ARTICLE

Flashes in the rainforest: illuminating tropical bats with
Canon Speedlite 430EX III-RTs

A nectar-eating bat approaches the liana woody vine and is photographed mid-flight. Photo by Christian Ziegler.
Canon Ambassador Christian Ziegler photographs tropical bats in the rainforests of Panama using a Canon Speedlite 430EX III-RT flash. To create this beautiful fine art-style image with silky textures and rich colours against the deep black, Christian uses a black velvet background. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark II with a Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM lens at 1/250 sec, f/14 and ISO640. © Christian Ziegler

Nestled among the channels of the man-made Gatun Lake, part of the Panama Canal, lies Barro Colorado Island (BCI). On the remote six-square-mile enclave, amongst pristine tropical rainforest, sits a research station where wildlife photographer and scientist Christian Ziegler works at the juncture between research and photography.

Christian is perhaps best known for his images of tropical bats. Over two decades, he has battled jungles bursting with biting insects to document the incredible biodiversity of the Central American rainforests. "I started working with and photographing bats nearly 20 years ago with an amazing bat researcher, Dr Elisabeth Kalko," he says. "I still find bats interesting today – there are over 80 species where I live in central Panama."

A tropical ecologist by training, Christian has previously worked as an associate for communication with the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) in Panama. STRI staff use the BCI base to document climate and animal diversity and to monitor the rainforest. The different bat species' varied diets aid plant pollination and help to control the insects that can damage crops, so Christian was tasked with providing scientific evidence, alongside arresting imagery, to promote the positive contribution they make to Panama's environment.

To capture the nocturnal mammals in their natural habitat, Christian frequently turns to his Canon Speedlite 430EX III-RT flash. Here he explains how he does it.

A tiny bat is held between a person’s two fingers.
A close-up of a tropical bat held between two fingers shows it in scale, the intense detail captured with the Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM lens. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark II at 1/200 sec, f/20 and ISO2000. © Christian Ziegler
Like a hummingbird, a bat hovers in the air to feed from a flower.
Christian had to lure in the bats using different foods dependent on the species. "Their diverse diet allows so many different species to coexist," he says. "Some bats eat insects, others eat fruit; some feed on nectar, others love frogs. There's even a bat that catches fish on the wing!" Here, a tropical rainforest bat feeds from a liana woody vine. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark II with a Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM lens at 1/250 sec, f/14 and ISO640. © Christian Ziegler
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All-weather flash kit

Working with nocturnal animals in a dark, damp and dense tropical rainforest presents many challenges – from lighting through to the demands placed on the gear. With tropical heat and rough terrain to contend with, Christian needs his kit to be both highly robust and portable.

When heading into the jungle, he primarily uses one camera body, a "super-reliable, sturdy" Canon EOS-1D X Mark II, carrying a second as backup. For this project, he took a number of small Canon Speedlite 430EX III-RT flashes, a Canon Speedlite Transmitter ST-E3-RT to control them via radio frequency, and the necessary tripods, clamps and brackets to give him flexibility while on the move.

"It's easy with the transmitter," he says, "because I can control five flashes at the same time and the connection is straightforward."

Christian Ziegler and his team setting up their flashguns in preparation for a shoot.
Christian always arranges his flashes prior to a shoot. "When working in close proximity to skittish creatures such as bats, it's crucial that once the flashguns are in position they're controlled remotely," he says. © Christian Ziegler
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Working in almost total darkness, flashes were vital for capturing delicate images of bats feeding. Time and time again, Christian has returned to the Canon Speedlite 430EX III-RT flash because of its durability, reliability in demanding environments, and portability. "I chose this smaller flash [rather than a larger Speedlite] because it provides sufficient light. And, since I use five to six flashes and sometimes carry my gear over large distances to get the right shot, these are lighter to carry in the field – and cheaper too," he says.

Also of benefit, Christian says, is the rubber sealing on the foot of the Canon Speedlite Transmitter ST-E3-RT, which fully encloses the camera's hotshoe. This is essential for reliable triggering in the 100% humidity of the often-inhospitable tropical rainforest.

When working in close proximity to skittish creatures such as bats, it's crucial that once the flashguns are in position they're controlled remotely, Christian says. While he has a 'go-to' setup when working with flash, arriving at the right exposure is a process of assessing the results and using the histogram on the back of the camera.

Even though the flashguns are initially set to manual mode, Christian keeps track of the whole lighting setup without having to move away from the camera. "I use them on manual mode so I can see what happens with the transmitter," he says.

A bat feasts on a bright green cricket.
Capturing the bats feeding at night would not have been possible without the Canon Speedlite 430EX III-RTs, Christian explains. "Many bats eat katydids (crickets) which hide from birds during the day but must come out at night, when they fall prey to the bats." Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark II with a Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM lens at 1/250 sec, f/22 and ISO2000. © Christian Ziegler
A close-up of a stick-like insect.
As well as bats, Christian often photographs other tropical rainforest creatures and insects with his Canon Speedlite 430EX III-RT flash. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark II with a Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM lens at 1/200 sec, f/20 and ISO2000. © Christian Ziegler

A careful balance of light

Christian makes a note of the lighting he needs to create the look he wants for each shot, and admits it can sometimes be a lengthy process, even when coaxing a bat into position with food. However, once the bat is in place, he can quickly adjust each of the five Canon Speedlite 430EX III-RT flashes with the Canon Speedlite Transmitter ST-E3-RT. Crucially, using a transmitter means he's not moving around and disturbing the bat. He adjusts the power settings in 1/3 steps for each flash individually via the built-in RF transmitter locked in position on the camera's hotshoe.

"I start with the flash from the top," explains Christian. "Once that looks good, I adjust the two flashes from the front. One is about a metre above and one about a metre below the subject at 45-degree angles, lighting the wings from below and the bat's face from above. The remaining two flashes are positioned behind, both below the bats, to give a sharp edge and separate the bats from the background."

The scientists use a flight cage – a large space enclosed by netting – to prevent the bat flying away. The bat's welfare is paramount. "It's important on a scientific level, as well as morally, that the resulting photographs are authentic," Christian says.

If the photographs need to include an insect, the team will find one that's already dead. But if Christian is photographing a pollinating bat, he must first find the right flower for the shot, which can take time. "In one case, to take photos of nectar-eating bats, I needed the bat-pollinated flower of the liana woody vine. But it took around a week to find suitable mature flowers in the forest," he says.

Christian Ziegler sets up flashes on a tree.
Christian goes to new heights to set up the perfect shot – as he did here when setting up elevated camera traps. © Christian Ziegler
A bat flies towards a food lure on a table.
In an elaborate experiment, an audio recording of a frog was played, attracting the attention of this frog-eating species of bat. © Christian Ziegler

The resulting series is testament to the team's tenacity under trying conditions, and a lasting record of biodiversity in an isolated tropical ecosystem. Christian hopes this kind of photography can teach people about the world around them, informing them about environmental challenges and, ultimately, inspiring change for the better.

"So many species and habitats are threatened worldwide, and many species are on the point of extinction," he says. "I want to get people excited about the jungle. If they understand how the ecosystem works, hopefully they will value it more."

Kirjoittaja Kevin Carter


Christian Ziegler’s kitbag

The key kit pros use to take their photographs

Christian Ziegler’s photography equipment is laid out.

Camera

Canon EOS-1D X Mark II

Breaking the boundaries of high-speed shooting, the EOS-1D X Mark II can shoot up to 14 fps with full AF/AE tracking or up to 16fps in Live View. "The Canon EOS-1D X Mark II is super-reliable, sturdy and works perfectly in hot and humid conditions," says Christian.

Lens

Accessories

Canon Speedlite Transmitter ST-E3-RT

Fire compatible Speedlite flashguns over distances of up to 30m. Radio-frequency control provides reliable operation even when direct line of sight is not possible. "It's easy with the transmitter, so I can control five flashes at the same time and the connection is easy," says Christian.

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