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Media & Info/Photographing Bats

Photographing Bats


In 1978 I wrote a chapter about bats for a National Geographic book, Wild Animals of North America. When I saw the photos that were going to illustrate my words, I was horrified. I had never considered the impact of bat pictures that were then typical. Most showed bats snarling in self-defense. Because of their shy nature and nocturnal habits, bats are exceptionally difficult to portray photographically as they really are in the wild. When first captured, they either try to fly away, bare their teeth in threat, or hunker down, eyes closed, anticipating the worst. Impatient photographers too often had held a bat by its wings, blown into its face, then snapped a quick picture as the bat tried to defend itself with a snarl.

So I began studying photography myself, and soon discovered that people's negative attitudes about bats could be changed in minutes upon seeing how fascinating and beautiful bats can be.

Equipment

I use a Canon F1 Camera with an FN motor winder and Canon lenses ranging from a 24mm, F2.0 to 300mm, F2.8. By far the most frequently used of my lenses is the 100mm macro, though I sometimes use a 200mm macro to fuzz the background or a 50mm macro to permit me to work closer to the bat. I occasionally use wide angle lenses for special effects in close-ups, especially when I want to show more than otherwise possible of a plant being visited by a bat or of a cave entrance through which bats are emerging. An example would be the shot of a frog-eating bat drinking in flight (see January 1982 National Geographic), taken with a 28mm lens from water level 10" away. I use a 300mm, F 2.8 telephoto occasionally for flying foxes in the wild, usually accompanied by fill-lighting from a mirror or a well-aimed flash with a 3 X telehood. This is always done at a time of day when fill lighting can be balanced against ambient light.

Although I sometimes use Vivitar 283 flashes for convenience of mobility, my standard studio system is custom made by: Woods Electronics Inc., 14781 Pomerado Road #197, Poway, CA 92064, (619) 486-0806. My system operates up to six heads, has a two second recycle time and speeds of 1/10,000th or 1/33,000th. I use only Kodachrome 64 film, work mostly at distances of 2-6 feet and shoot at from F32 to F11 on average, though I often dampen the flash output to go as low as F4.0 to fuzz a background.

Most of my light readings are taken with Minolta III, IV, or V light meters. I tend to use fairly standard flash distances, so I am immediately suspicious if a reading is unusual. Typically, I use two flashes in front and two in back of the subject. Angles and distances are varied to create special effects. As many as eight flashes may be required for some large sets in order to properly illuminate background foliage or other objects.

I sometimes use a Shutter Beam from Woods Electronics Inc. This infrared beam will trigger a Sironar lens with a built-in shutter (camera open on bulb setting) quickly enough to stop a flying bat before it moves too far past the beam. Success is enhanced by careful testing of a variety of bats. Each bat species flies at a different speed, so knowing exactly where to pre-focus requires experience.

I carry two of nearly everything electronic in case of failure, and my total traveling equipment weighs approximately 300 pounds, exclusive of personal effects.

Techniques

I work under natural conditions when convenient or necessary but typically rely on a studio setup in a small room where I use many flash stands, velveteen, etc. to create sets. This is always done within a short distance of where the bats live in the wild to ensure set authenticity.

The key to my success is tremendous patience, years of experience working with bats and an ability to tame and train them. Many are trained to catch prey or visit fruit or flowers only on command, to approach from a specific direction, etc. There is no standard means of training bats, though an important element is extreme persistence in staying up all night with them night after night in an enclosure until they accept me as harmless and learn to feed from my hand. Then they are rewarded for doing as I wish.

People often want to know how to make sure each shot is good in order not to waste film. The answer is that it can't be done. I very carefully test every kind of exposure I intend to make before a trip, if for no other reason than to refresh my memory prior to each trip, and always keep permanent notes on the results. Even so, bat photography can be extremely difficult. I shot 5,000 to 6,000 frames for each of my first three National Geographic articles. In fact, the one on epauleted bats courting (see April 1986 National Geographic) required roughly 600 frames to get one that was just right. Under such circumstances, there is almost no room for bracketing, since it is already so difficult just to get the bats at just the right position and moment.

In general, I try to take close to a hundred shots of anything involving high speed action of prey capture, flower pollination, special behavior, etc., before assuming I have what I want, even though I almost never bracket more than half an F stop. The reason for this is that one can never predict accurately the exact wing position, facial expression, etc. when working at the very high speeds required.

Some Additional Tips

Bats are beautiful, likeable animals, needlessly feared by the public. Please do not contribute to existing misunderstandings by publishing pictures of bats snarling in self-defense, because they are being poorly handled. I also avoid most shots of bats flying straight toward the camera with their mouths open echolocating. To the layman who does not understand, such pictures look aggressive. I am happy to be of assistance, but please return the favor by making every effort possible to present bats as the important and likeable animals that they really are. Also, if publishing photos, please be careful not to allow use with articles or captions that further misinform the public about bats.

Thank you for your interest in bats and my work. Good luck with your personal photographic efforts!

References
Tuttle, Merlin D. 1982. "The Amazing Frog-eating Bat." National Geographic, 161(1): 78-91.
Tuttle, Merlin D. 1986. "Gentle Flyers of the African Night." National Geographic, 169(4): 540-558.
Tuttle, Merlin D. 1991. "Bats -- The Cactus Connection." National Geographic, 179(6): 131-140.
Tuttle, Merlin D. 1995. "Saving North America s Beleagured Bats." National Geographic, 187(8): 36-57.

If you are interested in learning more about photographs and photographic standards used in BCI publications, please visit BCI'sGuideline links at the top of thispage.

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Unless otherwise noted, all images are copyright ©Merlin D. Tuttle and/or ©Bat Conservation International