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May 2009

From very early childhood Stephen Dalton was fascinated by the natural world and he has turned this lifelong passion into a highly successful career as a high-speed wildlife photographer. He now lives and works on a farm – his studio is a converted barn - deep in the picturesque rolling countryside of south England. CPN editor Steve Fairclough visited him at home to find out what makes this innovative photographer tick.

Stephen Dalton was a lover of the natural world from a very early age: “When I was three I used to pick up wood lice, moths and the like – the only way my parents could get me to read was through nature books.” His father was a keen bird photographer and introduced him to the delights of sitting in a hide with a finger hovering over the shutter button waiting for a Kingfisher to arrive.

In the early 1960s, once he had secured a diploma in photography, Stephen had the grounding to pursue his burgeoning interest. Having been denied the chance to study biology at either ‘O’ or ‘A’ level at his school, he freely admits that the photography diploma course he took: “…was the first time in my life that I was studying something I was interested in – I always got over 90% and took it very seriously.”

© Stephen Dalton

Shot on Kodachrome 25 using four Langham flash heads, dating from the 1950s, this barn owl image was: “One of my first attempts at bird flight photography,” according to Stephen Dalton.

During the three-year course Stephen only concentrated on taking photographs in his final year. He used an Exacta Varex 2A - a left-handed camera - and during an attempt to photograph a White Admiral butterfly in the Surrey countryside he bumped into the entomologist L. Hugh Newman who ran the Natural History Picture Agency (NHPA) – one of only two natural history photo libraries in the UK at that time. Little was Stephen to know then that he would end up owning the NHPA, before he sold it to Photoshot in early 2006.

Of his career path Stephen recalls: “It was all very gradual. I belonged to the Zoological Photography Society and that sort of got me going. I did an article for the Geographical Magazine and I had half a dozen pictures of insects published. That was quite something in those days and I was asked to do a book on bees by an American publisher - it was all black and whites: then this was followed by another on ants.”

After a couple of years photographing insects Stephen had an epiphany. He reveals: “After a year or two of photographing insects doing little I realised that nobody photographed them in flight. I worked out all of the problems – movement, shutter delays etc and I borrowed a fast flash unit, around 1/7000sec, from somebody in London and experimented with bees flying into a hive.”

© Stephen Dalton

Morpho butterfly shot on the EOS-1Ds Mark II with the TS-E90mm f/2.8 tilt and shift lens “to adjust the plane of focus” and extension ring at around f/11-16, with three HSF custom-made flash heads.

Further experiments followed and Stephen realised: “I needed some way of sensing them (insects) in some plane of space. I worked out a set-up with beams and mirrors; it worked after a few months but by the time the shutter went off they were three feet away!” Thus Stephen embarked on around two years of development work with a colleague, Ron Perkins, who helped him to develop a suitable high speed flash unit capable of up to 1/30,000sec.

Stephen explains: "The HSF (High Speed Flash) I use now can be used with up to five flash heads all working on several thousand volts and potentially lethal. In spite of the equipment being designed in the early 1970s I still use it now and have no plans to replace it!”

He adds: “When 35mm cameras and HSF were used the focal plane shutter was locked open and a home-made shutter, synched with the flash, was attached to the front of the lens to reduce the shutter delay, from about 1/15sec to 1/250sec.”

Stephen recalls: “One of the first insects I shot were hoverflies, which tend to fly in straight lines. It was very exciting – it was the first time I had seen images of wings like this, beating at about 250 cycles a second. I could hardly wait to get the Kodachrome films back from the Kodak lab. Indeed I became so impatient that I shot more black and white than colour as I could nip into the darkroom and see the negs in half an hour.”

© Stephen Dalton

This photograph of a Cock Chafer was used on the cover of The Telegraph Magazine and made people aware of the photographic breakthrough Stephen Dalton had made.

He recalls: "I was witnessing nature in a way nobody had ever seen before - quite an extraordinary feeling really." Despite such a breakthrough – mainly shooting with Leica SLs and slow Kodachrome 25 stopped down to f/16 - Stephen kept his success to himself for about a year; then The Telegraph Magazine used his images and put one of them on the cover.

His persistence had paid off and led to books such as ‘Borne on the Wind’ and the much-revered book ‘The Miracle of Flight’ that traced the evolution of flight, from flies to Concorde, and was republished just seven years ago by Firefly books.

Despite the comparatively primitive photographic equipment of the time – the late 1960s - having ‘cracked’ the problem of freezing insects in flight Stephen adapted his techniques to capture classic studio wildlife images. “Insects had to be in the studio – they had to be under controlled conditions. The whole idea was to make the pictures seem completely natural. Birds were shot outside in the wild,” he explains.

Stephen explains: “Ideally I wanted to get a little bit of blur in the wingtips – among other things it depends on the wingbeat frequency. Insect wings beat from about 10 times per second (large butterflies) up to 1,000 times per second (midges), so everything had to be frozen.” Despite this Stephen admits: “I hardly ever use autofocus, even now, only with long lenses.” Using a variety of cameras – Hasseblads, Leicas and Nikons - Stephen had to overcome a variety of problems such as the delay of the Hasselblad’s shutter which: “...tended to be between half and the full length of the bird.”

© Stephen Dalton

Green cat snake shot on Fuji Velvia slide film using two or three HSF flash heads.

Stephen admits: “I just got it down to a fine art. Nowadays, with digital cameras, it is so much easier of course – stick the ISO up to 1600 and fire off flashguns at 1/10,000sec.” As his reputation grew Stephen was featured on the BBC natural history programme 'The World About Us' and he took over the NHPA from Hugh Newman.

Stephen laughs: “My agent thought it would be a good idea to see National Geographic in Washington. The chief editor didn’t believe my insect flight pictures – he accused me of faking them but I told my agent I wasn’t too worried as I knew they weren’t.”

Despite this years later he was asked to tackle a project photographing fleas for National Geographic. He explains: “I modified my flash to fire at 1/100,000sec and spent about five weeks or so attempting the commission in multi-flash – I love working on projects that have never been done before. I made friends with the local vet who supplied the fleas. As the tips of fleas' feet are not strong enough to withstand the 300G-force during take-off they have to use their knees, which are much thicker - the pictures showed this for the first time.”

© Stephen Dalton

The 7-spot ladybird (Coccinella 7-punctata) taking off backwards. Shot on the EOS-1Ds with EF100mm f/2.8 Macro USM; 1/25,000sec flash at f/11; ISO rated at 100.

It took nearly 30 years as a photographer for Stephen to make the switch to digital. He admits: “I was a bit dismissive of digital as I felt the resolution wasn’t good. Then suddenly Canon produced the EOS-1Ds out of a hat. We were actually in the process of digitising the NHPA archive, so I took a gamble and ordered one (an EOS-1Ds). Then I bought myself a laptop – the first thing I did was to make some comparative tests taking exactly the same pictures on film and digital. You could see the difference immediately. I never ran a film through a camera again.”

Since then Stephen has made his way through the range of EOS digital SLRs, from the 1Ds series to the 5D, and he now has the EOS 5D Mark II and the 50D. He explains: “The lightness of the 5D for shooting spiders in the field was great. When I got it I compared it to the 1Ds Mark II and there was very little difference. The 5D is a brilliant camera - the results are more or less as good as anything on the market.”

As well as updating his digital EOS camera bodies Stephen prefers a number of lenses: “The EF100mm f/2.8 Macro USM is extraordinary, but I feel it could do with the Image Stabilization feature. The MP-E65mm f/2.8 1-5x Macro Photo I use for spiders and a lot of things – it is very convenient. I recently got the EF24-105mm f/4L IS USM zoom, which is very convenient to use, but gets a little soft at the edges. I also have the EF400mm f/4.0 DO IS USM lens which my son uses much more than I do these days.”

The EOS 5D has proved to be a godsend for Stephen’s outdoor work as he explains: “I’m not into carrying great weights around and some of my best bird pictures have been taken outside.” The 5D has also been deployed to shoot much of his book about spiders, ‘Spiders: The Ultimate Predators’ that was published in March 2009.

© Stephen Dalton

Indian Roller (Coracias Benghalensis) in flight in Assam, India. Shot on the EOS 40D with the EF400mm f/4 DO IS USM lens; 1/3200sec at f/4.5; ISO 500.

Stephen embarked on the spider project shortly after selling the NHPA in 2006. He admits: “I wanted something to occupy my time. I did a week’s course on spiders in Dorking, Surrey. I had a certain fascination because I’m an arachnophobe at heart. The most remarkable thing is the fact they have so many bizarre ways of capturing prey.”

“I spent three years learning much about spiders and every two to three weeks we would go off on a spider hunting foray. Most of the shots were taken with the EOS 5D, but some with the 400D and even the 350D,” explains Stephen.

© Stephen Dalton

Woodlouse spider (Dysdera Crocata) attacking woodlouse (Dysderidae) shot on the EOS 5D with EF100mm f/2.8 Macro USM at 1/180sec, f/13 at ISO 100.

During his spider book project Stephen happened across a rare triangle spider on his farmland and explains: “I spent some time getting it to build the web – it constructs a segment of orb web; then holds it with its leg; releasing the tension as soon as an insect makes contact; thus enveloping the prey with web.”

He admits: “The project was not easy – spiders are not only small but trying to show the multitude of ways in which they catch their prey is one of the most difficult things to photograph. Also, they have webs that you can’t see unless they catch the light. Added to which, not being the greatest expert on spiders, I needed to do a lot of research to write the book.”

With the spider book already published Stephen Dalton has embarked on a new project that combines his love of macro photography with some existing images he had taken on the EOS-1Ds. Although CPN is sworn to secrecy about its exact content it’s safe to say that any photographic project involving the talents of Stephen Dalton seems sure to have an audience ready and waiting to see what this talented Englishman comes up with next.


Stephen Dalton’s equipment:

EOS 5D Mark II

EF24-105mm f/4L IS USM
MP-E65mm f/2.8L 1-5x Macro
TS-E90mm f/2.8
EF100mm f/2.8 Macro USM
EF180mm f/3.5L Macro USM
EF400mm f/4.0 DO IS USM

4x Speedlite 550EX flashguns
5x Speedlite 580EX flashguns
All manner of home built electronic stuff and sundry bits and pieces

Biography: Stephen Dalton

Stephen Dalton

Stephen Dalton studied the art and science of photography and applied it to developing specialist photographic equipment to capture insects and birds in flight with pin-sharp accuracy. His photography has won numerous accolades including the Royal Photographic Society’s Silver Progress Medal. He has written 15 books and had nine one-man exhibitions. In 2007 some of his images were displayed in the Tate Britain gallery.