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Bat Photography by Merlin Tuttle - Lighting and Framing

Lighting And Framing

Today's post-processing software gives considerable flexibility with regard to image touch-up. It should be noted that although today's post processing software is very powerful, it does not replace good photography. Garbage in still equals garbage out. Try to get the photo as perfect as possible inside the camera first, then use the software to enhance as necessary.

Include as many different types of shots as possible: close-ups of people or bats, as well as medium and distant shots that show the setting, habitat and activities. Vary the backgrounds, lighting, etc. You may need a tripod and assistant or timer to get in the picture yourself if necessary. This is especially important for grant and scholarship recipients. We need action shots of you in the field!

Pay attention to background. A distracting background can ruin your picture.

Show people working. Have them look official wearing a uniform, using tools, writing in a notebook, holding a bat, etc.

If you take a picture of a person holding a bat please be sure that person is wearing a glove on the hand used to hold the bat. We want readers of our publications to understand that bats are wild and should be handled with caution.

Try to avoid white objects and clothing in your photos. Too much white will throw the color contrast off for the rest of the photo. White t-shirts especially should be avoided.

Take close-ups. For example, if someone is examining or caring for a bat, shoot just their face with their hand and the bat, not the view of their whole body. Be aware that in close-ups, you will want a very tight crop, so you should have the person hold the bat really close to their face. The close proximity may seem unnatural or uncomfortable for your subject, but should be about right for your photo.

6024202 Include shots that show the local culture. Clothing, architecture, and signs in other languages are all good ways to depict different cultural settings.

Quick Composition Checklist

- Make a list of shots you want. Plan each image to be sure the picture tells a story. Get a variety of shots, including close-ups and wide-angles, verticals and horizontals.

- Pose people to show them working, wearing uniforms and holding pertinent props. Show bat handlers wearing at least one glove. Avoid backsides.

- Have people wear colors minimal white. When necessary, situate anyone in black near the front, and white near the back.

- Move extraneous objects out of the scene (camera bags, vehicles, drinks, etc. But remember that vehicles or other things with official seals and emblems can often help tell the story.)

- Use basic framing rules of composition: Rule of Thirds; Subjects Looking into Scene; Leading Lines; Awareness of Background.



Rule of Thirds: Do not center the primary subject. It is best to have it faced into the picture about a third of the way in, so two-thirds of the photo is in front of the subject. Subjects can be toward the bottom, top or side, but always should look or face into the remainder of the frame. Also, if the horizon is in the picture, make sure it does not cut the scene in half. Move the camera position so that the horizon line is in the top or bottom third of the photo.

Subjects Looking into Scene: When photographing people, always be sure they are looking into, never out of, the picture. A frame with two or three people all looking at the same thing helps focus viewer attention.

Leading Lines: Be aware of geometry. Use natural lines to lead viewer attention to the center or to the main point of interest in each picture. Skylines, clouds, branches, beach edges, trails and roads all provide lines. Using a wide angle lens often helps to take best advantage of lines.

Awareness of Background: Always be aware of the background. Try to keep it plain or out of focus, unless it is specifically intended to help tell the story. A telephoto lens can help to keep the background out of focus. Deep shadows behind well-lit subjects will do the same. A confusing background will destroy nearly any picture.

Many photography "how to" books, courses, and articles mention the infamous Rule of Thirds followed immediately with how you shouldn't always follow the rule. It's rather amusing because they all do it. Perhaps it should be called the "Suggestion of Thirds."

Photography is a very subjective and often artistic pursuit. Sometimes a shot just "works" even though it doesn't follow, or is contrary, to any "rules."

Still, I am a firm advocate that you must know the rules before you break them. Be aware of the above when shooting your photos.


Good lighting is a critical element in all good photography. Take pictures as much as possible in early morning, late evening, open shade, on slightly overcast days (unless you need to show the sky) or when a cloud passes over.

Avoid photography on heavily overcast days or in very bright situations, such as full midday sun. If there are large areas of shadow and bright light, a good photograph is nearly impossible without the use of flash or other fill lighting.

If a picture must be taken in a relatively high-contrast situation, position the camera or subject in a manner that strongly emphasizes only the lit area or the dark area, and shoot for the dominant lighting. It is perfectly acceptable to have strong highlights and shadows as long as they take up only very small "rim" areas of the picture that help to separate the subject from the background.

Good lighting can help create three-dimensionality. Areas of light and dark (within contrast limits) in the foreground or behind the subject can be very pleasing.

Camera light meters can break or stop working without your noticing. Be sure you have spare batteries, and occasionally check the meter. To check, aim the camera at clear blue sky (not hazy) with it set on ASA 64, 1/125th speed, lens at infinity, and take a reading. The reading should be very close to f/11.


Photo by Jim Kennedy


Photo by Jim Kennedy

Other Important Tips

Depth of Field. In general, you should focus toward the front of the picture, because there is twice as much depth-of-field behind your point of focus as in front.

Tripod. Modern lenses have vibration reduction (VR) technology, also known as Image Stabilization (IS). This allows you more flexibility with the shutter speeds mentioned above. This technology, however, is not a replacement for using a tripod.

When using a tripod, turn your VR/IS off. In theory, you should be fine, but you may notice that you aren't getting the tack-sharp images you desire. Also, the VR/IR on some lenses takes a finite time to "kick in," thereby slowing down your process.

Protecting Images. Today's “film” is actually a memory card. An 8GB card can hold more than 300 RAW images. This is amazing considering how few frames a roll of film once held.

A word of warning: memory cards can fail. It doesn't happen often, but it does happen, even when there is nothing physically wrong with the card. Fixing the card is easy enough: just reformat it. However, you just lost potentially valuable images.

A wedding photographer once told me her secret for protecting her irreplaceable images: don't buy the biggest memory cards available. She uses five or six 8GB cards during a wedding shoot instead of a single 64GB card. Not only are smaller cards usually cheaper, but if one card goes bad, she still has five more cards full of images!

Also, make backups of your images as soon as you can. In the field, I immediately dump all of my images to a laptop when I return to camp, then copy them to a separate drive. After that, I can reformat the memory cards for the next day’s photo shoot.

Incidentally, I have never had lost images due to airport screenings.

Some Additional Tips

Bats are beautiful, likable 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 likable 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!


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.

For Further Reference

Every photographer, whether amateur or professional, can benefit from a regular review of their equipment manual and a good, basic photography book. The National Geographic Photography Field Guide by Peter K. Burian and Robert Caputo, offers a review of the elements of good photography, as well as suggestions for more advanced approaches.

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Last Updated: Tuesday, 02 August 2011
Unless otherwise noted, all images are copyright ©Merlin D. Tuttle and/or ©Bat Conservation International