Capturing Motion by Stephen Dalton
Stephen Dalton is the acknowledged master and pioneer of high speed wildlife photography. In his latest book, Capturing Motion: My Life in High Speed Nature Photography, published by Firefly Books, Stephen tells the fascinating story of how he has developed and refined techniques for capturing animals in movement over more than 50 years. The book is part memoir, part adventure story and part scientific exploration.
The development of a unique photographic style
The book follows the development of Stephen’s unique photographic style, from early beginnings in black and white through to contemporary full-frame digital photography, in a series of iconic and ground-breaking images. It also shows the complex set-ups and electronic equipment required to create such amazing high-speed nature images.
Stephen talks about key images from the book
We asked Stephen to select some of his favourite images from the book and to tell us why they are important to him.
“An early attempt at high-speed insect photography taken in 1972. This leafhopper can easily be overlooked as it rests unobtrusively beneath a rhododendron leaf sucking its sap. Until it accelerates off with a speed that can test even my high-speed flash!
This image shows both the insect’s habitat and behaviour all in 1/30,000 second of its brief life.”
“Another ‘old’ picture taken in the Florida Everglades during 1973 using Kodachrome 25 ASA transparency film. The film was not processed till I returned home nearly a month later, so I had to hold my breath until it was possible to check focus and correct exposure. Unthinkable nowadays with super-high film speeds and instant results! By a stroke of luck the focus was spot on.
These fabulous insects could often be seen flying down the wide Evergladian rides cut through the pine trees, dodging the gigantic webs made by the golden-orb weaver spiders. For me, this photograph symbolises the poetry of insect flight.”
Brown Basilisk or Jesus Lizard
“In my experience lizard photographs are rarely exciting, as generally lizards don’t do much apart from lounge around in the sun waiting for insect prey to appear. Basilisks are another story. Their reputation of dashing across the surface of water, a phenomenon that had never been captured on film except in a poor quality cine sequence, provided me with an incentive to capture this intriguing behaviour on high quality film.
Not surprisingly, the photography presented several difficulties, not least of which was persuading the creature to run at all. Fortunately nature came to the rescue as after a several days of little activity, a heatwave arrived, which galvanised the reptile into life.
Lighting was kept low key to simulate the gloom of a rainforest. I introduced a smidgeon of light to lift the shadows a touch and some soft backlight providing highlights for the water droplets. Also included was a hint of blue reflecting a patch of daylight penetrating the rainforest canopy.”
“If done with care, studio photography often provides more information about the subject’s habitat than images recorded in the wild. Take bats for instance, animals that are generally photographed surrounded by jet black backgrounds with no clue about context. Here a Daubenton’s bat is seen flying close to the water surface and with a suggestion of a woodland habitat so typical of this little mammal’s lifestyle.
Lighting is critical in recreating the impression of a natural habitat. Dull flat lighting occasionally has its place, but apart from being dull, the shape and texture of an animal is often lost. On the other hand, I prefer to avoid dramatic backlighting, favouring a more subtle approach, as in this case.”
Swallow leaving stable
“This bird was nesting in a dilapidated old stable, which was the home of a large Hereford bull. The photograph may appear straightforward but as explained in some detail in my latest book Capturing Motion, it proved quite a battle, balancing the high speed flash of the bird with the ever changing sunlight.”
“The archer fish proved a particularly demanding project to complete, as fully explained in the 1000 word description in my new book. Among the many challenges were the following:
1 Training the fish to take food from above the water.
2 Finding a typical mangrove type of background suitable for above and underwater photography.
3 Eliminating reflections.
4 The precision necessary to get the fish, jet of water, droplets, cricket, and light beam accurately aligned in a one plane.
5 ‘Encouraging’ the cricket to stay put long enough for me to make all the adjustments needed without the fish seeing it, as it was watching my every move, sometimes striking before the cricket was in position.
The project took a few weeks to accomplish, testing my patience to its limit – but finally it was worth it and I enjoyed a close relationship with the fish!”
“A comparatively recent photograph shows this dapper little jumping spider doing what all this fascinating family of spiders are renowned for. In common with most species, this spider spends much time basking in the sun and waiting for prey to appear.
Fence spiders can frequently be seen on fences or trees with peeling bark where these little animals can dash off to hide when danger threatens. Old oak branches are a favourite habitat.
Jumping spiders are relatively easy to photograph, as they tend to leap from one point to another pretty predictably. Working with these delightful spiders is always a pleasure.”
“The orange tip butterfly is one of my later high-speed shots. Technically this picture was no more tricky to obtain than most other shots of flying insects. The idea here was to create a totally natural background showing a typical spring-like meadow habitat with the butterfly’s larval food plant, the cuckoo flower dotted around in the background.”
Gallery of bookplate images
We have created a gallery of more than 100 of Stephen’s images from the new book. Below is a taster, featuring some of the master’s most famous high speed images. It also contains coverage on the complex equipment and set-ups required to achieve them.
Capturing Motion is available to purchase online, including from Amazon, and in all good bookshops.