TECHNOLOGY moves so fast it is sometimes hard to keep up – but even the latest digital cameras often still lag behind the speed of nature.
Wildlife snapper Stephen Dalton decided he couldn’t wait for photographic gear to catch up with his animal subjects.
So he started devising his own equipment nearly half a century ago, and it’s still ahead of the game… and the birds… and the insects… and the fish.
Croak ‘n’ dagger … frog leaps from a stone
In fact, Stephen’s home-made collection of batteries, flashlights, sensors, amplifiers and camera shutters have allowed him to picture some of the fastest wonders of nature.
He has frozen in time such splitsecond moments as a swallow diving for a sip of water, an archer fish shooting a jet of water to knock an insect from a leaf and a lizard running on water.
Hard to swallow … bird takes a drink
And the secret of his success in capturing movement too quick for the human eye? Move very SLOWLY.
His collection of equipment is so bulky that if he put it all into position at once he would permanently scare away the very wildlife he wants to photograph.
So instead he spends weeks painstakingly organising his set-up, often outdoors, piece by piece.
Stephen, 72, from East Grinstead, West Sussex, says: “Capturing the swallow drinking was an incredible process.
“I use so much kit that if I was to put it together all in one go then the swallow would stay away from the area as it is too much of a change in environment. Doing it this way takes a number of weeks but it does look great in the end.”
Fast … Stephen Dalton
He adds: “I’d been photographing animals since the 1960s but it was not until the next decade that I realised that much of the more spectacular activities of animals – particularly of the smaller ones such as insects – were too fast to see and fully wonder at.
“It seemed a miracle that flies can evade a swatting hand and land upside-down on the ceiling or that hoverflies can hover effortlessly and change direction in the twinkling of an eye.
“The thrill of seeing, for the first time, how these little creatures moved their wings and manoeuvred through the air with such rapidity and instinctive skill was overwhelming.”
Behind the lense … Stephen’s huge array of hardware
When Stephen started out he quickly discovered there were no flash units powerful enough, or camera shutters quick enough, to capture a creature in full flight.
He recalls: “I needed a sensing system that was capable of detecting an object as fine as a human hair moving at up to four metres per second.”
Trap … how he catches amazing moments
So he created his own high-speed set-up, including an invisible light beam which, when broken by the subject of his photos, would snap the creature in mid-movement.
His kit includes a voltage control, a transformer for the light source, a photo cell light sensor, a photo amplifier and a number of flashes – all home-made.
Forensic operation … how the owl was snapped
The newest technology is finally doing the job of Stephen’s bulky kit, which covers an entire kitchen table and includes a 10kg power supply storing flash energy at 3,000 volts.
He says: “Now we have entered this new era of extraordinarily refined digital imagery and electronic automation, the marvels of nature can increasingly be revealed to the human eye by more people.”
Stephen got there first, but he is happy for others to catch up.
He adds: “I just pray that it will convince more of us that the natural world must be protected, no matter what the cost.”
But we’ll have to be quick.