Bat Photography Part II – Flying Foxes

Ákos’ hints and tips for successfully capturing the flying foxes

  • Learn how to operate your camera in full manual mode and try to stick with just one metering pattern, such as evaluative (matrix for Nikonians) metering. This is crucial for wildlife photography, including bat photography and photographing birds, especially photographing birds in flight. Once you understand how the camera records the scene and the tonalities, you will be able to quickly assess a shooting scenario based on your experience. This will allow you to apply learned logic and start getting results rather than fumbling around trying to work out what this button or that button does.
  • Don’t be afraid of shooting high ISOs either, especially on wildlife photography tours, and always shoot in RAW file format to get the best possible image files. If you learn the basics of digital exposure, you will quickly realize that shooting to the right is a fantastic way to manage the dreaded digital noise in images. That means overexposing to the point where you just about start to get blinkies on the LCD when you review the images. Then, you pull back the exposure during post-processing. You will see how effective this method is in controlling digital noise, especially when shooting at higher ISOs. You will still need to manage the noise with noise reduction software, but you can get very good images with good exposure skills and careful post-processing methods.
  • Get out there and shoot lots and use pretty fast shutter speeds, especially when photographing birds in flight. It is recommended to use a shutter speed of 1/2000th of a second as a minimum to create pin-sharp images. Once you gain experience, you can drop shutter speeds and get away with less. If your lens has focus limiter switches, use them now. For example, you can set the Sigma 500mm f/4 lens to 10m-infinity, which means it would not focus closer than 10 meters but save you heaps of time by not trying to focus closer if you lose the focus off the bat.
  • Spend countless hours at your local duck pond to master your skills and learn about flight photography, including photographing birds. Use common birds as your subjects and when the day comes to shoot something unusual, you will do everything by instinct rather than trial and error. Buy the best camera body and lens you can afford, and don’t be afraid of buying second-hand gear. However, also work on your naturalist skills, which become invaluable as you develop your photography skills. This is especially important for wildlife photography tours. Naturally, be safe and apply common sense to any situation around water and wilderness areas. Just because a park is in the city, you could have hidden dangers in the way of unseen objects in the water, venomous creatures on land (snakes), and other unexpected surprises.
bat photography

Servo AF

I use servo focus to constantly adjust the focus as I am panning with the subject. I often use the single center AF point in Spot-AF mode for flight photos, which makes the entire system as accurate as can be, but the AF point is quite small when using Spot-AF.

Why use the single point and not one with AF point expansion? That is easy. While Canon EOS 1D bodies are as good as one can get for action photography, it has been historically challenging to shoot subjects flying against backgrounds that are of mixed tonalities. For example, looking at the far river bank where the bats fly over the water, there are trees, rocks and other elements and tones that change as the bat flies along its path. 

The bats are of a similar tonality to the background, which means, that the camera’s AF system will find it harder to lock focus should one of your AF points fall off the subject while you’re panning. Believe me, it does happen!! And this is also the reason I select a single AF point. If I were using surrounding assist points, then as soon as focus is off the bat, the AF system would search for the next available contrasting area, whether it is on the animal or the background, it does not matter. It would mean even more missed shots! However, as long as my AF point is on the bat, all images are very sharp. Most focusing errors will occur due to the user rather than the equipment. It’s the old story of “the poor tradesman blames his tools”.

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