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We’re down to my two favorite images of 2020. Today’s image has a dual significance for me. I not only like the subject and the composition but that I was able to make it at all constitutes a personal triumph.
In December 2019 I went on a photo trip to Costa Rica, organized by Aaron’s Phototours. Aaron Baggenstos, the trip’s leader, is a gifted photographer who goes to great lengths to impart his knowledge to the people who go on his tours. In Costa Rica, one of the experiences we had was nighttime photography of bats. I loved the experience even though I was unable to bring back many good images of bats.
Time passed and it was August 2020. In our backyard we have a large cactus, a night-blooming Peruvian Cereus, that puts out dozens of huge flowers during the months of July, August, and September. The flowers are the size of dessert plates. They open in total darkness and seldom survive for more than a few minutes after the sun rises.
I suspected that these flowers attracted bats, so one very dark August night, I sat out in our backyard equipped only with a flashlight. I was stunned at what I saw. Not only were there bats, but often, half a dozen or more of them would show up simultaneously to feed.
Seeing these bats, I immediately recalled my experience in Costa Rica and I was determined to replicate it at our Arizona home. In Costa Rica we’d set up our cameras on tripods and pre-focused them on a flower that had been “enhanced” with sugar water. The cameras were equipped with electronic remote triggers. Flashes were set up on stands in relative proximity to the flower. We’d hit the trigger whenever a bat flew into the camera’s field of coverage. Doing that would set off the flashes and, hopefully, properly illuminate the bat while freezing it in motion.
I asked myself: could I replicate the experience in order to photograph the bats in our yard? I thought it was worth a try. Before sunset one very hot August evening, I set up my camera, equipped with an accessory flash, on a tripod and pre-focused the lens on one of the Cereus’ flower buds. I calculated what I thought would be a proper exposure and flash setting. I attached a remote trigger to the camera. I then went inside our house for about two hours, waiting for full darkness and for the flower to open. At about 10 o’clock, I returned to the yard. There were numerous bats flitting around. I maintained the camera’s focus on the one flower that I’d selected. Then, I triggered the remote shutter button as bats visited the flower, making image after image in that manner.
The attempt was a disaster. The flower was sharp in my images, the exposure correct, and every single bat was a gray blur. All of my images were useless.
I thought about it: where had I gone wrong? I realized that the bats were moving too quickly for me to capture with the setup that I had. Somehow, I needed to do something to freeze their motion. Then, it occurred to me that the duration of the flash — which operates as the effective shutter speed in total darkness — was too long. By decreasing the flash’s power and its duration, I could freeze the bats’ motion. I could compensate for the reduced light from the flash by increasing the ISO that I was using (effectively, increasing the camera’s sensor’s light sensitivity). I tinkered with my adjustments and set up for a second night.
Once again, I went out into my yard in pitch darkness. I pre-focused on a flower, and dimly illuminated it with a hand-held flashlight. I triggered the remote release with my other hand as bats flew to the flower. Afterwards, I reviewed my images, and among them was this:
Success! This image represents one of my proudest moments as a nature photographer, not just because of the technical accomplishment, but because I think that it is utterly cool. Of course, there is always room for improvement. My project for next summer will be to capture one of these little bats in a similar pose but with its tongue extended to sip the flower’s nectar.
Image made with a Canon 5Div, Canon EF 100-400 f4-5.6 IS II L zoom lens, illuminated by Canon 600 EX-RT Speedlite, tripod-mounted, M setting, ISO 320, f9 @ 1/160.