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Bioluminescence Under the Stars

A guest post by Phil Hart – author of the Shooting Stars eBook (use the code DPSTARS for a 20% discount).

Once you have the skills and equipment, great photographs are often the result of being in the right place at the right time and sometimes that involves a little bit of luck. In the Australian summer of 2008/09, I was very lucky.

I’ve spent many weeks down on the Gippsland Lakes running summer camps with Camp Cooinda and bioluminescence is something we’ve seen quite a few times over the years, although it is normally faint and all but impossible to photograph. But in late December 2008 and early January 2009, the bioluminescence was extremely bright. In fact, bioluminescence as bright as we saw it then must be quite rare anywhere in the world, for there are very few other photos like these ones I captured that summer.

Exactly why it was so bright that year is a complicated story of summer bushfires followed months later by winter floods, which caused high levels of nutrients in the water and ultimately an outbreak of the micro-organism Noctiluca Scintillans. You can read more about that story on my website, but this post is about the photos.

Four years ago, I was using a Canon 20D which was relatively early model DSLR, but still performed quite well in low light and many of my images were taken with the standard 18-55mm lens; proof again that you don’t have to have the latest and most expensive equipment to take great night images.

Splashing in Bioluminescence

Canon 20D, 18-55mm lens @27mm, 20 sec, f4, ISO1600

Some of the camp leaders playing in the water provided the first photographic inspiration and a team of us set to work seeing what we could create. The bioluminescence only glows when the water is moved or disturbed, so we started by simply having them splash water in the air, creating a silhouette of somebody standing in front (above). Then they started splashing each other directly – the bioluminescence glowing as it hit their bodies and drained down. This gives a whole new meaning to the term ‘light painting’. The second image shot with a flash on the beach helps explain what was going on, and you can see that the experience was not very pleasant for the person in the middle!

Splashing in Bioluminescent Water

Canon 20D, 18-55mm lens @18mm, 15 sec, f3.5, ISO1600

After the people in the water had got cold and headed to their tents, I spent several hours that night and others following it trying to capture as much as I could on camera. The only fast lens I had was a 50mm f1.4, which was not wide enough for nightscape style images under a starry sky, but was great at picking up the fleeting illumination from the bioluminescence as I threw handfulls of sand and pebbles into the water.

Bioluminescent Splashes

Canon 20D, 50mm lens, 4 sec, f1.4, ISO1600

Being an astronomer, my favourite images are the ones that combine the bioluminescence with the stars above. Some people have a had time believing these images are real, but I can assure you they have not had much processing and looked much the same on the back of the camera at the time. But possibly the most popular image I captured nearly cost me my camera. I had placed a flashlight on the beach pointing back at the camera so that I had something to focus on and was setting up my tripod partly in the (salt) water to get a strong view of the glowing waves right under the camera. As I jumped up to retrieve the flashlight, my leg got caught up in the cable release knocking the tripod and camera down to the ground and into the water. I quickly picked it up and rushed off to find a tap to rinse off the salty water. Fortunately the camera itself had not got too wet so I was able to get back to the photos again soon enough. The tripod though has never been the same since!

Canon 20D, 10-22mm lens @10mm, 2 min, f3.5, ISO1600

That same night I finshed off by taking a series of 2 minute exposures, from a safe position higher up the beach this time. I subsequently stacked the frames to create this star trail image, which is my personal favourite.

Bioluminescence and Star Trails

Canon 20D, 10-22mm lens @10mm, 45 x 2 min, f3.5, ISO1600

It’s been nearly four years since I took these images but I fear I will have to wait much longer to ever see bioluminescence like it again. If you want to make sure you’ve got the skills to capture amazing night sky images like these when you too find yourself in the right place at the right time, then I’m very confident my eBook Shooting Stars eBook (currently 40% off at SnapnDeals) will help you a lot!

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category.

Phil Hart is an engineer by day and photographer under the stars by night. He is the author of the eBook Shooting Stars and a free Night Sky Photography Newsletter and runs Workshops in and around Melbourne, Australia.

  • http://energizeyourphotography.blogspot.com EnergizedAV

    We live in a fantastic world! I’m glad there are talented and adventurous people like you. WOW!

  • http://blogs.gonomad.com/traveltalesfromindia/ Mridula

    Amazing super amazing pictures! And heard of the phenomenon for the first time too!

    http://blogs.gonomad.com/traveltalesfromindia/

  • http://www.margaretmuirauthor.com Margaret Muir

    Your picture of the rotaing heavens epitomises words I wrote some years go about marine biouminescent particles which sparkle when the sea is disturbed by a ship.
    “Those diamonds, as you call them, have puzzled men for centuries. Long ago, men thought they were the sun’s rays which had dived into the sea. At night, they said the fiery spirits would try to escape the water, to fly back to the heavens. Some said the troubled sea created sparks like those emitted when a flint strikes a steel. Some said they were small fish or insects which could glow like fireflies. Others argue that at times they can come alive and swirl together in a shining mist of colour which floats across the sea turning like a spinning top. Some say it is an aurora. Others – an illusion.”
    Extract from SEA DUST by Margaret Muir (set 1856).

  • Steve O

    Love the pebbles

  • raghavendra

    This is so good,
    awaiting to see more pictures like this

    http://raghavendra-mobilephotography.blogspot.com/

  • Rahul

    I would call it Aurora Borealis of the Sea. :-) We had this amazing experience first time in our lives in San Diego last winter. This really amazing experience caused by the Dinoflagellate, which are tiny plants of the sea and they emit a bright blue light on movement.

    Of course, it was winter and water was so cold, couldn’t think of going in or near it. And then, I didn’t have the cool ideas such as yours.

    [eimg url='https://lh5.googleusercontent.com/-6oMZ75u4o8s/T_-SIXP82pI/AAAAAAAAE_c/L1H3Hvsv2J0/s144/AuroraBorealisOfTheSea.jpg' title='AuroraBorealisOfTheSea.jpg']

  • Brandy Roice

    I’ve known a little bit about bioluminosity for years. However, whenever I’ve seen it, it’s not been very bright. While I’ve never seen it firsthand,I’ve always wanted to. I just figured that it was something that is, or can be very dificult to photograph and your awesome shots go to show that circumstances,as well as being in the right place at the right time can make for some great photograph’s as well as great memories! I’m sooo jealous!

  • VaryScrappy

    Those images are simply amazing. Kudos for capturing them!

  • Brian

    Excellent pictures. Its great when frends a willing to help make photographs like these, most of my friends shy away from the camera.

    I love the one with the “Still” stars.

    Should the lens type be a 10-2mm lens? Im assuming it is a 10-22mm?

  • WiKast

    Many years ago while undergoing army “boot camp” at Fort Knox, Kentucky, we were obliged to participate in night maneuvers while on bivouac. In the pitch darkness, I observed many rotting tree stumps glowing from bioluminescent fungi. Of course, I did not have access to a camera at that time, and ever since, have tried, and failed, to find such luminescence again. That would have made a striking photographic subject.

  • http://disney-photography-blog.com/ Alexander Catastroff

    Extremely cool! Now here’s an idea: could you perhaps use bright waterproof spotlights with colour filters to make your own artificial bioluminescence? That’s an experiment I want to try!

    http://disney-photography-blog.com/

  • http://philhart.com/ Phil Hart

    thanks Brian for picking up the typo.. it is of course the 10-22mm lens for the last two pics which I have fixed now.

    wikast.. i have also seen bioluminescent fungi at the gippsland lakes, but when i went back on several following nights to where i saw it they were not glowing anymore. strange!

  • Brian in Whitby

    In the last photo, why are the star trails elliptical? Unless the photo was stretched, I think they should be circular.

  • Brian in Whitby

    Other instances of bio-luminescence include some species of mushrooms, fireflies and glow worms.

  • David Sargent

    Stunning.

  • http://www.courier-spain.co.uk edmund

    My personal favourite of your wonderful photos is the one where you ruined your tripod. I experienced this phosphorescence in the Indian Ocean and we see the same in the Mediterranean from a long way away. Beautiful, well done.

  • Angelique

    I am fascinated by bioluminesence!!

Some older comments

  • edmund

    October 19, 2012 02:18 am

    My personal favourite of your wonderful photos is the one where you ruined your tripod. I experienced this phosphorescence in the Indian Ocean and we see the same in the Mediterranean from a long way away. Beautiful, well done.

  • David Sargent

    August 25, 2012 01:23 am

    Stunning.

  • Brian in Whitby

    July 25, 2012 01:35 am

    Other instances of bio-luminescence include some species of mushrooms, fireflies and glow worms.

  • Brian in Whitby

    July 25, 2012 01:34 am

    In the last photo, why are the star trails elliptical? Unless the photo was stretched, I think they should be circular.

  • Phil Hart

    July 16, 2012 03:27 pm

    thanks Brian for picking up the typo.. it is of course the 10-22mm lens for the last two pics which I have fixed now.

    wikast.. i have also seen bioluminescent fungi at the gippsland lakes, but when i went back on several following nights to where i saw it they were not glowing anymore. strange!

  • Alexander Catastroff

    July 14, 2012 03:58 am

    Extremely cool! Now here's an idea: could you perhaps use bright waterproof spotlights with colour filters to make your own artificial bioluminescence? That's an experiment I want to try!

    http://disney-photography-blog.com/

  • WiKast

    July 13, 2012 10:07 pm

    Many years ago while undergoing army "boot camp" at Fort Knox, Kentucky, we were obliged to participate in night maneuvers while on bivouac. In the pitch darkness, I observed many rotting tree stumps glowing from bioluminescent fungi. Of course, I did not have access to a camera at that time, and ever since, have tried, and failed, to find such luminescence again. That would have made a striking photographic subject.

  • Brian

    July 13, 2012 05:13 pm

    Excellent pictures. Its great when frends a willing to help make photographs like these, most of my friends shy away from the camera.

    I love the one with the "Still" stars.

    Should the lens type be a 10-2mm lens? Im assuming it is a 10-22mm?

  • VaryScrappy

    July 13, 2012 02:31 pm

    Those images are simply amazing. Kudos for capturing them!

  • Brandy Roice

    July 13, 2012 01:54 pm

    I've known a little bit about bioluminosity for years. However, whenever I've seen it, it's not been very bright. While I've never seen it firsthand,I've always wanted to. I just figured that it was something that is, or can be very dificult to photograph and your awesome shots go to show that circumstances,as well as being in the right place at the right time can make for some great photograph's as well as great memories! I'm sooo jealous!

  • Rahul

    July 13, 2012 01:14 pm

    I would call it Aurora Borealis of the Sea. :-) We had this amazing experience first time in our lives in San Diego last winter. This really amazing experience caused by the Dinoflagellate, which are tiny plants of the sea and they emit a bright blue light on movement.

    Of course, it was winter and water was so cold, couldn't think of going in or near it. And then, I didn't have the cool ideas such as yours.

    [eimg url='https://lh5.googleusercontent.com/-6oMZ75u4o8s/T_-SIXP82pI/AAAAAAAAE_c/L1H3Hvsv2J0/s144/AuroraBorealisOfTheSea.jpg' title='AuroraBorealisOfTheSea.jpg']

  • raghavendra

    July 12, 2012 01:29 pm

    This is so good,
    awaiting to see more pictures like this

    http://raghavendra-mobilephotography.blogspot.com/

  • Steve O

    July 12, 2012 12:52 pm

    Love the pebbles

  • Margaret Muir

    July 12, 2012 11:06 am

    Your picture of the rotaing heavens epitomises words I wrote some years go about marine biouminescent particles which sparkle when the sea is disturbed by a ship.
    "Those diamonds, as you call them, have puzzled men for centuries. Long ago, men thought they were the sun’s rays which had dived into the sea. At night, they said the fiery spirits would try to escape the water, to fly back to the heavens. Some said the troubled sea created sparks like those emitted when a flint strikes a steel. Some said they were small fish or insects which could glow like fireflies. Others argue that at times they can come alive and swirl together in a shining mist of colour which floats across the sea turning like a spinning top. Some say it is an aurora. Others – an illusion."
    Extract from SEA DUST by Margaret Muir (set 1856).

  • Mridula

    July 12, 2012 03:18 am

    Amazing super amazing pictures! And heard of the phenomenon for the first time too!

    http://blogs.gonomad.com/traveltalesfromindia/

  • EnergizedAV

    July 12, 2012 01:47 am

    We live in a fantastic world! I'm glad there are talented and adventurous people like you. WOW!

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