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Joseph Michael

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Bioluminescent glow worms turn 30-million-year-old caves into alien skies

One of the biggest challenges of photographing the native glow worms of New Zealand's limestone caves is standing in freezing water for hours at a time. Auckland photographer Joseph Michael has been doing just this for the past few months, suffering through the cold and damp to capture images of the species known as Arachnocampa luminosa. He says the long-exposure shots in his new series Luminosity attempt to recreate the magical feeling of exploring caves lit only by the creature's natural glow. "Standing in cold water for hours on end loses its appeal pretty quickly but it's worth is when you see the results," he says.

"The noise of moving water is amplified in the caves and becomes like a constant hum," Michael tells The Verge. "After spending a night inside photographing when you come outside the sound of birds and insects seem quite intensified." He says he decided to shoot the cave worms as a break from his long term project mapping images of Antarctic icebergs onto buildings around the world. "It started as a way to take my mind off this other project," says Michael, "[But] once I started seeing the images I was getting it became a little addictive."

"It's like looking up at a starscape."
Michael explored a number of cave systems in northern New Zealand, some formed as many as 30 million years ago. He adds that some of the images have been "creatively lit with a soft LED light," but that the points of light themselves are all worm. "The setup is pretty simple," says Michael. "[In] a lot of the images the glow worm lights the entire frame, I used the Nikon D810, which I find to be the best camera for high resolution night photography. Depending on how close you are to the glow worms and the abundance of them, exposures varied from five minutes to an hour."

Michael says he's hoping to develop the series of photos into a full multimedia exhibition, incorporating time-lapses and other forms of bioluminescence. "The caves are such an epic place to visit and see the glow worms with your own eyes is an incredible experience, it's like looking up at a starscape. I don't know many humans who don't like looking up at the stars."


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