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The Bat Project – the Small Stuff Matters!

The Daubenton Bat hunting flightpath, illustrated using strobe lighting at about 20Hz

The Daubenton Bat hunting over water

In this project, my artistic intent was to create images of UK wildlife, but in a way that others have not, specifically by capturing the essence of a bat’s hunting flightpath and associated behaviour using only still images. As the bats react to the current cold weather by going into their winter torpors, it seems timely to document where I got to with the work.  It’s one of my better documented projects and just below is an infographic that captures the effort thus far.

The Bat Project in Numbers…

Spring boded well.  I quickly conceived and built a working bat speed trap with a laser trigger and a decent potential infrared camera set up, but I did not make particularly fast progress. The bat in question is a tough target.  Weighing only the same as a couple of teaspoons of sugar and not much bigger than a computer thumb drive, it zips along at an impressive 40km/h…in the dark of course!  But the high number of image failures, which I classify as images that I would never publish, suggested something more than difficulty was the issue.  The lesson I deduced was, when working with such a demanding target, not to carry small technical faults in the set up, but instead run them to ground immediately.

The small things really add up.  I got so enthralled with the potential of the photography and the subject that I let too many little things slip, for example: the quality the pre-focussing technique, the amount of infrared light power, the occurrence of infrared artefacts when using high ISO and, above all, the accuracy and responsiveness of the lighting set up.  So now that the bats are not flying, I’ve spent a few days in my workshop, re-designing and re-building these critical parts of the set up (and a few others too).

Aa 3-axis gimbal and mirror for accurate laser positioning

I now have a rock-solid technique for VERY accurate pre-focussing using a purpose-built target board, a dedicated infrared focus light and maximum magnification in camera live view.  The project also needed a more reliable optical slave for one of the remote flash guns, which work

A modification for more reliable optical triggering

in the visible and infrared light spectrum.  But also an ability to simultaneously trigger three pre-positioned flash lights (normal or infrared) and an easier way of adjusting those lights for both position and power.  A mirror mounted on a 3-axis gimbal now allows greater control over the reflected laser light, so more reliable camera and/ or flash triggering at peak action. Experience in the field suggested it might be important to trigger either the camera and flash simultaneously, or the flash at the critical moment, having already opened the camera shutter.

Laser and receiver: heart of the system

The photographs illustrate some of the technical changes.  The photographs so far are not quite there technically, so I’m not yet putting too many images of bats into the public domain.  But I cannot wait to start using this refined set up next Spring when the bats start flying again.

My take away lesson.  Deal with the small stuff immediately and don’t let it accumulate into something that starts inhibiting your artistic vision.  Both are inextricably linked.

The Daubenton Bat hunting over water

Have a wonderful holiday break followed by a peaceful and prosperous New Year.

All the best, Paul


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