by John Oughton
Gift books of nature photography usually offer the armchair naturalist two kinds of access: to species from places too remote to be visited, or to those too small to be seen easily. Secret Worlds (Firefly Books, 160 pages, $35 cloth, ISBN: 1552093840), however, opens the reader’s eyes in another way. English photographer Stephen Dalton has spent over thirty years finding ways to get sharp images of small beings that move too fast for standard techniques. Of his first successful shots, he writes: “I remember... being swept away by the sight of things no one had ever set eyes on before”. Some of his best work from earlier volumes like The Secret Life of a Garden and Miracle of Flight is collected here.
While his account of tinkering with high-speed electronic flashes triggered by narrow light beams will interest those technically inclined, the photographs themselves are the best arguments for Dalton’s patience, photographic “eye”, and ingenuity. He was probably the first to capture a sharp shot of an insect in flight; twenty-five years later, his flying cockchafer beetle remains a stunning achievement. After wrestling into focus other tiny subjects, such as a spurge hawk moth and a honeybee (a flash of 1/50,000th second duration required to stop its wings in mid-stroke), Dalton moved on to reptiles, small mammals, birds, and bats.
Charmingly, he writes that he much prefers photographing in the comforts of his home to extended safaris. His usual technique is to construct a natural-looking environment with room for both the subject and his equipment. He is able to simplify the background and create a memorable image of a leopard frog in mid-leap, an archer-fish squirting down an insect, or a monitor lizard firing its extra-long and sticky tongue at lunch. Animal-rights activists would appreciate the fact that Dalton usually releases his subject unharmed after its modelling work.
When he does undertake field work, he spends a long time preparing not only the blind from which he will operate his equipment, but also his subject’s environment. For his startling night shot of a barn owl, mouse in beak, about to return to its nest in an octagonal tower, Dalton took about three weeks, including blacking out seven windows so that the owl could fly only to the window on which he had focused.
There are so many good photographs in this book that it is hard to pick out a favourite. However, the one that remains in my mind’s eye is that of a lively basilisk lizard running on its hind legs over the surface of a pond. Walking on water is an art usually restricted to the tiny or the divine, but this energetic lizard is neither. This shot amazed even scientists, and two at Harvard undertook research as a result. (They found that the lizard’s foot strokes create temporary air cavities on which it “walks”.)
This collection is recommended not only for the expected gift book virtues—beautiful images, handsomely printed—but also for real educational value. Dalton truly has shown us many secret worlds, and in doing so makes a cogent argument for the preservation of all species.