Paul Nicklen: Utilizing Images for Conservation

Paul Nicklen is a photographer who makes use of his imagery to attach international audiences to the sweetness and fragility of our ecosystems and the animals that rely upon them.

Nicklen has worn many hats, together with that of a marine biologist, wildlife and fantastic artwork photographer, filmmaker, conservationist, speaker, and writer, and now the most recent is as a instructor who needs to coach photographers to seize imagery that may save the earth, its animals, and ecosystems from extinction. His profession has spanned 20 years, throughout which he has completed quite a few assignments for Nationwide Geographic, the place he’s a fellow.

Nicklen’s work delivers audiences to an underwater realm witnessed by few. His delicate and evocative imagery has garnered over 30 of the best awards for a photographer in his subject, together with the BBC Wildlife Photographer of the Yr and the distinguished World Press Picture for Photojournalism.

A Bear Encounter at Three Ft

Again in 2010, Nicklen was doing a narrative on Spirit Bears for Nationwide Geographic, which grew to become the duvet story. Kermode bears are black bears, however just a few have a recessive gene and find yourself trying whiteish. It seems like a polar bear strolling by way of the large old-growth cedar forests of British Columbia [Canadian province above Washington].

Bear within the Nice Bear Rainforest. White Kermode or Spirit Bear, British Columbia, Canada, 2010

Nicklen had 80 days in his taking pictures schedule however solely had just a few good taking pictures days obtainable because it rains virtually day by day right here, therefore the identify Great Bear Rainforest.

After a complete month, he didn’t have any worthwhile photos to point out and was involved about informing the journal that he had failed on a undertaking he proposed as “they publish photos, not excuses.”

Face to Face, Svalbard, Norway, 2008

Sooner or later he adopted an enormous spirit bear into the forest and watched him eat a salmon he had freshly caught. All of the sudden, the bear stands up and begins to make his strategy to the creek.

“I noticed that there was just one little entrance into this cove,” Nicklen tells PetaPixel. “And I used to be blocking his exit, so I stepped to the facet, and he walked again and went all the way down to the river and obtained one other fish. I’m three ft away from this bear, photographing him on a 16mm lens.”

The bear repeatedly glided by him and even “ran into the digicam at one level.” He obtained a lot of the pictures for a three-month story virtually in a day and a half.

Warning: Do NOT do that your self within the wild for those who come throughout a bear. This was a particular occasion of understanding what to do in an surprising state of affairs, and a First Nations information who knew this bear properly was simply 5 ft behind Nicklen.

“Animals dictate the encounter,” Nicklen provides. “You by no means push the animal; you by no means drive an animal to do something. I used to be sitting there quietly, and the bear was strolling as much as me, and he was making an attempt to stroll by me going to the river, get a salmon, and he would sit there and eat proper beside me, generally a foot or two away.

“I began with a 100-400mm, then a 24-70mm, and eventually a 16-35mm, and earlier than you recognize it, I’m zooming out to 16mm to {photograph} this bear in his setting, and that’s the last word. However that was after eight weeks of sitting there ready, ready, and ready. The animal had most likely been watching me, smelling me, listening to the clicks of my digicam … it’s simply not that stunned.

“Animals are very constant of their habits, and usually, they’re very reliable. I’ve seen maybe 3,000 polar bears, 2,000 grizzly bears, and 1,000 black bears in my lifetime, and I’ve by no means needed to shoot or pepper spray a bear.

“After I take folks to Antarctica, and so they ask what recommendation I’ve for them, my reply is usually to ‘put down your digicam and take it in together with your thoughts and eyes, feed your soul for some time after which take photos.’ Don’t simply be a slave to the gadget in entrance of you.”

Favourite Animal

Daybreak Patrol, Northern Fjords, Norway, 2018

Nicklen doesn’t have a single favourite animal that he prefers catching on digicam.

“I {photograph} whichever one provides me the connection at the moment to have the most important voice for an setting that’s below menace,” says the wildlife photographer. “It may be polar bears and narwhals within the Arctic, leopard seals in Antarctica, or sperm whales off Dominica [not to be confused with the Dominican Republic]. If I can inform a narrative utilizing their voice and their persona, then it’s my favourite animal.

“The polar bear is one animal I’ve spent probably the most time with. I’ve seen and photographed polar bears most likely a thousand days, like three years of my life.”

Photographer Paul Nicklen coated in frost, northern Greenland
On Historical Ice, Svalbard, Norway, 2007

Scary Conditions

Nicklen says he has had numerous scary encounters over his life and profession, however solely with people and never with animals.

“I’ve crashed an airplane into an Arctic lake and was trapped the other way up underwater. It was a really shut name with a 99% fatality charge, in order that was scary,” he remembers.

“Nearly any scary encounter I’ve ever had is my fault — falling by way of sea ice, dislocating my shoulder, operating out of air on dives, getting misplaced at sea dives however not often have I had a scary encounter with a wild animal.”

Shimmering Sail, Yucatan, Mexico, 2008

If he had been to die, he want to go in a cool manner, immersed in nature, moderately than by way of one thing like a automobile accident within the concrete jungle — he says he would favor to go throughout a scuba dive as an alternative.

Landscapes or Animal Images

Nicklen loves to mix animals and landscapes moderately than take an image of a mountain, the aurora borealis, or a rainstorm.

“I need to put issues into context and have layers of the setting,” says the previous skilled biologist. “I need to have the aurora, the mountains, and panorama, the polar bear strolling throughout the ocean ice, a grizzly or spirit bear within the forest, or a small pond of narwhals from an aerial shot.

“I like my work to be layered however have that animal to offer the story and the panorama context moderately than simply straight landscapes.

Ice Waterfall, Svalbard, Norway, 2014

In 2014, Nicklen captured an essential panorama, Ice Waterfall, in Svalbard, Norway. Arctic waterfalls sprout from the Nordaustlandet ice cap because it gushes excessive volumes of meltwater – a putting reminder of this icy ecosystem’s fragility. Despite the fact that this picture was taken simply 600 miles from the North Pole, the temperature hovered within the excessive 60s Fahrenheit. Because of local weather change; the Arctic may very well be utterly devoid of sea ice through the summer time months inside the subsequent 10 to twenty years.

Former vp and environmentalist Al Gore has used the Ice Waterfall picture in his talks and environmental tasks many instances.

“That’s why I shoot these things,” says the Canadian photographer from Vancouver Island. “What excites me probably the most is after I take an image like Ice Waterfall, it seems highly effective and exquisite. I’m proud when Nationwide Geographic makes it the gatefold opening unfold of the local weather change concern.

“Most individuals, once they take a great image, it’s over for them. For me, it’s time for that picture to go to work and to maintain speaking with the world. I beloved it when Pearl Jam put that image on the duvet of their Gigaton album.

“I did a TED speak in 2011 on the predominant stage in Lengthy Seaside, California, and Al Gore met me on the finish of my speak and requested me to affix him on his journeys. He’s at all times simply been an enthralling, passionate advocate for the planet.

Defying Gravity, Ross Sea, Antarctica, 2011

Favourite Pictures

“I most likely am most pleased with Polar Reflections,” says Nicklen. “A polar bear’s picture is mirrored towards the water floor because it dives beneath a pan of ice. It’s on Apple TV and Apple computer systems.

Polar Reflections, Nunavut, Canada, 2006

“After I do public lectures, folks within the viewers will decide me. Cristina was within the viewers, and a few folks stated it was faux and Photoshopped as a result of they thought there was no manner anyone might seize that.

“I like that {photograph}, which sits on the intersection of artwork, science, and conservation. It was shot on 400 ISO movie, and I didn’t even know if I had the shot. I obtained the picture within the mail a month after taking it. All of the photographs had been horrible aside from that one image. Just a little little bit of ice is there within the higher a part of the body, and it talks about local weather change and the consequences on polar bears who will disappear with out the ice.

“Ice Waterfall is my best-selling fantastic artwork piece in my 5 favourite pictures. I like that picture. I’ve by no means put an image on my wall as I’d simply begin criticizing my work. However that’s the one one I’m going to be placing up in my new workplace in a few weeks.

Tusked Titans, Spitsbergen, Norway, 2007

The Energy of Video in Conservation

“Up to now, I’ve shot hundred p.c stills. 4 years in the past, I began taking pictures most likely a 60/40 cut up of video versus stills. The Sony a1 with 8K video is a superb digicam. For some time, I used to be utilizing RED video cameras. Now I’m taking pictures Sony for stills, and it’s nice as I’ve 8K video and a nonetheless digicam all in below one underwater housing.

“I don’t have to hold two cameras. I shoot the Sony FX9 for video, and now I will likely be hitting the Sony Venice II. However they don’t have an excellent underwater housing but. Proper now, I can use the a1 underwater, have its incredible digicam to shoot 20 frames a second on stills with high-quality 50-megapixel information after which swap over to 8K video. It’s probably the most thrilling time for visible storytelling.

Nicklen says he has not been to as many international locations as his spouse Cristina, who has been to over 100.  Nationwide Geographic has been flying him primarily to the Arctic or Antarctic, however he has visited about 60 international locations.

“I attempt to fly as little as doable as I don’t need a huge carbon footprint. I prefer to go locations for lengthy intervals, to get immersed with the animals and the setting,” says Nicklen.

Greater than competitors awards and the honorary PhDs, it’s receiving the Order of Canada he appreciates probably the most.

“[It means] you might have been value-added to this planet, that you simply’re on a mission, you might have a function, you’re on the market preventing on your conviction and your beliefs… it means the world to me,” says Nicklen.

As a co-founder of the non-profit, SeaLegacy, Nicklen is opening a contemporary, progressive chapter within the story of ocean conservation. Via visible storytelling, SeaLegacy conjures up thousands and thousands of individuals to face up and have a voice for the pristine locations threatened by local weather change.

Emperor Reflections, Antarctica, 2011

“It’s actually about utilizing the ability of visible storytelling to provoke a worldwide motion, to have conservation wins, and now we have had many wins,” says Nicklen.

“I’m extremely pleased with our staff, editors, storytellers, and work. I’m extremely proud to work alongside my spouse Cristina [Cristina Mittermeier, who started the International League of Conservation Photographers (ILCP)], who’s one of many nice conservation heroes of our planet and to be on the market and to see the eagerness and the conviction she has.”

It saddens Nicklen to see folks within the wilderness taking a look at their telephones as an alternative of taking within the stunning nature round them. He remembers a household, a father, and his children, sitting on the seashore in Hawaii, and so they had been all glued to their telephones when a humpback whale was breaching in entrance of them.

“I used to be simply laughing to myself considering, I guess you they’re googling the place to seek out humpback whales,” smiles Nicklen.

Morning Kings, South Georgia, 2008

Most of Nicklen’s 7.3 million Instagram followers stay in huge cities. He has a big following in India, Los Angeles, and New York. It’s a pleasant combine. He has an unimaginable variety of fifty/50 women and men, folks from all all over the world, with most of them residing in metropolis facilities, and his feed and photos are an escape.

Rising Up within the Arctic

Nicklen grew up within the Arctic with the Inuit [indigenous people of northern Canada] and have become obsessive about wildlife, nature, and excessive environments when he was 4. Then, his household moved to Baffin Island [extreme northern Canada opposite Greenland].

“It was very a lot an immersive expertise the place we had been one in every of three non-Intuit households locally,” remembers the environmentalist. “We by no means had a phone or tv and no computer systems again then. So, all of my time was spent outdoors, taking part in within the ice and snow. [I learned] the Inuit language, survival abilities, the best way to be powerful, and the best way to be immersed in nature.

“The Inuit inform tales by way of their huge, stunning soapstone carvings and lithograph work. They sit down within the night to inform folklore tales that fireplace up your creativeness. So, whereas I used to be studying to be powerful, I used to be studying the best way to inform tales at a younger age. My head was full of these stunning creations of temper, gentle, animals, sea ice, aurora borealis, and dancing polar bears.”

Golden Bond, Katmai Alaska, 2018

He didn’t have canine and cats for pets however native wildlife.

“I had a child ringed seal that the Inuit would give to us,” he remembers. “And a child pet seagull named Sammy who had a damaged wing, and I’d maintain him, and people had been my two favourite pets.”

“I fell so in love with the visuals of the Arctic, and the one job that made sense to me was to develop into a biologist. So, I obtained my BS in marine biology on the College of Victoria [and they gave him an honorary Ph.D. a few years ago for the impact his photography has had on climate change] and went again north.

I began to really feel demoralized that I used to be lowering the great thing about the animals I like a lot into knowledge units. So, I resigned as a biologist and went off in pursuit of turning into a photographer.”

Gathering of Unicorns, Nunavut, Canada, 2006

After seven years of ravenous, being broke, making an attempt to get observed, doing every little thing unsuitable, and making all of the errors, Nicklen ultimately obtained his first project for Nationwide Geographic Journal on salmon in 2003.

Getting Into Images

“My mother was a schoolteacher once we lived in Baffin Island,” says Nicklen, a Sony Ambassador. “She had a Pentax K1000 and would develop her photos in a darkish room within the little chilly storage of our dwelling. I used to be at all times so in awe of the craft of pictures, however I by no means believed it might be obtainable to me.

“I by no means picked up a digicam till late after I was 18 or 19, and I didn’t purchase my first digicam till I used to be 20 — a Nikon FE, then FE2. After which I purchased the Nikon F4 — that was my huge buy. Subsequent, I switched to Canon, and in 2019 moved to Sony.

“I at all times watched Cristina shoot silently with these Sonys, after which the mirrorless cameras obtained higher and switched.”

Grizzly Bear alongside the Fishing Department River within the Yukon. Majesty Surfacing, Yukon, Canada, 2012

Gear Selections

The transfer to digital pictures made life a little bit simpler for Nicklen.

“Most of my work is underwater, and also you’re utilizing flashes and strobes, and the lighting could be very advanced. I spent a whole lot of time bracketing within the movie days and making an attempt to get near the proper publicity of a difficult state of affairs, whether or not you’re below the ice and there are icebergs and penguins or no matter it’s.

“These days, as an alternative of getting 36 exposures in my digicam, I’ve 3,600 exposures. [It is great] to get all these probabilities at getting an amazing shot and to have a Polaroid assessment of that picture on the LCD display.”

Nicklen’s digicam tools arsenal contains top-of-the-line Sony mirrorless tools.

“I’ve been utilizing 5 Sony a1 cameras,” he says. “I’ve obtained the Sony a7R V, changing my a7R IV our bodies. If I’ve landscapes or aerials the place issues are usually not shifting quick, or I don’t must shoot 8K video, I’ll choose up the a7R V. The a1 is my go-to digicam that I’ve on a regular basis with me.

“I used to be taking pictures the a9 for a very long time as a result of I beloved the quick motor drive for wildlife and nature, however now, I favor to have it multi function bundle, which is why I’ve so many a1 our bodies. I’ve seven Sony lenses: 14mm f/1.8 GM, 16-35mm f/2.8 GM, 24–105mm f/4 G OSS, 20mm f/1.8 G, 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 GM OSS, 200–600mm f/5.6–6.3 G OSS, and 600mm f/4 GM OSS.”

Nicklen feels that the 400mm f/2.8 could be very huge, heavy, and costly for many photographers and isn’t required as a lot at this time with digital because it was with ISO 100 movies. It’s good to have the f/2.8 for shallow depth of subject, however usually you are attempting to get every little thing in focus and never taking pictures at f/2.8.

King Penguins within the surf and Oakum boys at St. Andrews.

When Canon first got here out with that vacuum pump 100-400mm, it was such a marginal lens, it was barely usable, nevertheless it was such an unimaginable focal size. I at all times had a 70-200mm, and there was at all times a 1.4x teleconverter on it, which solely obtained me to 280mm. So, I at all times needed to shoot that 100-400mm, and I used to be usually very disillusioned with the outcomes.

Even the Nikon folks didn’t like their first, what was it, 80-400mm. Lastly, Canon got here out with their second technology, 100-400mm, after which Sony got here out with their 100-400mm, which is tack sharp, and it’s this lens that I take advantage of probably the most usually. It’s the lens that I at all times have on my digicam. If I must go to a 600mm from there, I do, however I’ll at all times have a 100-400mm on my digicam to start out with. Subsequent week I’m going to Antarctica and can take the 200–600mm F5.6–6.3 G OSS as it’s a versatile lens [but he uses the 100-400mm more].

A Mastersclass from the Grasp

Nicklen has created a course of fifty episodes below Masters of Photography, from animal encounters to composition to psychology.

I by no means noticed myself as a instructor, however I stored getting pressured by the Masters of Images staff within the UK to come back and train this course. I stored considering perhaps I didn’t have sufficient to say, after which as soon as the digicam began to roll, and so they started to peel again the layers, I couldn’t speak quick sufficient.

Photographers have a whole lot of insecurities, a whole lot of doubts, a whole lot of fears, these little voices that inform you you’re not ok, you’re gonna fail. I need gifted, highly effective storytelling photographers on the market taking pictures the most effective photos on the planet to impact change for our planet. I need to train folks to get on the market and consider in themselves. This isn’t actually about my favourite f-stop and shutter pace, though we do a few of that stuff. You may Google and watch that on YouTube, however I’m going by way of the psychology of pictures and the best way to push your self to the best stage in pictures. I speak in regards to the left mind and proper mind. We do purpose setting; we take care of the best way to break down doubt. We get into composition and shutter speeds and the best way to be good, light, and respectful to the animals. It’s a course for photographers who need to be close to animals, take photos of them, and get into Nationwide Geographic.

Parenthood, Ross Sea, Antarctica, 2011

Nicklen has a conservationist message in his pictures.

“I don’t ever need to take ID photographs of animals. I need folks to have an emotional connection, the identical manner the Crocodile Hunter made folks have a connection to animals. I just like the world to fall in love with leopard seals, polar bears, narwhals, no matter animal it’s.

“To do this, I’ve to spend an unimaginable period of time with these animals. I need to make that emotional connection. I’ve to have animals stare into my lens and join and have the viewer of that picture have an emotional response. I need folks to fall in love with animals, care in regards to the ecosystems the place these animals are from, and in the end be higher stewards of this planet.”

You may see extra of Paul Nicklen’s work on his website and Instagram or be a part of his Masterclass.


In regards to the writer: Phil Mistry is a photographer and instructor based mostly in Atlanta, GA. He began one of many first digital digicam courses in New York Metropolis at The International Center of Photography within the 90s. He was the director and instructor for Sony/Fashionable Images journal’s Digital Days Workshops. You may attain him right here.


Picture credit: All photographs courtesy of Paul Nicklen.