How to photograph Glow Worms

So I thought it is about time I start some tutorial blogs. I get asked a lot about how to shoot certain landscapes and especially about night-scapes and low light shots. Photographing Glow worms is quite specialist but the fundamentals of it comes down to the same techniques as photographing at night. Before you attempt to photograph a glow worm cave or forest, I would recommend learning to photograph the night sky. I’ll have a detailed blog coming up about that shortly! If you are interested in updates, head over to the workshop tab above and tap in your email and I’ll send out updates when I post.

Glow worm caves are incredibly dark, they are also often wet with rivers flowing through them (as this is the environment they favour), so be well prepared and wear appropriate warm and dry gear, as you’ll be down there for a while!¬†Glowworms are actually the larval stage of an insect called the Fungus Gnat.¬†The bioluminescent light they produce is used to attract other insects. Around the light the glowworms hang sticky threads, which they use to catch the insects and then eat them, much in the same way a spider does in its web. There are several species of glow worms that can be found in New Zealand, Australia, North America and parts of Eurasia. New Zealand is well known for its glow worm species, especially around Waitomo on the North Islands, which is where I shot all the photos on this blog. You can often find glow worm caves and forests on your own, theres plenty of handy information to be found on google. But the largest and most popular ones have generally been commercialised and you have to pay to go on tours through them.

It’s almost impossible to get a photo on an organised tour, unless its a specific photo tour. Shooting them is time consuming and a lot of tour companies don’t allow photography. So do your research before going, find your own cave, or book onto a photo tour.

  1. You are going to need a tripod (preferably a sturdy one) and a good quality camera, there’s not really any way around this, it’s just too dark to be capturing them on a smart phone.
  2. Find a good spot. You need to find as much light as possible, so get up close to the glow worms, and try and shoot towards the largest colonies. Being near water helps so you can catch reflections. If you can get your tripod really close to them then you can get some great close up shots, and it helps as there will be more light closer to them. I couldn’t get that near to them in my trip unfortunately.
  3. It helps if you are near another light source, if the caves have a tiny bit of natural light showing through from an entrance it can really help with your cameras exposure (but it will need to only be a tiny bit, so it doesn’t overwhelm the glow worms light). If not, I found it helpful to use a very dim head torch to light up some of the cave. I used this to silhouette a person and show scale. But it also adds some more colour to the photo and again helps with exposure.
  4. Use a fast lens, and preferably wide angle. I was shooting on a Nikon D810, with a 14 – 24mm f/2.8. I like to shoot wide angle in the dark as it absorbs a lot more light through the lens. A prime lens would work great too, the faster the aperture the better, I would recommend at least f/2.8.
  5. I always try to keep my ISO down in shots, to keep the quality high. But I found the caves so dark, I had to have it super high. Most shots were at least at ISO 3200.
  6. You are also going to need a long shutter speed, some of my shots were over 5 minutes! It really depends on the amount of ambient light in the cave, and any artificial light but I would say the minimum you are going to want will be 20 seconds, maybe slightly less if you have a fast prime lens.
  7. Give yourself plenty of time and experiment, they are a lot of fun to shoot and so impressive to see. The nice thing about the long exposures is it gives you plenty of time to appreciate them. Experiment with people and with angles, try and get near to water and reflections. Don’t be afraid to get in the streams, just make sure you are wearing appropriate gear, and be careful with you camera!

I’d love to see how you get on, so post me a link of your shots in the comments below and I promise to check them out. Any questions, feel free to ask in the comments too. Good luck!