On Assignment with Nick Nichols

Nick Nichols uses the power of photography to help with conservation projects, primarily endangered jungle habitats in central Africa. He believes in photography with a mission and is willing to live for months in remote areas to get the one shot that will help shape the future of those animals.

What it's like to be a pro shooter for National Geographic? How do you get those amazing close-up shots?

It's great. I know I'm in a privileged position and I worked very hard to be here. I want to spend an insane amount of time on each on project and where I am now, I'm afforded that luxury.

My mission is to represent nature in the wild. I use camera traps to get close-ups of the animals. The Serval cat image was a trap that was set in front of a croc watering hole for three months. My assistant would come back with the images, we'd check them out and make an adjustment from there. We're making giant leaps in the quality of the photos. These wild animals are shy and dangerous and in the past it's been all about the telephoto lens - whatever you could capture from far away is what you were stuck with. When you're shooting closer, the images feel really wild.

Could you explain more about the camera traps?

The trap works like a burglar alarm. There is an invisible beam and when the animal breaks it, the camera is set to take 1, 3 or many multiples of pictures. The animal sees the flash, which could cause him to bolt or to freeze. We had one ape take 53 images of himself by staying and triggering the flash. The cameras adjust the shutter speed throughout the day and we also set the trailmaster, the computer that triggers the camera, for certain times of the day when we know the animals will be there. Set-up for each animal is different. Elephants are next.

You have to remember we are in these remote areas where human don't walk through often. Leaving our scent will scare the animals so we don't go more than once a week. Sometimes we rub dung all over the equipment so the animals won't immediately smell human.

What do you say to people that suggest using the camera traps is not the same thing as you taking the image?

Yes, some people like to say that I didn't take them. My reply to them is, of course I did. I found the spots and rigged the cameras. I adjust how the camera functions. It wouldn't have happened if it weren't for me. But to get the shot I want, I can't be there. It's not possible. They are very personal shots. Intimate. And a wild animal wouldn't be in that same spot if I was.

Have any advice on how to take great photos?

Don't sit around! The images are out there. There's really no front page anymore. You can get your work out if you keep trying. Selecting your images should be done in a highly edited manner. Because I've always been a photo essayist, I've learned to edit. It's a very important skill. Shooting a lot of images doesn't make you good. Improving on the frame makes you good. The individual stamp that makes your images yours is in the editing. Make sure the picture you put out there represents you.

What is your shooting process?

I don't look at the digital images while I'm shooting. I analyze after the shoot is over when I have time to really look at them. I want to find ways to improve and then go back to the watering hole or whatever and get even better shots. By looking at what wasn't working, you learn from all the failures. I always say that 99% of what I shoot should go in the trash. Only the ones that rise to the top should get in peoples hands. Every image has to have all the elements come together. But all that is fine, because it wouldn't be any fun if it were too easy to do.

If you have the time to be looking at the back of the camera during the shoot, that's not good. Think about the image, look through the viewfinder and shoot. Give yourself at least an hour and a half at an event and then edit later.

If I had to choose my all time favorite pictures over the past thirty years, most of them would be shots that were accidents and photos that I forced to happen using traps or otherwise. I depend on serendipity and accident. I've taken thousands of boring and bad pictures but I stay with it with the hope that eventually, something will happen inside that frame that will be special. I obsessively go back to the same well to get the shot.

What are you passionate about?

I'm not a big fan of straight wildlife photography. I want the work to have a mission. When I took part in Mike Fay's walk across the Congo, we were hoping to raise awareness and get one national park to protect the animals. Mike would have been happy with that. But because of the images, people could really see and they ended up creating thirteen national parks. We raised money. We created two books with the nine articles that came out of the project. We got the whole thing funded by wealthy donors so that all the money we got could go to the parks. I'm pleased with the results because I wanted it to be substantial. So much of my life is in there. Images make words much more powerful.

What were your inspirations to become a photographer?

Before the camera, I studied and tried my hand at painting and fine art. I wasn't very good at it. I didn't know then that I had journalism in me but the immediacy of the camera made me think this is what I want to do. As a kid, I read National Geographic relentlessly. I was very influenced by Charles Moore and his images during the Civil War. Eugene Richards, Alex Webb and Jill Perez come to mind as inspirations because I like their images and their commitment.

How did you get started?

Charles Moore gave me my break into the business. I'd just been rejected by National Geographic as an intern and he came to Alabama and asked me to come and work with him as his assistant in San Francisco. The first time I went to New York was with him. In 1979 I showed my images to GEO magazine and my career took off from there. I came along right at the rebirth of the picture magazine.

Do you use film or digital?

The project I did in the Grand Canyon was the beginning of digital for me. After thirty years of film, I decided to include digital cameras. And by shooting with both, it was easy to see how great digital was for amateurs to learn with. When you shoot film in a remote location, you may be shooting for seven months and then processing it all at once. There is no way to go back and improve the shot you almost got when you're looking at an image on another continent from three months ago. But digital has changed everything. You can see instantly what works and what doesn't. It totally changes the learning curve. I now use all Canon cameras, from the Rebel for street shooting, to the 5D. And I use all Canon lenses. If I'm shooting Pygmies, I'll generally use a less intrusive camera like the Leica M6 rangefinder.

How do you feel about editing your work using a photo editing program like Photoshop?

Well, I don't change any pixels. I look at digital editing as a dark room. Enhancing the same why I could do when it was film keeps it real to me. I did chrome for years and you had all these limitations of contrast and shadow details. I'm from an entire generation that said if you don't put it in there, it shouldn't be there. But now you have RAW files that are like negatives. I won't move a pixel, though. I'm not saying it's blasphemy to move pixels but I think it is to not declare it. I try to make my images look unbelievable but they're real. You can do whatever you want to for art. There aren't rules for art. But you shouldn't sell that as what people perceive as an untouched photograph when the pixels have been changed.

What was it like working with Jane Goodall on the book Brutal Kinship: Chimpanzees and Humans?

On the onset I was intimated, but I got to know her and she was so real. I had already made a book about mountain gorillas, Gorilla: Struggle for Survival in the Virungas, and Jane told me that I should do for chimps what I did for mountain gorillas. So I did a body of work that highlighted our brutal kinship to these glorious animals and how we use and abuse them. Jane became the mother of that project. At 68 she was out helping to get the story and because of her, the logging company gave up the fight and we got the land protected. Her spirit was so inspiring. Jane and I became good friends and that continued on. My 25-year-old son, Ian, is there now photographing those chimps using a grant from the National Geographic Expeditions Council.

Tell us about the Festival of the Photograph?

The festival comes out of having slide shows in Berkeley and then Charlottesville for twenty years in my backyard. They get-togethers just kept growing. There were 500 people at the last one and it was always about everyone showing images. Anybody that came could show - good, bad, whatever. Everyone was invited.

For years we talked about making it into a real festival like the ones in Europe. The ones in the US that I know about have turned into trade shows with a few great lectures. They are mostly people selling stuff. Ours is a celebration of the image. Three days of peace, love and photography. We're celebrating during the day and each evening having a presentation with Alex Chadwick from NPR interviewing great photographers in an Actors Studio format with their images right behind them on a screen. The interview form allows us to hear what we want to hear and see what we want to see at the same time. It's more intimate in a sit down like that. The three photographers being interviewed are William Albert Allard, Sally Mann and Eugene Richards.

Every year I've made it a point to make sure that if you showed up with work, you got to show, even if it was 4am. But this year it's different and it's frustrating. In order to accommodate everyone things have to be different. But I feel so strongly that we can't lose the soul of the event and that everyone should be able to show their work. I'm not sure how it will play out but we're working on it and we'll solve it. The idea is that Charlottesville will be transformed into a living exhibit for those three days in June and we hope that photographers from everywhere will come, join us and be a part of the celebration.

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