Princes of Dark­ness

Howler Magazine - - Contents - by Gre­gory Basco

Be­hind the Im­age

The scene

Help­ing to de­velop many pop­u­lar photo at­trac­tions in Costa Rica has been a re­ward­ing as­pect of run­ning the com­pany Foto Verde Tours. This case de­picts a great pay­off from a lit­tle bit of luck in set­ting up a hum­ming­bird pho­tog­ra­phy area at one of our fa­vorite lodges. We pro­vided guid­ance in putting out feed­ers just in­side its private rain­for­est re­serve and de­signed a sim­ple, open pavil­ion struc­ture. Every­thing seemed per­fect, but there was one prob­lem — the hum­ming­birds never re­sponded very well to the feed­ers!

But pho­tog­ra­phy some­times im­i­tates life: When a door closes, a win­dow opens. That held true for our failed hum­ming­bird pho­tog­ra­phy area, where I was lead­ing a work­shop about five years ago. My good friend Diego, the lodge em­ployee who takes care of the feed­ers, men­tioned that the feed­ers would be full in the evening but al­ways empty in the morn­ing. I knew right away from per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ence what that meant: nec­tar-feed­ing bats were the lodge's thiefs in the night. I was able to ver­ify this on the same oc­ca­sion with a sim­ple pho­tog­ra­phy setup af­ter dark, and my work­shop clients loved it. Since then, I have re­fined my tech­nique for a photo shoot of bats in this set­ting as fol­lows.

The tech­ni­cal part

Bats are chal­leng­ing to pho­to­graph for two rea­sons: they are very fast and very ac­tive when it is pitch dark. That these bats are ac­cus­tomed to the hum­ming­bird feed­ers, how­ever, gives me a big ad­van­tage. Be­ing able to pre­dict ex­actly where they are go­ing to ar­rive al­lows me to use a cam­era trap.

What's that, you ask? It's a small de­vice, con­nected to a cam­era or flash via a spe­cial ca­ble, that emits an in­frared beam. When any­thing — be it a leaf, a per­son, a jaguar, or a bat — breaks that beam, the cam­era fires and takes a pic­ture.

Since bats are so fast, I ac­tu­ally leave the cam­era shut­ter open in to­tal dark­ness and con­nect the cam­era trap to a flash trans­mit­ter. When a bat flies through, the beam is bro­ken, the flash trans­mit­ter fires and my cam­era records this frozen mo­ment. My flashes fire at 1/30,000th of a sec­ond! That's what al­lows me to get such sharp pic­tures of fast-fly­ing bats in the dead of night.

Com­po­si­tion and light­ing

While the tech­ni­cal chal­lenges of this kind of pho­tog­ra­phy are daunt­ing, the artis­tic as­pects — com­po­si­tion and light­ing — are what make any photo stand out. I use five flashes to light my bat scenes. This en­ables view­ers to see the de­tail in both bat and flower while at the same time main­tain­ing a sense of mys­tery.

Be­ing in charge of light­ing lets me cre­ate high­lights and shad­ows where I want them. In­stead of evenly lit im­ages, I want my bat pho­tos to look like se­cre­tive shots of a mys­te­ri­ous, rarely seen rain­for­est crea­ture.

Cam­era set­tings

I use Canon cam­eras, Canon zoom lenses (70-300 mm, 100-400 mm), f/11, 3 sec­onds, ISO 400, cam­era trap, ra­dio flash trans­mit­ters/re­ceivers, tri­pod, ball­head, var­i­ous clamps and light stands and ac­ces­sories.

At the com­puter

With the light­ing so care­fully crafted, all these pho­tos needed were some sim­ple tweaks to the high­lights and shad­ows and per­haps slight crops. Pro­cess­ing took no more than a minute or so us­ing Adobe Light­room.

The les­son

Shoot­ing wildlife at night is fun and chal­leng­ing for rain­for­est pho­tog­ra­phers, with the use of flash be­ing a cru­cial skill.

Bats con­tinue vis­it­ing the flow­ers for hours without re­act­ing to the flashes go­ing off. I've been do­ing this for years, and ev­ery time I visit there are more bats than be­fore. That said, I keep my photo ses­sions with them to 45 min­utes. My clients and I get plenty of pho­tos, and the bats have the rest of the night to do their thing without a bunch of nosy pho­tog­ra­phers hang­ing around.

When a bat flies through, the beam is bro­ken, the flash trans­mit­ter fires and my cam­era records this frozen mo­ment.

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