Dalton's World

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. 

Contributing editor Les Line was the editor of Audubon from 1966 to 1991.

© 2000  NASI

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