Capturing the wonders of flight
Tete – e – tete with Stephen Dalton and his signature style of capturing images of insects and birds in flight.
Stephen Dalton’s photography has made his name legendary among nature lovers and photographers the world over. By freezing motion with his camera he has unlocked the mysteries of animal movement and this has had a stunning impact in the way we see nature.”
Stephen has been an enthusiastic naturalist ever since he can remember, but his interest in photography did not develop until his early twenties. Then, after studying the art and science of photography for three years in London he merged his two passions to embark on a career of nature photography. In 1970, having spent some years exploring conventional nature photography, Stephen set out to do something totally new – to photograph insects on the wing. Until then there was no technique capable to stopping an insect with absolute clarity in free flight, and it was the solution of this problem that became his overriding obsession. Two years of experimentation resulted in perfecting techniques and specialized equipment for achieving his ambition, allowing him to photograph animal movements that are too rapid to be seen by the human eye and never or rarely seen before. Since that breakthrough Stephen has worked not only with insects but also with other wildlife including birds, bats, frogs and even snakes. Over the years Stephen has been awarded numerous distinctions including the Royal Photographic Society’s Silver Progress Medal. As well as writing and illustrating fifteen of his own books (see books) he has also held nine one-man exhibitions at venues in the UK including The Barbican, Photographer’s Gallery and the Royal Photographic Society. In 2007 a small number of his pictures was selected for Tate Britain in London.
TEAM SAEVUS: What inspired you to be a nature photographer?
Stephen Dalton: Mainly my interest in the natural world – photography came later in my late teens, then I married the two.
TEAM SAEVUS: You are among the pioneers in capturing images of insects, birds and animals in the mid-air with amazing clarity and later it became your signature style. What inspired you to experiment with your equipments?
Stephen Dalton: Not long after leaving college it then dawned on me that the most spectacular aspect about insects is their ability to fly – indeed it is this that is responsible for their enormous success. Nobody then knew much about insect flight or indeed what they looked like in flight or what their wings were doing. Clearly, they just had to be photographed in full free flight. Thus I set about to ponder on the difficulties of what seemed an impossible ambition.
TEAM SAEVUS: You have seen the technology of camera change over the years. Many of the problems you faced earlier are now dealt with. How has your style changed with the equipments?
Stephen Dalton: My earlier work was largely done with Leitz and Zeiss lenses but over the last couple of years Canon 100mm, 180mm Canon macros are mostly employed. Also, I would use 35mm and 2¼ sq. but now use Canon IDs (digital) exclusively. I usually employ three types of flash – Elinchron R (rarely nowadays), Canon, and home-made high voltage high speed.
TEAM SAEVUS: You set up flash lights, sensors and other equipments around the subject without much disturbing them. What kind of research takes place before actually capturing the image?
Stephen Dalton: I prefer to choose a nearby location and away from general public and inclement weather – but majority of my work is now done in the studio. With high speed photography much fine tuning is necessary – this almost always requires several days of setting up – requiring to work under cover away from rain and vandals!
TEAM SAEVUS: You were not oriented towards academics in school, and the only thing you read about was related to natural history. Do you think the education system around the world should cater more to interest based studies rather than spoon feeding students with the knowledge they are not interested in?
Stephen Dalton: Of course all youngsters need a general education including reading, writing, maths, some history and geography, but what is also vital these days when our planet is deteriorating so rapidly (through habitat destruction, over population, pollution etc), is education about the natural world. We are far too anthropocentric putting growth and economics and greed above everything else. We need to catch children’s attention very early by enthusing them with the wonder and beauty of nature. We depend on plants and animals – we need them to provide us with our daily needs and just as important in my view is our spiritual health.
TEAM SAEVUS: As part of records conveying something of the science and culture of mankind to possible extra-terrestrial beings, one of Stephen’s photographs of a flying insect is on board NASA’s Voyagers 1 and 2 spacecraft. The image is expected to last one billion years or more, long after life on earth has expired! Please share this amazing experience with our readers.
Stephen Dalton: One morning I received a letter from Carl Sagan, the internationally known NASA astronomer/space scientist. He wanted to use one of my flying insect photographs in the Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft, to accompany the works of Bach, Beethoven, Shakespeare and other geniuses from the world of science and art. At first I thought it was a spoof but soon realized it was genuine! I still have the letter. However I did not think much of his choice of image which was a comparatively dull picture of a parasitic wasp! Now the rockets are millions of miles away well out of the solar system.
TEAM SAEVUS: What would be your advice to nature enthusiasts in India who want to take up photography as a profession?
Stephen Dalton: Love of nature is paramount, and particularly an understand of the subject in front of the lens. It is also important to have a good business sense. Wildlife photography is the most competitive of all photography according to a survey I read a few years ago. ‘Everybody’ tries their hand at it so libraries are swamped with natural history images. The trick is to be a cut above the others. Many nature photographers cannot make a decent living out of it so have to augment their income by some other means.
For further information, you can visit his website: http://www.stephendalton.co.uk/
This article was originally published in the May-June 2012 edition of SAEVUS magazine.