Photographers For Good ~ Masters: Michael “Nick” Nichols

We are proud to recognize Michael “Nick” Nichols as a Master Photographer for Good.

Michael “Nick” Nichols is one of the world’s top environmental and wildlife photographers. Nick joined National Geographic as a staff photographer in 1996, and in 2008 became National Geographic’s photography editor at large. Aside from being an incredible photographer, Nick is an ardent conservationist and shares a deep passion for wild places. We are honored to share his thoughts here on Photocrati.

You’ve done some big and impactful projects – the Megatransect Project and the Zoo project come to mind. What past projects are you most proud of and why?

Mountain Gorillas, a story I shot with Geo Magazine in 1980, helped me discover that my images can do more than entertain. They can help protect wildlife and wild places. These particular images illustrated the beginning of eco-tourism, or how a charismatic animal like a mountain gorilla could save an entire ecosystem because people want to see that animal living in its natural environment. This story also lead to my first book with Aperture.

From 1995-1997, I spent two years with tigers in India. This was a time when the conservation community was dabbling with saving animals using technology: captive breeding, artificial insemination and other processes like that. The story was published in December 1997 and clearly shows that the best way to create a wild tiger that eats deer and pigs (and not humans) is to let it be raised by a wild mother. She will teach her young all the things tigers need to know. Most importantly: to fear humans and not to eat humans.

The Megatransect project introduced me to wild elephants. Those elephants feared me since they had always known humans as poachers and killers. In recent years, I’ve done 4 projects on wild elephants with the idea in mind that if apes are our closest genetic relatives, then elephants are our closest spiritual relatives. The images that we made on the Megatransect (NGM 10/00, 3/01, 8/01), in Zakouma National Park in Chad (NGM 3/07), the Samburu National Reserve in Kenya (NGM 9/08) and then now of the Elephant Orphans (to be published in NGM 9/11) in Kenya show elephants in all stages from unprotected and fearful (Megatransect and Zakouma) to safe, happy and loving (Samburu) to heartbroken and orphaned (Elephant Orphans).

And lastly, I’m very proud of the big trees we’ve been photographing. The redwood composite was originally published as a 5 page foldout in the magazine in October of 2009. But I only realized that we had succeeded when it was printed 60 feet tall and displayed in a French cathedral in the fall of 2010.

Looking at the 60 ft (18 meter) print of a Redwood Tree at Visa Pour L’Image. Perpignan, France. ©Michael Nichols, National Geographic

I could see people worshipping the tree, that they really understood that trees are the pillars of our environment. We can use trees to teach people how to respect the earth. I’ve just photographed another great tree in a snow storm which will be published sometime in 2012.

Can you share some of your favorite images and tell us what went into making them and why you like them?

A silverback known as Mrithi moves a bit – and blurs his portrait into art. Adult males can reach nearly six feet in height and 400 pounds in weight, with an arm span of eight feet. Adult females may weight 200 pounds. Size and fierce mien belie a largely gentle nature. Prize winning, award winning photo–this gorilla photo won the New York Art Directors Award. ©Michael Nichols, National Geographic

I was shooting kodachrome 64 on a black animal in a dark forest and the image is hand held at 1/2 second with a 200 mm lens. Its ridiculous but it works to capture the mystery of the ape.

With feline grace abandoned, Bachi takes her picture by breaking an infared beam at an unmanned remote-camera site in Bandhavgarh. Sweltering 120-degree heat, she seeks relief in a pool, despite its fetid brew of rotting leaves and monkey urine. A daughter of Sita, she has outgrown her name; Bachi means “female child” in Hindi. ©Michael Nichols, National Geographic

I had been playing around with camera traps, the tiger is perfectly suited for it because they need to drink water on a regular basis and they live in a habitat where water is scarce at times so that gives you the natural bait that you need for a camera trap. All of that is just technique, what makes the picture is the cat. The tiger made a very cat-like self portrait that still resonates to this day.

 Security and learning are crucial to elephant society. On the savannas of Samburu, infants in family groups get vigilant protection from females functioning almost as a council of mothers. Adolescents tussle amiably, developing social skills as well as confidence and strength. ©Nick Nichols, National Geographic

After years of photographing elephants I couldn’t approach, all of a sudden I’m working so close to them.

At least 1,500 years old, a 300-foot titan in California’s Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park has the most complex crown scientists have mapped. ©Michael Nichols, National Geographic

The tree image is the ultimate team photograph, more like making a movie than a photographer wandering around by himself. It took a couple of years of thinking about it and then was truly a collaborative effort between me, a rope rigging and climbing team, my camera assistant and a technical guru who actually stitched all the images together. I was the director, when we were there actually making the picture I was called “excess baggage.” I like it because it represents nature in a form that I never thought I could capture in a photograph. It goes way beyond even representing trees.

You’ve been called the Indiana Jones of Photography … does that title fit?

It was fun when I was young. Now it feels sort of like the last movie that they made.

You’ve said that you’re bored by “beautiful wildlife” photos. What do you mean by that?

Because I came to photography as a photojournalist and I never set out to be a wildlife photographer, I’ve always thought that taking pretty pictures of animals is self indulgent. This applies to my own photography, not for others who enjoy doing it. I just personally need to be telling stories. Everything on this earth is endangered or in trouble, the beautiful image can be misleading. But I think the tree picture I made is beautiful, but that isn’t its only purpose. Sometimes you have to go back to beauty to get the point across.

A lot has changed in the past decade for photographers. How have new technologies and mediums impacted the way you work?

I was fighting digital photography kicking and screaming because of ethical concerns, but it has proven to be a real boon to creativity. For years I worked in low ISOs, limited tonal range and I could only get 36 pictures without having to stop and reload. Digital photography frees us. I can now see my camera trap images right after they are made so I can make adjustments in the field. My original ones I couldn’t see for many months until the film was developed back home so I couldn’t do that. I can shoot very publishable pictures by moonlight. I can photograph subjects in the dark without having to disturb them or announce my presence with a flash. The tree image wouldn’t have been possible without the current technology of stitching and blending multiple images together in Photoshop. I am about to embark on a new assignment on Lions which is all based on what I can do with current technology. It has impacted everything.

What is the most challenging thing about the kind of photography that you do?

I couldn’t do the work that I have done without my patron, National Geographic. Getting to be one of their guys didn’t happen overnight, I come from a small town in Alabama, I had no connections, but it was very much a long range plan of mine to work for NG. I knew that there, I could work on projects that I could allow to consume me and I would have the resources to make the pictures I wanted to make and plus the audience to view the images after they were published. Whats hard about it is that it takes long range planning, long term focus, and being away from home for months at a time. None of my work is wandering around with a camera, its all takes a lot of planning and research. But on a personal level, I still like to wander around alone with a camera.

What are you working on now?

I’ve just finished another giant tree portrait in the Sierra Nevadas in 10 feet of snow. I have a beautiful essay on Elephant Orphans to be published in the September issue of National Geographic and I’m starting a “Living with Lions” project which will not be published until 2013 and will be my last big project.

If not a photographer, what would you want to be?

Since I was 19 when I decided to be a photographer, that is all I’ve ever thought about. I fantacize about some other things (if you really want to know I would have liked to be a member of The Rolling Stones, the greatest rock and roll band of all time) but that is all. I don’t use video, I still just concentrate on the rectangle of a still photograph because I feel like any distraction would take me away from the focus that is needed. As you become successful in one thing, its important to stay focused because a distraction can weaken your work maybe without you even knowing it.

EDITOR’S NOTE: We’ve been contacted by many people interested in purchasing prints of the photos featured in this interview. If you would like a signed print by Michael “Nick” Nichols, please contact Jenna Pirog at: [email protected]. Thank you!

Also — if you’re a fan, be sure to “LIKE” Michael “Nick” Nichols’ Facebook page!

This Post Has 8 Comments

  1. Thank you so very much for this amazing interview. I am loving learning more about Mr. Nichols. I have been a very big fan of Mr. Nichols for so long. Even though I am a wedding photographer, I have always been dreaming of doing the kinds of photographer that Mr. Nichols does. I thank him for bringing so many important issues into the light.

  2. Thanks for the interview Photocrati. The tree image as the ultimate team photograph is an inspiring example, and I think hints at the possibilities out there for teams of image-makers/thinkers who pursue a vision. Mr. Nichols’ storied career is an exciting one to follow.

  3. We see so many wildlife animal pictures that we tend to forget about the trees, we actually need them more than the animals 😉

    I agree that seeing the giant tree picture take that entire cathedral wall really puts it in perspective. Love it. Great work!

  4. Wonderful story! I had seen the picture of the Redwood before and it was fascinating to hear more about the photographer and the process.

  5. Wonderful article, he is my hero for a long time. I put lot of effort into butterfly conservation, buying and managing land for them and can’t wait for the moment when I can turn my photography into part of it, as conservation photography.
    Lajos Nemeth-Boka
    GreenEye Ecotours & Images

  6. What an amazing photographer and a great article about his work. Thank you!

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