy. It was a leap of faith. I was getting resentful in my job. I knew it was time to move on, but I didn't quite now what I would do next, or I didn't know how I would make a living as an artist. One of my professional photographer friends, Marty Hulsebos, inspired me and showed me the way to sell my artwork, photographs of fireflies, at art shows and galleries and online.
What do you love the most about your job? Why do you do this and seem not to ever get tired of it?
I love getting beautiful photographs, and I love sharing them with people. This is the basis of my adventure, my direction, and my dream.
I am completely hooked on the feeling of getting amazingly beautiful photographs. It is such a rush. It almost always starts with a visual idea—a fantasy of a photograph that I want to get. Then I am looking forward it like a little kid. When I finally get it, I am ecstatic.
I do get tired sometimes, especially at times when I feel I am doing the same thing over and over, with no signs of progress, or if I don't get to sleep enough. I can get frustrated, tired, angry, and low on energy. But some days, I am super excited—about getting a new shot or video, especially when it is new or fresh. It is bit of a challenge to stimulate change. It doesn't always come on its own. I have to relax into it and be open to the opportunities.
How do you think the pandemic is affecting fireflies?
They are recovering, because of less human activity. I think most of nature is rejuvenating during the pandemic. I wish that we humans could learn from this. Overall, across the world, fireflies are declining in numbers because of human activity, just like most other species on our planet. I hope we join together and preserve the beauty of this world for future generations to discover.
What is your next big project?
At the moment, I have on my mind a firefly documentary. It is bit intimidating, a bit of a leap into unknown. I have never produced a documentary. But the unknown and the vision for this project are exciting.
What is it about fireflies that continues to inspire you to specialize in photographing them after more than ten years?
Fireflies are magical beings. Spending time with them at night can be a spiritual experience. I love that the are no distractions at night. No phone calls, no e-mails, no visual distractions, just dark nights, stars, sounds of crickets and blinking fireflies. It's a bliss. I feel free and at home. It is very peaceful experience. Fireflies are the lights in the darkness, they show me the path to joy and healing.
Sometimes fireflies communicate with me. I silently ask questions—something that may be on my mind—and often I get a clear answer from their flashing behavior. I may be crazy, but it brings me joy when I can listen to them and their answers help me with decisions in my life or about my photography.
When I took my first photos of fireflies in 2008, up close, I knew that I got photos that the world hadn't seen before—something that was only possible with the latest camera technology. I really wanted to see the glow of a firefly up-close for myself. How do they light up? That curiosity keeps me discovering new things about fireflies. Now I am learning a lot about different kinds of fireflies and their behavior. I continue to push the boundaries of technology and my patience to capture photos that people have not seen before.
How do you plan, execute and process your amazing photographs?
I have two categories of firefly photography. The close-ups and the landscape photographs. The close-ups happen only about 15 to 20 minutes after sunset, before it gets dark. It is all about timing, catching a firefly lighting up.
My wife tells me I have lots of patience. I just keep trying, taking thousands of photos, just to get the perfect one. Sometimes I have swarms of mosquitoes around me and I know chiggers are getting the best of me too.
Later at night, when I cannot see fireflies up-close through the viewfinder, I start photographing landscape photos with fireflies. These are long exposures ranging from several seconds to many minutes. The longer my exposures are, the more fireflies can accumulate in my photograph.
I try to preserve fireflies in their natural beauty, and I do not external lighting or flash.
You speak about your interaction with fireflies as a spiritual experience. Can you explain this further?
I get goose bumps just remembering some of the times when I felt really good with fireflies. It doesn't happen always. I have to be rested, in a good state of mind. Then I can relax and just witness God's beauty and its magic and mystery. It is a vacation for all the senses. The smell of prairie or woods, the sounds of an owl, running water, crickets and cicadas. And then, the beauty of fireflies, twinkling or glowing at night, is just one of the most beautiful things in the world.
I keep coming back so I can experience that feeling of peace, wonder and magic. I think fireflies are enlightened beings, beautiful souls, making our dark nights more joyful and more beautiful.