It’s not how I envisioned spending my holiday, but somehow I found myself sitting in a cave on a lump of clay counting the shutter releases of my camera every 35 seconds…”213, 214, 215″… listening to the sound of dripping water from the ceiling and the splashing of an occasional eel swimming by my feet in the stream. But when I looked up, it all seemed like the perfect adventure because I was surrounded by one of the most magical natural wonders in New Zealand – a glowworm galaxy!
Nearly 8 months later and after ~60 hours in a cave I am excited to share with you one of New Zealand’s most captivating sights and a project that tested both my skills and sanity – Glowworms in Motion!
New Zealand’s famous glowworms are one of the many wonders this beautiful country has to offer. What makes these creatures so unique is their bioluminescent glow that illuminates many caves across New Zealand. Technically, these glowworms aren’t actually worms. They are the larvae of a special kind of fly known as a fungus gnat whose tail glows with a blue-green light provided by an organ equivalent to a human kidney. This light is used to attract its prey into a snare of sticky threads, but when scattered across the ceiling of a cave resemble a star filled sky.
While they are quite mesmerizing to watch, taking pictures of glowworms is extremely time-consuming. Exposures take 30 seconds to 30 minutes, there is a constant risk of water contaminating the lens, and the only option to avoid the crowds is to film during the night for hours on end in complete darkness. A single time-lapse sequence of 300 images with a minimum of 30 second exposure means a 10 second clip can take over 2.5 hours film – plus about an hour of setup. Despite the challenges faced throughout this process, that first night in the cave ignited a desire to create something few people have ever seen before and over the next few months would become my biggest filming challenge yet.
Attempt 1 – The Epic Failure
The journey to create this video began while on vacation in the North Island of New Zealand over Christmas. After visiting several free caves on the tourist trail and taking a number of photos I decided to experiment with some long exposure motion controlled time-lapses.
It failed miserably.
After exploring the cave earlier in the day, I returned just after 10pm (to avoid the holiday crowds). I knew right away it was going to be a long night as it took hours to set up and complete a series of successful test shots. After sitting in the cave for two hours in total darkness, the remote control battery died mid time-lapse, taking away my ability to pause and clean the lens. My second attempt ended with yet another battery failure – this time the external battery for my motion controller – but I was hopeful I had captured something good regardless.
After returning home I processed the footage and ended up throwing it all away. I thought I had covered all the LED lights on the equipment, but a renegade red light from the gear must have shone through completely contaminating the images. I could have given up after that but the fact that I had screwed up made me even more determined to try it again.
Attempt 2 – Glimmers of Light
It was a few months before I had a chance to make another attempt. We ended up in Auckland with a spare night one weekend after some plans fell through so we decided to head up to the caves for another try.
This time we were more prepared. Equipped with extra battery power, an air mattress and lots of duct tape to cover up lights – we were ready for Round 2. The cave had other plans though and wasn’t going to make it easy on us. It was unexpectedly busy this time with tourists, even late at night, creating quite a challenge to work around all the people.
I was able to capture a few sequences, but learned quickly I couldn’t leave the camera unattended. While Jenna tried her best to keep me company in the cave, I think she began to go a little crazy, and with no blankets to keep warm, the cave was not an easy place to sleep. So when she returned to the car I was tempted to follow once I got my second shot setup. That proved to be a mistake though when at some point several drops of water seeped into the lens and managed to penetrate the filter (which isn’t supposed to even be possible).
This time back at home I looked at the time-lapses and realized we had something special – something that was significantly different from any other video of glowworms I’d seen. The problem was we only had about 25 seconds of footage!
The Finishing Touches
Determined to finish the project, I went on a 40 hour marathon in May during a free weekend. I slept for brief 30 minute intervals on an air mattress on the cave floor with my alarm continually going off to check the camera as it moved a couple of millimeters at a time.
By now I was well-practiced at capturing the glowworms and mitigating environmental hazards so I felt comfortable lying down from time to time. That didn’t mean I got much sleep though as I was still paranoid about things going wrong. The one time I did fall asleep for any length of time (1 hour) I woke up almost submerged in the river as the water level in the cave had risen while I was out.
This time around, in order to show off more features of the cave I brought along perhaps the cheapest lighting setup of all time ($5) using several bike lights from ebay stuffed in socks as a diffusers. The small lights helped pull out details in the cave walls without taking focus away from the glowworms themselves. Even with some lights I still suffered from serious cave fever and on many occasions experienced hallucinations. The dripping, splashing and gurgling of water echoing through caves can cause you to imagine all kinds of weird things. If I had spent any longer in cave there was a real risk I would have turned into Gollum, catching and eating eels with my hands and calling the camera ‘my precious’ as it clicked away. Thankfully, I did eventually emerge from the cave, slightly delirious and in a zombie like state. Crashing in the back of the campervan I took a brief nap which although short, was the best sleep I’ve ever had in my life. I’m not sure if it was because I was completely exhausted or because I knew the potential of what was on my memory card. Either way it was both exciting and a relief.
A Special Someone
To my knowledge this is the first time-lapse video solely focused on glowworms and would have never come to pass without Jenna. She is my biggest supporter when I come up with crazy ideas and ambitions. Since moving to New Zealand I’ve invested quite a lot in camera equipment covering motion controllers, ultralight sliders, drones and a whole lot of other gadgets and Jenna always supports the dream and helps capture the epicness of our adventures. Having her along for every moment of the glowworm project was special and it simply wouldn’t have been possible without her.
UPDATE: Our glowworm time-lapse WON the New Zealand Geographic Photographer of the Year Award in the timelapse category!
Award winning stuff!
Check out Ben Canales, he’s into Astrophotography, time lapse and crazy adventures.
Wow Ben has some pretty incredible stuff! Thanks for sharing!
This is so beautiful. I loved the video and the music that goes along with it. You should sell it to Waitomo Caves. I visited some glowworm caves near Blenheim and sat in them for a while in total darkness. The larvas did indeed look like green stars. I tried to capture them but it was more difficult then i thought. I can’t imagine sleeping in the cave though. I have to say it was quite claustrophobic experience for me.
Thanks so much Marta!
I definitely felt like it was pretty claustrophobic and could only last a couple hours before going crazy. Jordan had so much patience to stay in that cave, in complete darkness, for seriously hours on end. Don’t know how he did it!
I want more, more MORE!!!!!!
Beautiful, amazing capture of the glow worms. I love the music you also choose to show case your work of art. Though it would have been interesting to see a modern day Gollum, I am glad you made it out so that we could enjoy this masterpiece. I am always looking forward to your videos and this one definitely did not disappoint.
Thanks so much Rajivi! It was definitely a labour of love 🙂
This is the coolest thing I’ve seen in a long time! Good job guys!
Thanks Liz!! 🙂
Thank you for making this video to share. My boys and I just loved it! It completely captures the magic of the NZ glow worms. We were there a few years back and got into night hikes just to see them. It’s so hard to describe to others why we felt so deeply enchanted by them (the drooly little worms that they are), and of course, we couldn’t capture photos to share. Your video is beautiful!
Aly in Oregon
Thanks Aly, so glad you and your boys loved it 🙂
WOW! That’s really all I can say! The footage is just incredible, and makes me want to learn how do do more cool stuff with photo/video! I haven’t really seen glow worms properly in NZ yet (even after 4 trips there), but I’ll definitely make it a point to next time!
Thanks Amanda 🙂 Definitely be sure to check them out next time you’re in New Zealand!
This is amazing! Great, great job.
I visited one of the glow worm caves in Te Anau and it was great, but seeing one like this is spectacular.
Jordan, this is unreal! I don’t envy the headache all the motion control rigs and everything took, but it was worth it! I’m glad you didn’t get caught blackwater rafting along with your camera gear…
Thanks Ben! No risk of that, this video was shot in free caves in New Zealand 🙂
This is incredible. Without doubt the most amazing footage of glowworms or caves I’ve ever seen! You clearly put a lot of time, effort & skill into this, and the result is absolutely worth it! Where can we find those free caves? 🙂 Looking forward to a roadtrip through NZ in November, you guys surely do keep on inspiring us. Keep it up! #StokedForMore
Thankks Arne, glad you loved the video. Make sure you check out the glowworms on your trip. Here’s a list of free caves in NZ, many have glowworms.
Was this a free cave you were in or a paid one?
We were in a number of free caves that are linked in the post above
As I was reading your post, I was trying to figure out what to call this gorgeous work. Rajivi has done it for me – it is a masterpiece. Thank you for all your hard work in capturing this incredible sight. I know I could not have spent that much time in a cave. Also, I am thankful that someone knows how to spell “duct tape.” : – ) (Instead of “duck tape.”)
I am glad I found your blog. I’ve always wanted to visit NZ.
Best regards – Marsha
Thanks so much Marsha!
Jordan and Jenna,
We love you and what you do! This video shows the wonder of the glow worms as only much time and skill can produce. Brilliantly done!
Thanks Mom & Dad!
Wow, amazing video – a tremendous reward for patience and perseverance. This is a work of art. Congratulations!
Wow this was great read, and what a smart idea. 8 months though..you are very patient!!
Thanks Carla! It was definitely a labour of love this project 🙂
Awesome video, what were the caves that you filmed in?
This is such a beautiful video. We are coming to the north island in April with our 2 young daughters and would love to show them such a wonderful spectacle of nature, where would you recommend (apart from organised tours). By the way we have based most of our trip around your videos, they are so inspiring and helped us see exactly what is on offer. Keep it up, the vicarious travel is awesom….. Cheers, Greg
Here’s a list of free caves in New Zealand, many with glowworms. Waipu Cave in Northland was one of our favorites
Your post has made it to the top of Reddit Photography:
Have a nice day!
Awesome thanks for letting us know!
Stunning video. I was boggled as to how you had taken it – most time lapse I’ve seen has been stationary and you can sort of feel the time lapse – this felt fluid and like real time. Then i read how you did this. Thank you for sharing that. What amazing patience and learning. Keep up the awesome work.
Thanks Goldie! So glad you enjoyed the video. The motion really does make you feel like you’re walking in the cave yourself 🙂
This video is incredible.Starry-eyed is how I feel. How did you muster the energy and patience for this Jordan and Jenna? Thanks to to your efforts,we can now see something so phenomenal and amazing! Waiting for the next video!! Your filming descriptions were quite informative!More power to you both! ^_^
Thanks, I’m not sure where we got the patience, I guess it was all about the challenge. Glad you loved the video and blog!
Awesome stuff! I have been to a NZ glow worm cave and this definitely captured the magic. Congrats on the success and recognition!
Beautiful!! Love the music too. What is it?
It’s called Light Bridges by Dexter Britain
Hi ! This video is great !
I like it a lot !
May I share this video on the fan page I run ?
I ‘ll mark the source and post the link of this blog.
Thanks a lot !
You can share the link to the blog or video no problem on your page but you cannot upload the video to your Facebook page.
Grazie alla vostra passione, bellissimo 🙂 !!
Vi ho volentieri dedicato questa pagina su “Andare Oltre” http://artsurpise.blogspot.it/2016/05/grotte-da-sogno-glowworms-in-motion.html
Amazing video! It’s unreal. I keep on watching it! I’m going to New-Zealand myself in July and definitely want to visit some glowworm caves. I would like to take some photo’s myself, but I read on the Waitomo website that it’s not allowed to take photo’s there. Can you tell my where you made these beautiful pictures?
Thanks a lot!
We had special permission from Waitomo to film in their caves and did some as well in some free caves around New Zealand.
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Hi Jenna and Jordan, just watched your two beautifully executed videos of the glow worms, simply mesmerising, from the exposure and focus work to the music as the final touch, just simply perfect! Going to North Island end of December, being a photographer myself I would love to capture even just a couple of great shots of this natural beauty, but also would appreciate exploring and take it all in. Any recommendation on where glow worms photos can be taken? I read that Waipu is accessible for free, but couldn’t find good references for photos of glow worms there… Considering the Waitipu caves for the experience with wife and toddler, but wouldn’t mind an other spot where I can take the camera to explore… Will definitely keep on watching your videos to finalise my itinerary in North Island 🙂