England's wildlife photographer
also known as Stephen J. Dalton
Stephen Dalton's 54-acre "yard" in England.
Regarded by many as one of the world's leading Nature Photographers.
Dalton's world from Audubon, July-August 2000
(text reproduced below)
The Secret Worlds of Nature (an interview with Stephen Dalton)
from Outdoor Photographer, June 2000
(text reproduced below)
Books by or about Stephen Dalton:
1. A Chorus of Frogs
Joni Phelps Hunt, Vicki Leon (Editor), Norbert Wu (Photographer), Martha Hill (Photographer), Stephen Dalton (Photographer), Jeff Foott (Photographer), Kevin Schafer (Photographer), Belinda Wright (Photographer), A. Cosmos Blank (Photographer), John Cancalosi (Photographer),
Published by Silver Burdett Press
Format: Library Binding
Pub. Date: May 1995
2. Secret Life of a Forest: A Photographic Essay
Stephen Dalton, Jill Bailey,
Published by Salem Hse
Pub. Date: January 1986
3. Secret Visions: Twenty-Five Years of Nature Photography
Published by Salem House Publishers
Pub. Date: September 1989
4. Secret Worlds
A pioneer of high-speed photography, Stephen Dalton is one of the world's greatest nature photographers. This new compendium comprises more than 125 images taken over the past three decades and celebrates the birds, insects, mammals and countryside that Dalton appreciates as an artist, a scientist and a lover of wildlife.
Published by Firefly Books LTD.
Pub. Date: October 1999
5. Split Second: The World of High-Speed Photography
Published by Salem House Publishers
Pub. Date: January 1985
6. The Miracle of Flight
Insects and birds make up well over three-quarters of all land creatures. For many of them, the ability to fly has made them phenomenally successful, allowing them to develop into a huge variety of forms and species living in diverse habitats all over the globe. For humans, the mastery of flight is a supreme technical achievement that has extended our domination of the planet in less than a century.
The Miracle of Flight by Stephen Dalton. Firefly Books
"The Miracle of Flight shows how animals evolved wings and how humans triumphed over the problems of taking to the air. The magic of winged flight is passionately ...".
Published by McGraw-Hill Companies, The
Pub. Date: January 1977
Pub. Date: October 1999
7. The Secret Life of a Garden
Even the smallest garden is home to an amazing variety of plants and animals, many of which live and die unobserved by the human eye. Having explored the hidden lives of an oakwood and of a lake and stream in The Secret Life of an Oakwood and At the Water's Edge respectively, wildlife photographer Stephen Dalton has turned his attention to the nature reserve to be found literally on our own doorsteps. Activity in a garden never ceases, and seen through the camera lens, grass, hedges, water, buildings and trees teem with life. From morning to night, animals and plants are engaged in the battle for survival: making or gathering food, growing and reproducing. A garden undergoes many changes in the course of a day. In the morning, at midday and in the evening there are different visitors to observe. Mammals and birds are early risers; reptiles and amphibians become more active around midday. In the evening a whole new set of creatures takes over as moths, bats, owls and other nocturnal animals wake and leave their daytime retreats. The undisputed master of high-speed nature photography, Stephen Dalton captures movements too rapid for the human eye to record. Tiny structures such as the pollen sac of a bee are revealed in stunning detail. Elusive garden visitors are seen in rare close-up, while others, more familiar, appear in a new and unexpected light. Together with clear and informative commentaries by Bernardine Shirley Smith and captions written by the photographer himself, the pictures reflect the daily rhythm of life in a country garden and provide a fascinating insight into a corner of the natural world that is often left unexplored.
Stephen Dalton, Bernardine S. Smith,
Published by Overlook Press
Pub. Date: September 1992
buy from Barnes & Noble Format: Hardcover
Pub. Date: August 1993
8. Vanishing Paradise: The Tropical Rainforest
Stephen Dalton, Andrew Mitchell, George Bernard,
Published by Overlook Press, The
Pub. Date: September 1990
Borne on the Wind by Stephen Dalton. E.P. Dutton & Co., NY, 1975
Secret Visions by Stephen Dalton. Salem House, Topsfield, MA, 1988
Secret Worlds by Stephen Dalton. Firefly Books, 1999. 160 pp.
Contains over 125 portraits of birds, insects, and mammals that document the photographer's creativity over three decades.
Split Second by Stephen Dalton. Salem House, Salem, NH, 1984
Titles from Allbookstores.com:
At the Waters Edge
by Stephen Dalton
Hardcover - June 1992
At the Waters Edge : The Secret Life of a Lake and Stream
by Stephen Dalton
Hardcover - February 1991
List price: $15.99
The Miracle of Flight
by Stephen Dalton
Hardcover Textbook - October 1977
List price: $16.95
The Miracle of Flight
by Stephen Dalton
Hardcover - September 1999 - Revised Edition
List price: $40.00
The Secret Life of a Forest : A Photographic Essay
by Stephen Dalton, Jill Bailey
Hardcover - February 1987
List price: $24.95
The Secret Life of a Garden
by Stephen Dalton
Hardcover - July 1993
List price: $15.99
Secret Visions : Twenty-Five Years of Nature Photography
by Stephen Dalton
Hardcover - August 1989
List price: $29.95
Split Second : The World of High-Speed Photography
by Stephen Dalton
Hardcover - December 1984
List price: $21.95
by Stephen Dalton
Hardcover - October 1993
List price: $17.99
Vanishing Paradise : The Tropical Rainforest
by Stephen Dalton, George Bernard, Andrew Mitchell
Hardcover - August 1990
List price: $35.00
Photography by Stephen Dalton
Story by Les Line
On his farm in England, Stephen Dalton photographs exotic hummingbirds in his dining room and "pet" rats in his barn, creating extraordinary images of often ordinary creatures.
"The place has changed since you were here," Stephen Dalton said when my unexpected phone call interrupted his work on a major exhibition. That's not surprising. Twenty-three years had passed since I walked with Dalton through his beautiful garden in the English countryside south of London. I was the editor of Audubon at that time, and we had published 16 pages of his high-speed photographs of insects. On a trip to Europe, I had taken a train to Sussex to meet the magician who created those astonishing images by designing radically new equipment capable of freezing the action of even a midge, whose wings beat 1,000 times a second.
In the intervening years, Dalton told me, his half-acre ornamental garden had been expanded into Holly Farm--54 acres of fields, hedgerows, and woods managed for wildlife. He reminded me that we had had tea in the dining room, where many of his pictures, including the hummingbird on this issue's cover, were staged. "The tile floor was an advantage when I did pond settings," he laughed. "No soaked carpets." Now his studio is a barn that came with the farmland he bought to save it from development.
Dalton's first full-color book, Borne on the Wind, published in 1975, took nature photography into a new dimension. Apart from a few hovering species like large moths, free-flying insects had never been successfully photographed. Even the human eye is incapable of following the rapid flight of most insects.
"We know what makes insects fly," Dalton wrote in that book, "but we have not been able to see precisely how they employ their wings for those daring and entrancing patterns of flight. This was the Everest I wanted to conquer."
Dalton's obsession with insects, flight, and photography was set at an early age. His father, who was in the Royal Air Force, was a bird photographer, and his godfather collected butterflies, moths, and beetles. His first camera was a simple box Brownie that he took into the garden, pushing the lens to within an inch or two of insect after insect, with predictable results. "The totally blurred impressions made my first lesson in the limits of photographic equipment shattering and indelible," he said.
Dalton and an electronics wizard designed flash units that were as fast as 1Ú25,000 of a second yet powerful enough to expose slow film at f/16 at a life-size reproduction ratio. The insect would then be in focus, and the motion of its wings would be stopped. Dalton also needed an ultrasensitive optical-electronic system to detect a zigzagging insect in the precise plane of focus, plus an extremely fast shutter. A normal shutter takes at least 1Ú20 of a second to open, he explained, and by that time a hawk moth flying at 15 feet a second would be out of the picture.
Dalton also devised a seven-foot-long flight tunnel to accommodate insects of various sizes. As he relates in his latest book, Secret Worlds, it is virtually impossible to shoot flying insects in the field. "Yet studio nature photography is in many ways much more demanding than working in the open. One begins with a bare table on which a ‘biologically truthful' setting has to be built. It must be carefully planned to encourage the animal to fly, jump, or meander to the right spot with minimal stress to itself. The shape, color, and arrangement of picture elements, together with a natural and sensitive handling of lighting, all play a vital role in evoking the ambience of the animal in its native surroundings."
From insects, Dalton moved on to larger creatures that moved too fast for a conventional camera. Some of the species, such as the common dormouse or blue tit on these pages, were familiar inhabitants of his garden. Others, like the leaf-tailed gecko and leopard frog, were captives that he borrowed. Except for a trip to Venezuela, Dalton has spent little time working in exotic locales.
"I have never relished the prospect of physical discomfort or had the stamina to heave heavy equipment around harsh habitats," he explained. "Moreover, contemplating a little mouse scuttling about in the leaves gives me as much pleasure as watching elephants at a water hole--well, almost!"
Today he gets a ton of pleasure from working with his land, restoring hedges, planting trees, adding ponds. After years of careful management, a small meadow with a round pond "prospered beyond my wildest dreams," Dalton reported. He has identified 85 species of plants, found 14 kinds of dragonflies at the water's edge, watched hunting kestrels and sparrow hawks, and heard tawny and little owls at night. "Larger mammals that pass through," he added, "include fallow and roe deer, foxes, badgers, stoats, and weasels."
Recently, Dalton added an eight-acre piece of woodland to Holly Farm. "There's a lovely meandering stream at the bottom and 150 rook nests," he told me. Kingfishers and six different bats have already come to a new pond that's barely six months old. "It's the greatest excitement in my life."
My, how Stephen Dalton's garden has grown.
Secret Worlds Of Nature
Stephen Dalton has built a career on showing us marvels of action the eye doesn't see
By Mark Edward Harris
Photography By Stephen Dalton
The concept of photography—to freeze a fleeting moment in time—is wondrous enough, but when photography records actions that happen so fast that the naked eye and brain can't comprehend them, that's truly incredible. That's exactly what British photographer Stephen Dalton has done again and again, but what takes his images up another notch is that they're artistic, creative photographs that go far beyond the gee-whiz factor of just being able to capture some moments at all. His photography has arrested the movement of a menagerie of creatures from insects that beat their wings 1000 cycles per second to birds sweeping into their nests to chameleons caught in the act of snatching a snack with their sticky-tipped tongues. Dalton has joined the ranks of past photographers like Muybridge, Edgerton and Mili as a photographer capable of unveiling the secrets of science and nature that only reveal themselves in micro-seconds.
Stephen Dalton's amazing stop-action photos show us a world of nature that we can't see unaided. Opening spread: A remarkable angle on an incoming green helicoid butterfly of the Venezuelan cloud forest. ALL IMAGES: Leica and Hasselblad cameras and lenses, Kodak Kodachrome and Fujichrome Velvia, custom-made high-speed flash
As a budding wildlife photographer in the 1960s, Dalton faced some extreme challenges in doing this kind of work. Lenses were slow, cameras had no auto-focus, motordrives were a thing of the future, and TTL metering had barely registered as an important technology. Because of these constraints, photographers often produced images of nature's little creatures that were static. In fact, anesthetized insects in front of ponderous view cameras weren't uncommon setups. While researching existing imagery in preparation for his first assignment, photographing honeybees in black-and-white for a New York publisher, Dalton realized that no images existed of insects in flight. He became obsessed with finding a way to do it.
Outdoor Photographer: High-speed photography has usually been associated with technical or man-made subjects. How did you become involved with nature photography?
Stephen Dalton: I've been fascinated with natural history since I was a kid, and it was an interest further fostered by my father, who was also a keen amateur photographer. But my interest in photography didn't really germinate until my teens. Eventually, I did a three-year, full-time photographic course at the School of Photography, Regent Street, which is now part of the University of Westminster. At the time, the course was the finest in the country. However, before studying photography, I was pushed into a job which proved far from satisfactory. I joined a company in London which manufactured tractors and bulldozers—machines which I now perceive as destroyers of our planet. Fortunately, because of my subdued enthusiasm, the job only lasted a year or two. As a student in the early '60s, after the encounter with bulldozers, my passions were directed at insect photography.
Outdoor Photographer: Since no one was doing much photography of active, moving insects at the time, your early work was somewhat revolutionary. How did all of this start?
Dalton: I actually had to do a lot of work figuring out how to do this sort of photography. I devoted much time working on techniques for obtaining sharp pictures of insects going about their lives in the field, using portable electronic flash, a new high-tech tool in those days. It was all exciting, pioneering stuff. Fortunately, my work in this area didn't go unnoticed, as shortly after leaving college, a New York publisher offered me my first assignment and one which I accepted quickly and happily. It was to illustrate a book on the life of honeybees—all in black-and-white.
As the project approached its conclusion, it dawned on me that I had recorded almost every aspect of the bee's life except the most important—its flight. Yet, the insects' ability to fly is the reason why they, together with birds, are among the most successful groups of animals on the planet. Further investigation disclosed that no photographs of even moderate quality showing insects in flight existed. There was no means of observing in a still picture how an insect used its wings to make the incredible maneuvers we take for granted that they can do. No technique was capable of stopping an insect with absolute clarity in free flight. The solution to this problem was to become my overriding obsession for the next few years—an obsession which was to shape my future.
Outdoor Photographer: What exactly did you want to show?
Dalton: My objectives were twofold. First, I wanted to record flight behavior and wing movements—to show every twist of the wing, every scale and hair in critical focus. Second, and just as important, the insect had to be flying in a setting which evoked the beauty of its natural habitat. Over the next two years, I developed techniques and equipment for capturing on film what, for me, was the miracle of insect flight. I recall the dream-like experience I had when first looking at dripping negatives fresh from the developing tank. There were images of insects frozen on the wing, an aspect of their lives never seen in this way before. The next few years were almost entirely devoted to the photography of flying insects.
Outdoor Photographer: How were you able to capture a honeybee frozen in mid-flight?
Dalton: As it was, and still is, impractical and virtually impossible to conduct the operation in the field, it all had to be done inside. In their natural habitat, insects, unlike birds, hardly ever fly where you want them. It may take hours or days to set up and adjust the optical and electronic paraphernalia needed to get everything just right, after which the particular insect would probably not appear at all—and anyway, the merest suggestion of a breeze or rain would render the whole exercise a complete waste of time.
My flying insects were done with the standard Leicaflex XL. I clamp a special shutter on the front of the lens, fix the focal plane shutter open, and this add-on shutter is the one that actually fires. The reason for this is that a focal plane shutter takes 1/10 or 1/20 sec. or so to open. A bee can fly a meter in that time. So you have to reduce the delay to about 1/300 or 1/500 sec., which my shutter accomplishes.
I then use a flight tunnel I designed, which is about four feet long, and I persuade the insect to fly through it toward daylight. The insect hits an infrared beam or a series of beams connected to a light trigger, which sets off the camera and flash, so the insect photographs itself. I used to use a grid of beams, but I generally use one or three beams now. It has to be odd numbers. So much of this work is in the preparation because your sharpness and composition are totally dependent on how this is set up. The whole structure looks a bit like a power station with wires everywhere. You couldn't possibly do this type of work outside. The equipment very often has to be left in position for days at a time, and all sorts of fine adjustments have to be made.
The flash duration needed to freeze an insect in flight is about 1/25,000 sec. And the flash units have to be powerful enough to give me a small f-stop of f/16 or thereabouts so I can be reasonably well stopped down to get the depth of field. In addition, at a magnification of 1:1, there's about a two-stop loss with the bellows. I worked on the technique for doing insect photography for about three years, isolating each problem, then tackling them one at a time, slowly making headway. I set fairly high standards initially. I wanted the images to be sharp. I wanted to use high-resolution film. I used Kodachrome II, which was ASA 25. I eventually switched to Fujichrome Velvia.
Outdoor Photographer: I understand you even went to the effort of building your own electronic flash units to achieve your goals.
Dalton: Yes, I've done that, although it's a long time ago now. I did it with a colleague of mine 20, 30 years ago. Ron Perkins, an electronics buff. He did a lot of the detailed electronics. All of the high-speed flash and triggering was designed and built at home, so to speak. In fact, most of it has remained virtually unchanged since the mid-'70s.
Outdoor Photographer: After having so much success with insects, you branched out to capture other parts of nature in motion. What made you head in that direction, and how were you able to achieve the image of the barn owl flying with the mouse in its beak?
Dalton: Once flying bugs were under my wing, I turned my attention to other animals. After all, if the techniques worked with insects, they should certainly work with larger animals whose actions are too fast to be stopped by conventional photography. Over the following years, after photographing frogs, toads, snakes, lizards, rodents and, of course, birds, I soon discovered that I much preferred high-speed work to any other nature photography. Not only did the results reveal aspects of movement and behavior which had largely eluded us, but I enjoyed both the technical challenge and the stimulation of creating a picture from scratch.
It took several weeks of setting up. All the lights had to be worked out and adjusted, and I had to obscure a number of the entrances because I wanted him to approach from a certain angle. The most important thing was not to disturb the owl who was using the location as a roost. I made sure I wasn't there for more than half an hour at a time. I'd set the camera and lights and leave them overnight. All the work was done ahead of time.
My method of working isn't to work in the field and shoot from the hip. I tend to spend a lot of time preparing things, and I tend to use flash quite a bit, which helps show things that haven't been seen before. The owl flew in and broke the beam. I had at least four flashes going on in that shot.
The secret is to make it look like natural light. A lot of people either get very flat results or they over-light, especially using too much backlight. I can't overemphasize the importance lighting plays in wildlife photography when using artificial light. I frequently see pictures where the lighting is quite ghastly and unnatural, for example, when one light is used and placed close to the lens axis.
If flash has to be used, I try not to overdo it. With the owl, you're not trying to simulate daylight, but it's important to light in a way that shows the shape of the object and texture and then use fill-in light that doesn't change the shape or anything apart from contrast. The fill-in is purely contrast control.
Outdoor Photographer: Another amazing moment you caught was of the basilisk running on water.
Dalton: In an old barn which I converted into a studio, I built a pool about 15 feet across and maybe six inches deep. I used five lights, with one of them shining onto a blue sky background which I had up on the wall to reflect into the water to give the scene a bit of life and make it look more natural. The main challenge here was to encourage the basilisk to run fast enough. Fortunately, we had a heat wave and it had been confined in a large box. I just opened it and encouraged the basilisk, or Jesus lizard, as it's sometimes called, to come out. It darted across into a dark corner, which was kind of a refuge.
When I set this up, I didn't know if I was going to get the shot or how the basilisk was going to react. Actually, they're generally a bit sluggish and need an amazing amount of warmth to get going. I think its speed is directly proportional to its temperature. When I set up a studio situation like this, it's absolutely vital to accurately recreate the natural setting, that it looks like the Central American rain forest or wherever the subject comes from. You have to know your animal and your natural history.
In many ways, studio nature photography is a lot more demanding than operating in the open, whether working with snails or flying insects. Outside in the open, nature does most of the hard work, taking care of aspects such as background and lighting. The skill of the photographer lies in selecting the most appropriate viewpoint and moment. A studio situation is totally different, whether photographing flying insects or anything else. You begin with a bare table on which a natural and biologically truthful setting has to be built, yet it has to be carefully planned to encourage the animal to fly, jump or meander to the right spot with minimal stress to itself. The shape, color and arrangement of picture elements, together with a natural and sensitive handling of lighting, all play a vital role in evoking the ambience of the animal in its natural surroundings.
Outdoor Photographer: What's so impressive is that you've been able to take a scientific study of an animal's movements and make it artistic.
Dalton: Pure technical photography tends to be dull, so I try to blend science with art by composing and lighting in such a way that the picture remains simple, with strong lines and an uncluttered background. Often, before taking the camera out of its bag, I'll sit down and sketch the picture on paper. Animals are magic, and I try to get this across in my work.
Outdoor Photographer: One of your ongoing studies is on how things fly in the animal world, which to most of us is magic, too, and perhaps a bit of a miracle.
Dalton: The combination of the two is simply mind-blowing. If you want to learn more about the evolution of flight, might I suggest that you read my book The Miracle of Flight, recently published by Firefly Books. In spite of understanding the scientific principles involved, I consider both evolution and flight miraculous.
A collection of Stephen Dalton's work from the last 30 years can be found in Secret Worlds (Firefly Books, 1999). Fine-art prints are available. Dalton's Web site is www.nhpa.co.uk/dalton.htm.