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Media & Info/Photographing Bats

Bat Photography by Merlin Tuttle


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.

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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

(BCI's Publication Department prefers digital images in jpeg or tiff format. The most important factor is the resolution and size of the images. Preferred are high-resolution images of 300 dpi and a minimum size of 5" x 7". Images in slide format are accepted but discouraged.)

Today's digital camera technology has come a long way since 1978, and the advantages are great: no film/development costs; no chemicals; instantaneous review of images; no changing of film; high-speed photos without the need for auto-winder; the ability to capture shots in low-light conditions; and a host of post-processing software solutions.

Most professional photographers are using DSLR (Digital Single-Lens Reflex) cameras, although some photographers still use film cameras for certain projects.

Today’s professional digital cameras use a full-frame sensor, which basically means they capture an image that is the same size as a 35mm film frame. Many semiprofessional cameras use an APS-C sensor, which is smaller than the 35mm frame, which results in a smaller angle of view when using the same lens. While it is possible to get great images from a smaller sensor, one advantage of a full-frame sensor is a higher signal-to-noise ratio, resulting in better images at higher ISO settings and lower light.

Lens technology has also changed. Modern lenses auto-focus with quick precision, and image-stabilization (or vibration-reduction) technology allows longer exposures without camera-shake. It should be noted, however, that some old school lenses can attach to modern professional and semiprofessional cameras. You can buy very high quality used lenses, and while they may require manual focus and aperture setting, their affordability and quality make these an interesting alternative.

But before you go into debt buying a new camera body and fancy lenses, realize that the camera does not take the picture – you do. Superlative photos were taken decades ago with equipment that seems primitive by today's standards. As Brooks Jensen stated in a LensWork podcast, "Equipment is not the answer, nor is it the limitation." Merlin Tuttle took amazing photos with a camera that is now obsolete: Merlin took the pictures, not the Canon F-1 camera.

Like Merlin, I prefer prime (fixed) lenses rather than zoom lenses.

Digital cameras sold as a kit come with one or two zoom lenses that cover the focal ranges that consumers have come to expect. While zoom lenses are convenient for a wide range of conditions, such as shooting vacation photos, a bat photographer has a specific purpose and a specific shot in mind when he or she sets out.

The tradeoffs of a zoom lens are: less sharpness at certain focal lengths, generally slower (less light reaching the sensor) and higher cost. A $200 prime lens will often beat a $1,000 zoom lens in picture quality.

When choosing a lens, consider how you will use it. For low-light conditions, you will want a faster lens that transmits more light to the sensor. A 1:1.8 or 1:1.4 lens passes a lot of light to the sensor. Consumer-grade zoom lenses are typically 1:4-5.6, which is almost worthless for low-light conditions.

Taking pictures of bats is an exercise in patience: you spend a lot of time and effort to compose the perfect picture. In cases like this, choose an appropriate prime lens and go.

Back in the days of film, taking a good photo was often a betting game. If your exposure was off, the picture didn't turn out, and you lost the cost of the film and processing.

A light meter let you even the odds a bit by getting closer to the correct exposure based on lighting conditions.

All of today's digital cameras have built-in light meters that are pretty good, but light meters aren't nearly as important in digital photography as they were with film.

With a digital camera, you set up the shot based upon the internal light meter and your experience, then click the shutter. Next, you click "image preview" on the camera to view the image on the display. And most digital cameras, even cheaper point-and-shoots, will show you the tonality histogram – a graph of the image’s tonal range. Now you can change your camera settings (f-stop, shutter speed, ISO) based on actual tonal counts.

Merlin sometimes used a “Shutter Beam” device that utilized an infrared beam to trigger a lens with a built-in shutter quickly enough to photograph a flying bat before it moved too far past the beam.

Infrared-beam triggers are still an effective option, but technology has added a few new possibilities. For example, Nikon offers a wireless transmitter that lets you create a wireless network and connect your camera to it. With the software, up to five cameras can display images on a computer screen. Images can be downloaded and saved to the computer, and “Live View” lets you see the image remotely even before you trigger the shutter release.

While this doesn't necessarily take the place of a bat tripping an infrared beam, it does allow you to set cameras in likely bat locations, then hide at a remote site and avoid upsetting the bats.

I carry two of nearly everything electronic in case of failure, and my total traveling equipment weighs approximately 200 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.



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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