In Conversation: Paul Nicklen

Cynthia Haynes

We’re honoured to publish the first-ever eBook from world-renowned photographer Paul Nicklen, Photographing Wild: Techniques of a National Geographic Photographer. In this photographically-rich book, Paul shares his philosophies, stories behind the photographs, and the techniques he uses to create his sought-after work. And regardless of what you photograph, he emphasizes the importance of making powerful images of the things you care about. For those who may not know Paul, or for those who want to know more about him, the book feels like sitting down with a friend and having a conversation. His masterful storytelling combines humour, power, and his passion for the world that he works diligently to conserve through his photography. 

At what point in your career as a marine biologist did you know you wanted to photograph wildlife?

I knew while I was studying biology at the University of Victoria, but assumed that such a career did not exist for a guy like me.

As a master storyteller, how do you visualize the elements of the story you want to tell?

I research my stories at great length, create lists, then select the top potential visuals from each category and then sketch them on a piece of paper. I break the images down into shape, mood, composition, feeling, and impact.

Do you believe it’s possible to tell a whole story in a single photograph? What do you think makes a good storytelling image?  

Absolutely. Think of a polar bear floating out to sea on a tiny piece of ice. Think of thousands of shark fins drying in the sun. It invites you in, grabs you by the heart, and beats you over the head with the message.

In your extreme travels to remote landscapes with large predators, have you ever experienced a situation where you thought, “I might not make it out of this?”

It's happened a few times, but the worst was when an 8,000-pound breeding elephant seal came after me in the water. It was only four feet deep and he was doing everything he could do to crush me. He had a hundred females to protect and just saw me as a rival male.

(Editor's note: The elephant seal is not the animal photographed below; these are photographs of the leopard seal featured in Paul's TED Talk.)

What would you say is the most dangerous species? Why?

I don’t think that there is a dangerous species. No such thing, unless maybe you are thinking about box jellyfish. There is bad judgment by humans that can get them in trouble, but that doesn't make a species dangerous.  

What do you want to achieve with your photography? How do you want to be remembered?

I want to be remembered for the millions of square kilometers of marine protected areas, no take zones, and protecting complete ecosystems.

Photographing Wild: Techniques of a National Geographic Photographer is 200 pages of working techniques, illustrated with beautiful photographs and incredible stories from Paul, and features profiles by Jimmy Chin, David Doubilet, Cristina Mittermeier, Brent Stirton, Michael "Nick" Nichols, and Joel Sartore. A portion of the proceeds from the book will go to Paul's foundation, Sea Legacy, which uses photography in conservation and habitat protection efforts in some of the most remote corners of the ocean. 

Paul Nicklen is an assignment photographer for National Geographic who has captured the imagination of a global audience. His personal mission is to use his highly emotional, evocative, and beautiful images to ignite a conversation about the future of our planet’s natural wonders and to inspire action. As a founder and contributing photographer to Sea Legacy, he dedicates his efforts to highlighting the issues, species, and ecosystems he cares about so deeply by traveling the world in search of meaningful stories that touch people’s emotions and connect the public at large with Earth’s marine and polar realms.


Interview Paul Nicklen

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