Bat off the balcony…uh, deck.
I like to try different things photographically. I also tend to get on a kick, shooting the same sorts of things—bugs, wildflowers, water reflections—for a certain period. Sometimes I play little creative photo games. Using only a single lens during a walk. Seeing how many things I can photograph in a given area, even while standing in one place.
Late this summer—between the last couple of weeks of August and the first week of September—I went through what you might call my Bat Period. I blame Richard, of AT THE WATER, for this particular monomania.
Richard, you see, had posted a bat photo on his blog some months earlier. He noted how the posted shot was the best he'd managed so far, seeing as how bats were such difficult photo subjects. I remembered this later on when I was trying to think of a new challenge. I can do that, I thought to myself.
Now I want to make something perfectly clear—this was not an idea of I can do that BETTER THAN RICHARD! I wasn't making it a contest or competition. No notion of one-upmanship factored in. I simply knew it was something I could try because I happened to have a handy supply of bats. Ample available targets, so to speak.
Double-click and you might be able to see the mayfly the bat is about to nab.
Most evenings during the summer, insects of one sort or another appear over the Cottage Pool, which is the large hole of water just below the riffle and directly beyond the front deck. These insects, which include mayflies, caddis flies, midges, and who knows what else (though not mosquitoes, since there is a slow current through the pool) naturally attract bats just awaked from their daytime naps. Moreover, when the bats get to chasing bugs—at the height of what I think of as the nightly feeding frenzy—they often pass within a few feet of the overlooking deck…sometimes so close you can feel the wind off their fast-flapping wings. At a given time there might be twenty-five to seventy-five bats in a high-speed swirl, darting, twisting, executing the most incredible aerial maneuvers you've ever seen—all within fifty feet or less of where you stand.
Sounded like some easy shooting. (Okay, Richard, go ahead and laugh. How was I to know?)
Here's the deal: I knew I wasn't properly equipped, photographically, to make great images of flying bats. I also knew I didn't have the funds to go out and buy the right gear. So I used my trusty Nikon D-70 (a measly 6 megapixal DSLR), an 18-70mm zoom, and the camera's built-in flash. I knew the fast-flying bats and the light—from dusk until full dark—precluded relying on auto-focus, so I switched the camera to manual and pre-focused at a distance of 15 feet. The exposure was set to "auto."
The sun went down. A few bugs fluttered over the water. Swallows appeared and began zipping after the insects. Twilight deepened. Suddenly a fluttering bat joined the swallows; then two bats…five…a dozen. All at once the birds were gone and the air was filled with uncountable bats. A whirlwind of bats! I began firing at any bat within the focus zone. Things got a little crazy—then they got a lot crazy. I became preternaturally excited. There's a possibility I drooled. Once or twice I believe I might have levitated. Somewhere in this bat-shooting feverishness, I had to change memory cards. Then I had to change batteries.
After about half an hour, things eventually slowed. Fewer insects were hatching from the pool or ovipositing eggs into it. The number of dipping, diving, fast-flying bats decreased—and finally disappeared altogether. I was sweating, shaking, and had to sit down a minute before coming inside to upload my images and check the results.
It turned out I'd taken nearly four hundred exposures! Of these, fewer than half contained a bat or any part of a bat in the frame. In the majority of the others, the bat was either too far away (I'd set my zoom to about a 35mm focal length) or too close—like under a yard!—or was unrecognizable as being a living creature, let alone a bat, because of the way it had twisted in midair while scarfing up its latest victim. I had maybe a half-dozen shots of bats, lousy shots each and every one…and they followed the rest into the trash.
Comin' at ya! Again, the target bug is visible in the lower center.
Hummmmm…Richard wasn't kidding about bats being difficult. Okay, I'd do better next time.
Evening two was pretty much a repeat of evening one—same number of shots exposed, with only one or two marginal bats pix for my efforts. I'd still had a near heart-attack during the height of the feeding/shooting frenzy. But the one improvement was that my percentages of bats in the frame was higher—they weren't better images, but at least I'd managed to catch the target more often.
Evening three…well, let's not talk about evening three. Or evening four. Or evening five. I tried various focal length settings, from full wide angle to full zoom; pre-focused closer in and farther out; shot on "aperture-priority" setting, and "sports" setting. The bats outdid them all. None of my fancy camera tricks worked. I still hadn't made a single image worth keeping. A future of heavy alcohol consumption and living out of a shopping cart was starting to seem attractive—anything which didn't involve attempting to photograph bats.
About this time the twilight bat circus began to diminish. Summer was waning. Fewer insects were hatching or laying eggs—and thus fewer bats were starting their after-dark mealtime at the pool. The feeding frenzy dwindled from more than half an hour to fewer than twenty minutes…then fifteen…then ten. It ended after the first week of September.
By then I'd managed to get to where I was shooting far less often, but almost every frame contained a bat…and a fair percentage were mediocre to acceptable—the best typical of those with this post. I never did get that one knock-your-socks-off bat image. But I know it is possible because I came close a time or two with a perfectly-exposed, perfectly focused bat image that filled the frame…except not all the frame, because a wing or half the body was outside the image area. Those little suckers fly fast! Next summer, I'll begin my bat photographing with the start of the pool insect/bat season. And sooner or later, the odds will fall in my favor. (Even a blind hog finds the occasional acorn.)
So that's my going-batty Halloween tale…of photo lust and near madness and not much blood except for that one time when I got mad and kicked at a pile of leaves on the deck, missed, and banged my shin on the edge of the step—
We'll not talk about that, either.