Photographing Bioluminescence

Posted by Andy Bass on

How to photograph and film bioluminescence at home:

Photographing bioluminescent dinoflagellates takes practice. It combines two photography skills that are each difficult by themselves: 1) low light photography and 2) action shots.

Setting the stage //

You’ll have the best results in a room with no to low light. Make sure to turn off the camera's flash — the flash will compete with the bioluminescence of the dinoflagellates

The keys to capturing the dinos’ glow is using low f/stop settings and high ISO.

— A lower aperture (aka f/stop) allows more light into the camera. At the same time, this narrows your focal length so it will be harder to keep the dinos in focus.

— A higher ISO increases the sensitivity of the camera to light. If the ISO is set too high the result is a grainy image.

Having at least two people for the shoot makes things easier than trying to do it all yourself. 

* Each time you swirl the dinoflagellates, they use up their light emitting molecules. The first swirl each night will always be the brightest. It may take you several tries over multiple nights to dial in your camera settings and skills to get the perfect shot.

Pro tip: After swirling, you can leave the dinoflagellates alone for a few hours so they can produce more of their light emitting molecules before trying your shots again.


For videos

Our favorite cameras for filming bioluminescence is the Sony a7sii or newer a7siii series. The Sony A7siii has a great noise compression algorithm that makes shooting at higher ISOs look very clean straight out of the camera. Both of these cameras have a broad ISO range (from 50-409600).

Using a lens with f/1.8 or lower f/stop is best for capturing the action in a low light setting. 

Canon makes a 50mm f/1.8 lens that very affordable (as far as lenses go). ~$125

We also routinely use Canon EF 50mm f/1.2 lens and the Canon EF 85mm f/1.2 lens although these are much more pricy.

All of these lenses combined with the Sony a7sii or iii cameras are great options for low light videography of dinoflagellates and bioluminescence. 

You may want to light the area so that the viewer isn’t just seeing a black screen until the bioluminescence appears. Use dimmable lights pointing away from the camera to outline your subject.

Setting suggestions:

  • Try setting your ISO to ~6400 - 12600. You may need to adjust higher or lower depending on how bright the dinoflagellate culture is glowing. (Note: the a7siii has very low noise up to 32,000 ISO and allows us to use a higher f/stop in low light environments.)
  • Set your aperture as low as it will go (f/1.2) and adjust up to f/2.8 as needed. The challenge with the lower f/stop is making sure the dinoflagellates are in focus.
Shutter speed
  • Start at 1/60 and experiment from there.
Frames per second
  • Depending on your project, choose different frame rates for different goals. Shooting at a higher frame rate (i.e. 240 fps) allows you to capture more data to create smooth motion when slowing down your footage in post.
  • If you don’t have a need for slow motion, shoot in 24, 30 or 60 frames per second.

For photos:

Our favorite camera for photographing bioluminescence is the Canon EOS Mark III or newer. These cameras have great resolution (22.3 megapixels) and offer an ISO range from 100 - 102400.

The same lenses and suggestions above are also useful for bioluminescent photography.

Setting suggestions:

  • Usually 6400-12800 is the sweet spot.
  • Set your aperture as low as it will go (f/1.2) and adjust up to f/2.2 as needed. The challenge with the lower f/stop is making sure the dinoflagellates are in focus.
Shutter speed
  • Start at 1/60 and experiment from there.
  • Note: The equipment suggestions are what we’ve found works best or is the equipment we’ve had on hand. Feel free to experiment with your gear. You may discover a better way!

iPhone / Android Devices

The newer cameras in phones are capable of capturing bioluminescence. The results aren’t as crisp as with a DSLR but are still pretty impressive.

For photos and videos:

Most new phones turn on night mode automatically when the camera detects a low light environment. You can also adjust your exposure settings if you want to adjust the capture time (i.e. take a longer exposure). Just remember to turn off the flash.

You can also explore photography apps for your phone that help expand the functionality of the camera. We recommend just giving it a shot with your phone's normal settings and adjusting from there.

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Glowing Nature

Posted by Andy Bass on

Several years ago, we began collaborating with Daan Roosegaarde and his team at Studio Roosegaarde in Rotterdam, The Netherlands to create GLOWING NATURE. 

"GLOWING NATURE shows the beauty of nature through a unique encounter between biology and technology. Following an intensive period of research and design Studio Roosegaarde has created the perfect conditions for visitors to experience the most light-emitting algae in the world which live for a long period. As visitors walk around the installation, the pressure of their footsteps wakes up the algae, whose bioluminescence creates a mesmerising, ever-changing environment.  GLOWING NATURE combines biology and technology to reflect on light and energy, and on nature’s potential to provide the tools for a better future.

GLOWING NATURE was first exhibited as part of ICOON AFSLUITDIJK at the Friesland bunker on the Afsluitdijk and attracted thousands of visitors."

Glowing Nature Swirl

Glowing Nature Footsteps

Glowing Nature Visitors

Glowing Nature Location

Glowing Nature ICOON AFSLUITDIJK at the Friesland bunker

Glowing Nature

See more at Studio Roosegaarde.

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Living Light 2.0

Posted by Andy Bass on

We're always trying to envision and create a world where humankind lives in harmony with Nature. For our next project, we designed a more sophisticated version of our original bio light, one that would be brighter and last longer.

The Living Light is amazing to see in person but it's too complex to work for the average consumer's home. It's more of an art piece versus a light we will put into production.

On the plus side, the Mushlume UFO™ is very much a miniature living light that delivers this naturally illuminated experience. We hope it inspires you to discover ingenious ways for all of us to live our days in tune with Nature. 

Urbz Living Light 2.0

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Daydreaming: living art

Posted by Andy Bass on

We're both biologists with a slant towards being artists. Or maybe it's the other way around. Either way, our passion to share the happenings in biotech through art and design was uncovered around 2002 but not fully put into practice til 2008. Before bio-art, we moonlighted as founders of a fashion endeavor and a wakeboard company. Our day jobs were as a Research Scientist for Maryann and I flitted along from bench scientist to salesman to business development and marketing.

In 2008-09, I co-founded a DNA art company called Yonder Biology. Yonder collected DNA from people using a cheek swab and gave them their DNA selfie in return in the form of an art piece they could hang on the wall. Each DNA portrait was unique to the individual based on short tandem repeats (see FBI forensics for identifying an individual) and a few fun genes like amelogenin which showed XX or XY chromosomes.

Around 2012, I learned of the first ever public exhibition for the human genome set to take place at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History the next year. I put my “sales hat” on and figured out all the players involved in the project. Within a few months of learning about the project, Yonder was commissioned to create a digital DNA art piece for the event which was titled Genome: Unlocking Life's Code. In collaboration with Max Nanis, we produced A Complete Genome in Time which was displayed in 2013 in the Smithsonian.

Around this same time, I was asked a question that would change the trajectory of my work (my life really). The man said to me, “Andy, your DNA art is cool but what would living art look like?” The question set off an obsession. Everywhere I looked Nature was displaying her brilliance and artistry. Even in my bathtub… I managed to distill the question down to another, which I started asking myself to weed out my good ideas from bad: “What can biology do that chemistry can’t?”

What can biology do that chemistry can’t?

In my estimation, biology is alive. It can grow, evolve and renew itself with the right resources as well as respond to stimuli.

In 2011, Maryann and I experienced our first oceanic bioluminescent event. It was a red tide in San Diego. At night, the waves crashed and lit up the shoreline with an electric blue glow. I became fascinated. After some googling, I found Sunnyside Seafarms in Santa Barbara run by the late Bruce Harger, who became a mentor. I ordered my first dinoflagellates from Bruce in 2011. I received 3 square, plastic pouches of dinoflagellates within a few days (~150mL total). I shook them in a dark room as soon as they arrived and saw nothing. Then, I read the instructions and learned that they would only light up at night and might need a few days to recover from their USPS journey to my home (albeit a short one from Santa Barbara to San Diego). Later that night, I got what I was looking for. Bioluminescence!

My answer to the question. The first one the man asked. “What does living art look like?” It’s a living light that would illuminate an intimate dining experience.

I started growing the dinoflagellates intently on getting enough volume to light up the lamp that I was making. This is when I tapped Bruce to become my mentor. Whether he was complicit or not, I saw him as my mentor. It was hard to extract information from him. What kind of lighting is best for the dinos’ growth? What’s the right brightness? How much light versus dark? How do you feed the dinoflagellates? What’s the best temperature? How do you prevent contamination with unwanted guests in the dino culture?  Bruce finally opened up after 4 or 5 phone calls. He welcomed me to his lab in Santa Barbara and showed me how he cultured the dinos. 

I managed to get about 3 liters growing in water bottles from my initial ~150mL that I ordered. I would show my friends that would come by. They were fascinated when they saw the beautiful blue glow. They would ask: “Why does it glow? How does it glow? Where do you get it?” Unfortunately, as my dino volume was getting larger, I went out of town for the weekend and left the bottles in the window during a random hot spell in San Diego (Santa Ana winds). My poor dinos perished and I was devastated. I called Bruce. This time I ordered a liter and started growing the volume back up again. I grew ~4 liters finally and it was time to test out my bio light idea.

I crafted the bio light filament from beer line tubing and used a random acrylic globe that was sitting around in our office space. I hung the bio light from the ceiling and made a perch for the dinoflagellates to sit in their container high above the globe. I fished the tubing into the dino container above and into an empty jug on the floor. I used black electrical tape on the areas of the tubing I didn’t want illuminated. We turned out the fluorescent lights in the room and began to suck (like siphon the dinos from their perch above so that they would flow through the tubing and illuminate in the spiral element I spun together and empty out into the jug on the floor. While all this was happening, I grabbed my camera to document what living art looked like.

Living Art // Bio light by Andy Bass

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