Volume 37, Issue 1, 2018

How to Make the Best of Bat Photography

A few tips from two masters of the field

By Michelle Z. Donahue


If you’ve ever seen a head-and-shoulders portrait of a bat, or an image of the swirling masses of Mexican free-tailed bats exiting Bracken Cave in the evening, chances are you’ve seen some of Merlin Tuttle’s or Jonathan Alonzo’s work.

Tuttle, who founded BCI in 1982, has had a decades-long career taking pictures of bats. At home and on trips abroad, he’s forced himself to stay awake into the wee hours, for many nights on end, just to get the right shot, one that captures the true personality and nature of the bat in question.

And Alonzo has found himself lying stock still near Bracken Cave, well aware that he shares the space with several species of hungry snakes that come in search of fallen bats on which to feast. Yet he stays glued to the ground, waiting patiently for just the right moment.

We’ve asked them to share some of their expertise for what they do to get great shots of one of wildlife photography’s most challenging subjects.

Courtesy of Jonathan Alonzo / MerlinTuttle.org

 

What’s the best camera to use?

Tuttle: I ran into a presenter at a bat research meeting with really nice documentation of his work—usually you’re doing great research or great photography, but not both. I asked him how he did such a good job, and he grinned and pulled out a little Pentax point-and-shoot he keeps in his pocket, always ready to use. And my next newsletter has pictures that were shot on a cell phone, in pretty low light. It’s amazing what you can do with even basic cameras now.

Alonzo: Normally I would recommend putting your money into your lenses. But with bats, you’re shooting in such low light situations, that I’d say to put your money in the camera body—the newer ones now have sensors that can process low-light conditions very well.

What’s the hardest part about photographing bats?

Alonzo: For me, it’s the combination of low light and fast motion. My advice to anybody, new or experienced, is to go back to your basics and think about shutter speed, f-stops and ISO [film speed], and know how they interact. But with that kind of movement, you can actually be more artistic—using blur to show motion, for instance. You can make a lot of technical mistakes out there and still come out with a nice image that illustrates what’s going on.

Tuttle: Getting a relaxed, natural expression, one that shows the bats as being interested in meeting you. People photographing bats in the wild are often so afraid the bats will fly away before they can get close enough to take a picture. So they’ll rush up and snap a picture, and invariably they end up with a picture of a snarling bat. I’ve set up my camera where I knew bats would be roosting later and settled in to wait, then used a remote control to take pictures without ever coming close enough to frighten them.

What’s a good backyard setup?

Alonzo: You could probably mount a base for your camera with a universal size mount on a piece of wood, and put that on the roof, near a light, on a pole or anywhere that puts that camera in close proximity to where your bats are flying. So many cameras now have wi-fi, so you can see what the camera sees, focus it, and fire it off, all remotely. You can get closer to the action with just a little bit of extra effort.

What other gear do you find helpful on a regular basis?

Tuttle: Even an ordinary headlamp can be very useful. The newer LED headlights turned on full brightness will make too bright a picture; they’ll overexpose the image and turn it blue. It’s important to dial down the power, or slide a diffusing filter over the light. Just take a test shot or two, make a couple of adjustments, and off you go.

Alonzo: A wide-angle is often better than a telephoto lens. Meter for the sky instead of the subject, which is opposite of what you normally do. And do everything in manual, not on a shutter or aperture priority setting. Also, cell phones can take slow-motion video now, and if you take video when the bats are flying close overhead, with the light behind you, it can be super dramatic.

Tuttle: If you’re in a situation where you’re photographing roosting or captive bats, and they don’t give you what you want, try making a faint little kissing sound. Often they’ll be curious enough to look up and give you that nice expression. Treat them like the smart, sensitive creatures that they are.

 

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