Revised for new technology by Tone Garot, June 2011
Merlin Tuttle is renowned for his pioneering efforts in bat photography, and much of what he wrote years ago remains true today. I was asked to update Merlin's “how-to” articles to reflect today’s digital cameras and technology. My edits are meant to supplement Merlin’s invaluable instructions, not to replace them. My words appear in blue.
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.
I carry two of nearly everything electronic in case of failure, and my total traveling equipment weighs approximately 200 pounds, exclusive of personal effects.
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.