Saturday, October 31, 2009

A NIGHTMARE WITH BATS

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.
Thanks, Richard….

23 comments:

Jenn Jilks said...

You are precious! I had a bat night. Finally, when trying to get in either the cats or the raccoons one night, I spotted a bat in the garage.

I did a video: and still had issues. I think you are right, I'll try for some still shots in the spring. I put a couple of bat boxes up on the house, too.

Nicely done! Thanks for sharing your triumphs and tribulations!

madcobug said...

I think you did great even if they look like ghosts bats LOL. I wouldn't even attempt that project. I remember as a kid living on a gravel, dirt yard when the bats came out throwing a small rock up into the air and watching them zoom after them.
I can see their target really well. Helen

madcobug said...

PS Happy Halloween! Helen

Bernie said...

ummmmmm if you enjoy doing this then I am happy for you, but bats are right up there with snakes on my priority list. I love your determination and attitude though in fact I did chuckle a bit but then felt bad as I realized it was important to you just to show yourself you could do it...Good Man, and Good Luck next season. Have a great Halloween......:-) Hugs

Jain said...

Oh, but they ARE wonderful photos! And a rip-roaring tale of photographic adventure!

Gail said...

HI GRIZZ-

Fascinating battle you fought - and actually, the bat photos were good and kind of scary - ya know? We are surrounded by bats - I know what you mean when you write you can hear them as they fly by. They soar all around our upper deck. Remembering we have a pond out front which is loaded with their favorite dining choices. :-)
I really do admire your perseverance. :-)

Love and "HAPPY HALLOWEEN"
Gail
peace and "BOO"!!

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Jenn…

Pretty skimpy on the triumphs—but I had the market on tribulations for a few weeks. I way I'm relieved to have started late in the bat photographing season, as I don't think I'd have survived many more weeks.

Glad you enjoyed the post.

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Helen…

I did the rock-toss trickery with neighborhood bats as a kid, too. But I can tell you, they're a lot easier to watch than photograph!

And they look like ghost bats because my little flash, dumped full from close in, just blasts its light through their thin skin. Sort of the x-ray effect.

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Bernie…

Hey, as bat-crazed as I became during a photo session, I was having fun. And trust me, I don't take myself all that serious most of the time—and certainly never when it comes to something such as this fiasco.

Why, I even make fun of my arachnophobia, which is mighty serious when the object thereof is crawling up my leg. (Course I ain't scared of li'l ol' snakes and bats.)

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Jain…

Oh, but you should have seen the ons I ALMOST got! And I'll tell you, there were about ten nights x 350 shots per night when I didn't have an image half THIS good. Now that was a bit discouraging.

TheChicGeek said...

Ahhh, Scribe, I love this post! The second shot with the bat going for the fly....so amazing! It's so difficult to get good night shots. You've captured them incredibly well. What a wonderful and batty life you have out under the stars with nature.

I laugh so at the way you write too. You really are a treasure to visit :)

So, Scribe, Have a Happy Halloween and steer clear of those bats around midnight...boohahaha...LOL

Thanks for this wonderful post!
Kelly aka The Chic Geek :)

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Gail…

Perseverance is just a fancy word for Irish bullheadedness…which often proves a handmaiden to pure stupidity. Sometimes I'm too dumb to realize I can't do something—like a bug circling the bottom of the bathtub looking for foothold up and out.

When I say close, re. my bats, I mean somewhere between a foot and five or six inches from your head. You can for sure feel the wind off their wings as they flutter like rocket past your face.

That was the pond in your sunset pix, right?

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

ChicGeek…

Going batty? Moi? Not only stars tonight, but a near-full moon.

Don't worry, though, come midnight I'll be in bed, fast asleep. I never boohahaha past eleven-thirty.

Richard said...

Well done my friend, well done. I did get more then one chuckle out of your troubles but been there, done that. You definitely did better then I did, so next summer I'll have to get out and try again. Guess I need to try flash next time. When I got my lousy shot, I set the ISO at 3200, manual focus and just clicked away.

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Richard…

Not a contest, my friend. I was just having a bit of fun with you…although it is true I got my inspiration from your bat shot. I just didn't get inspired until months later—almost too late in the bat season here along the river.

As to coming up with a better shot or two, I probably have a serious advantage in my situation. I literally have 50–100 bats circling and zig-zagging around and over the pool. All within 50 feet of where I stand on the deck overlooking the water. There's a constant stream of them coming within 6-10 feet, and a lot closer, too, and I mean inches. So I can shoot as fast as my flash can recharge. I'm being totally honest when I say in the first ten or so evenings, I probably shot 3000 exposures. A chimpanzee could luck onto a few fairly good exposures with those odds. Even so, I still didn't manage a shot as good as the ones here. It took me another week to start getting a bit better, and a week beyond that to get these shots and maybe 25 more of about the same quality. That's all I managed over the entire 3 weeks of shooting. When you divide it into the number of exposures, it is awful.

I did try cranking the ISO to 1600, the highest my camera will go, but couldn't get much—plus the bulk of the bats don't appear until it's almost full dark, and the early arrivals seldom come close. Depth of field and plenty of light are the keys—and quick recycle time on the flash. I'll probably try adding an off-camera flash next summer.

Love your blog and photography. You make some amazing photos.

Jayne said...

OK, so the ones you DID get were GREAT! WOW! Reminds me of how we'll see a wonderful image in NatGeo and never know that it was the only one of 10,000 that turned out, or how hard it was to get! You are to be commended for your perseverance!! I love those top two!

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Jayne…

You're certainly right in that perseverance and patience are often the keys to making a good photo—more so than all the fancy equipment. Not just when shooting wildlife, but when trying to get a mountain or valley, a stand of trees, a wildflower, a little village, in the best possible and most dramatic light. Sometime you have to wait and wait and wait for that perfect light.

I've spent time with one of NatGeo's most famous photographers—a fellow who has done many articles and covers for them. And your estimate of 10,000 shots to come up with the 35 or so that ran with a piece is closer than you think. Not that the remaining 9. 965 were duds (MY 9,965 culls would be duds, but his were amazingly good.) He told me the hardest part of an assignment was always going through the pile of transparencies once he got back and trying to choose the best ones.

And though almost every photographer NatGeo used shot Leica gear (the most expensive 35mm systems on the planet…and the best, optically) most of them carried far less stuff than you might imagine; a lot of their most stunning images depended on ingenuity rather than equipment.

Always, always, the best piece of photo gear you'll ever own is between your ears.

I'm glad you liked my so-so bat shots. Thank you for your nice words.

The Weaver of Grass said...

Seems to me scribe that you went pretty batty about bats. Well, some of your frames might have been batless but when you did get the bat in the frame then, my goodness me, you really got some fantastic photographs. Well done.

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Weaver…

I was, indeed, one crazed photographer…which didn't help my endeavors. But it was fun while it lasted and I'm looking forward to next summer and Round 2.

Loved your birthday blog.

Teri and the cats of Furrydance said...

I was almost out of breath just reading your post...and I think that last shot IS a knock-your-socks-off shot, ghostly and catching the wings in that way is different and unique...just like the photographer!

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Teri…

That last shot is the best of one of the few I managed showing a bat coming straight at the camera. They are just so fast that by the time your brain tells you you see them, they've already passed.

I'm glad you enjoyed my tale of woe.

KGMom said...

I missed this post--I am a huge bat fan, and always hope people treat them kindly.
You sound temporarily obsessed--thankfully, only with photographing them.

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

KGMom…

Obsessed is probably the right word, too. I missed only one evening during my three-week bat binge…and that was when I had to take a friend to the hospital. (Well, I think it also poured the rain once or twice—but when the shower were mild and there was even a slim chance of shooting bats, I was out there.)

Glutton for punishment in the name of fun, I'm looking forward to next summer and getting a much earlier start on the season.