A celebration of Stephen Dalton's remarkable high speed nature photography

Ground-breaking wildlife photographer Stephen Dalton looks back on a remarkable career with his new book Capturing Motion: My Life in High Speed Nature Photography.

Work by Stephen Dalton
Work by Stephen Dalton

Stephen, who lives in Ardingly, pioneered techniques that enabled him to capture the first ever photographs of insects and birds in flight. In another first, his photographs of a flying insect were selected to board NASA’s Voyagers 1 and 2 spacecraft as part of records conveying the science and culture of mankind to possible extra-terrestrial beings.

Stephen’s work has been exhibited at Tate Britain and The Barbican as well as being the subject of a documentary for the World About Us BBC series. Now he looks back in print, with the new book.

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“The book is really about my photographs of high-speed nature – birds and insects and in fact any animal that moves pretty fast! I developed the techniques for doing this in the late 60s, early 70s, and the book is actually almost autobiographical.

“I was always interested in natural history, and I started photography in the late 60s. I realised that there were photographs of all sorts of insects, but they were just sitting around doing nothing. There were no pictures of them actually flying – and flying is actually what insects are all about, what makes them the most successful group of invertebrates on earth. There were just no photographs around.

“So I set about working out what the problems were and then isolating them and then working through them one by one. That was the principal behind it. It was about doing something that had not been done before. I had always been interested in flight. I wrote a book about the evolu-tion of flight which came out not long after I got my first photos of flying insects.

“It was very exciting. It took about two years to work out all the problems and get the equipment together. Most of the equipment I had to design myself. And then when I got my first photographs of these insects in flight it was almost surreal!”

Persistence, hard work and sheer faith that it could be done had pushed him to experiment with a variety of methods. The reward was that he had created the art of motion photography.

Each attempt could be long and frustrating but success finally came with his image of a barn owl in flight.

“We employed two cameras set up side by side in the hide, one containing colour film that had to be sent away to Kodak for processing, which took a week, while the other was loaded with black and white film. When the owl took off both cameras recorded two almost identical images.

“More often than not the negatives revealed that at least one of the flash heads failed to fire, ruining the chance of obtaining the lighting so carefully planned. Even when we managed to obtain an image, the chances were that the wings were not in an attractive position.

“By now, after three weeks, our patience was running thin. Although we had managed to obtain a few indifferent pictures, none of them did justice to the bird and the setting. I decided to struggle on for a few more days. A couple of evenings had passed when out of the blue everything jelled. Next morning from out of the developing tank I withdrew a strip of dripping negatives that held the image that had been in my mind’s eye for weeks. All four flash lamps had fired and the owl’s wings were perfect.”

Inevitably, the digital revolution has helped massively: “For years I was going backwards and forwards to the processing laboratories just to see whether something was in focus or even in the picture at all. There was no immediacy, and that immediacy is the main advantage of digital photography. But I don’t see it as all gain. With digital photography you really can fiddle the books...”