Tuesday 13 November 2018

The Pulling Power of Images in Bat Conservation

by Paul Colley

I’m a conservationist by instinct, because I love the natural world. But like many I now worry seriously about climate change, loss of habitat; you know the issues as well as I do.

We can all make a difference. As a photographer I’m naturally interested in the pulling power of good images in conservation. I’m really an underwater photographer by trade and have photographed so many interesting subjects, from trout and grayling in Hampshire chalk streams to blue sharks off the coast of Cornwall and silky sharks in Cuba.

Looking for a new challenge, I saw bats hunting over water whilst photographing trout and thought there was scope to do something different. I could not have found a harder target! The problem rightly started with the bats’ protected status and early in my research I contacted the Bat Conservation Trust and started a helpful dialogue about my project with people there and at Natural England. Although the chosen approach did not require a licence, I inevitably ended up with self-imposed restrictions, principally about levels of artificial light.

The lovely Daubenton's bat (Myotis daubentonii) has that super-cool trick of intercepting an insect just as it hatches at the water’s surface. But I also wanted to show the bat’s hunting flightpath and habitat. The technical challenges soon kicked in. I developed two techniques that were gentle on the bats. Low light (flash guns at minimum power) and infrared (almost invisible to human and bat eyes). Infrared opened up new creative possibilities and I used a constant light, flash guns and cameras all modified to specific infrared wavelengths.

You need millisecond precision to catch the action so I opted for a laser trigger with the beam riding a couple of centimetres above the water. My route to success was littered with a thousand failures, because making this work in the dark was tricky. Not least because I had to power the infrared lights with 240 volts using a 12 volt car battery and inverter, all mounted on tripods over water. It was an interesting risk assessment!

But persistence pays off. I might have given up one night when I stood waist deep in water for almost five hours. The bats were swarming around me chasing a massive hatch of insects. But not a single picture was useable. Utterly dejected, I discovered in the analysis next morning that I had made a silly mathematical error in my trigger calculations.

After fourteen months, over a hundred night field trips and countless other hours modifying the camera trap in my workshop, it came together in a beautiful image. I call it ‘contrails at dawn’ and it won the British Wildlife Photography Awards 2018 (you can see the image here: https://www.bwpawards.org/winners2018). The Bat Conservation Trust is already using it to draw people in to the bat conservation story.

So now I have a request for bat conservationists. Where can I go to document different species and the wider stories behind bat conservation? It must start with powerful imagery of the bats themselves, because that is what will hook people in. I now have an excellent suite of new photography techniques to exploit, but remain open minded about new potential subjects and stories. I’m keen to get involved with people who already hold the appropriate licences. If you would like to work with me in my quest to raise the conservation profile of bats by using powerful imagery, please do get in touch and offer me some suggestions. I cannot promise to work with everyone due to my busy programme. But I’m determined to work with some who might help me create good stories enhanced by the pulling power of new imagery.

Use the contact page at www.mpcolley.com

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