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No length too great

4 May 2015

photographer-treed-by-grizzlyJoel Satore, Treed by Grizzly

Kelly Lynch talks to two of  National Geographic’s celebrated nature photographers, Paul Nicklen and Joel Satore, about the lengths they go to for the shot, and what motivates them to take the risks

How far would you go, how long would you wait, to get the shot? For National Geographic photographer Paul Nicklen there appears to be no limit. His powerful images captured in the polar regions are achieved by taking extreme physical risks, and waiting an exhausting amount of time for essential elements to coalesce. He is the current Veolia Environment World Wildlife Photographer of the Year and champion of the Nature category in this year’s World Press Photo competition.

During Nicklen’s first-ever speaking engagement in New Zealand recently, his wildlife images elicited ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ from a large audience in Auckland. Through his photos he told of polar ice diminishing at such a drastic rate that if we don’t care for the region’s native creatures, they won’t survive.

It’s hard not to care. Nicklen’s super-wide-angle images are captured so close you feel you can touch icicles on a polar bear’s furry face, look directly into the large liquid eyes of an elephant seal pup, and taste the salt on the water’s surface. His shots unveil a personality behind the fur.


Paul Nicklen, Leopard Seal, Antarctica

The images leave you wondering how, in the wild, Nicklen gets so close to polar bears and sea leopards and lives to tell the tale. He is clear to point out he has never been attacked by a grizzly or polar bear. “Wildlife will dictate the space you can occupy with them,” he advises. “All wildlife has its limits, and it is a matter of finding out what those are. Only one grizzly bear in 500 has a bad attitude.”

The length of time it takes to gain an animal’s trust depends on the animal and their comfort zone as it changes, he says.

“A grizzly bear I once photographed let me be within two metres of it, but for another it would be 200 metres away and that was always its limit.” Remaining calm is key, he explains. “My goal is to be a fly on the wall, a ghost, so I can get the shot.”

Pre-visualization of the image is essential for Nicklen. He invests in getting the mood and edginess of the image right, something that’s inspired by living out on the ice.

“Research is so important, to make sure it’s a full moon and high tide; if necessary I’ll wait for a year for the conditions to be perfect. I don’t accept that it will just be good enough on the day.”

Born in Saskatchewan, Canada, Nicklen developed a love of open spaces when as a child his family moved to live with an Inuit community on Baffin Island, in the Canadian Arctic. In his book Polar Obsession he credits Inuit culture with teaching him ice survival skills, and writes about how falling through sea ice as a child has helped him acclimate to seawater temperatures of -1.5 degrees.


Joel Satore and friend

Despite crashing his light plane, falling into freezing water, being trapped under ice or suffering from frostbite over 20 times, Nicklen is steadfast in his goals. “I want to lure you into the story and to take care of the environment.”

A self-taught photographer, Nicklen was mentored for 18 months by whale photographer Flip Nicklin (with an ‘i’, no relation). Despite his images appearing in magazines around the world, it took 10 years for him to be accepted as a National Geographic photographer. In his years of trying he worked harder and became more specialized — he dives under ice to depths of 60 metres, camps on it at temperatures down to -40 degrees Celsius, and shoots just as well above water. Nicklen considers his photography specialty to be eco-systems — the whole gamut.

Thus far he’s had 16 stories published in National Geographic, some of which have required years of planning. For example, his project capturing narwhals also took 10 years of planning and two years of shooting. The almost impossible task has been Nicklen’s hardest, made dangerous because the best viewpoints of surfacing narwhals are from between drifting shafts of rotting ice. Nicklen had major dramas photographing them from splintering ice, and taking aerials from his light plane was fraught with mechanical issues. None of this, however, deterred him from capturing amazing wide-angle shots of narwhals jousting their twisted spikes out of the water.

In 2010 Nicklen set about photographing the spirit bear (or Kermode bear), a rare white bear living in mossy forest in British Columbia. Dropped into the isolated region, Nicklen camped alone in persistent rain for the entire six-week assignment, without one spirit bear sighting. On his last day he checked his remote camera trap to find one had filled a frame with its white fluffy snout.


Paul Nicklen in snow outfit

The following season, he again camped for one month without a spirit bear sighting, until finally one walked directly past him. In the end the bear let him closer, and the coverage eventually comprised Nicklen’s third coffee-table book, and a National Geographic spread, with the coverage also contributing to the halting of proposals for a dam development in the vulnerable area.

One of the first National Geographic photographers to embrace digital gear back in 2004, Nicklen — not sponsored by anyone — currently uses a Canon EOS-1D X, and his lens collection ranges from fisheye to telephoto. He says he loves Canon’s new 200–400mm f/4 with a built-in 1.4x extender because of its sharp results.

He also loves the high-quality ISO his camera offers, essential for shooting under ice where light is limited. He isn’t worried about shooting images at 100 ISO, he’d rather get shots using f/8 and f/11, and the camera’s higher ISOs will allow him to do this. He even used 6400 ISO in caves in Mexico with publishable results.

Another recent visitor to New Zealand who shares the ambition to raise awareness of our environment through his imagery is National Geographic photographer Joel Sartore. He entertained and engaged a large crowd in his only New Zealand talk in Auckland some weeks following Nicklen’s appearance. His strategy was to present quirky, humorous photographs of humans and animals to lighten his environmental message.

Sartore has completed 30 stories for National Geographic in the past 22 years, covering every continent. He’s a generalist photographer but concentrates on work with a wildlife conservation theme, bringing awareness to endangered species. Through this kind of work he believes it is possible to “save a species,” and that’s why he embraces the difficult career. “There are certainly easier ways to make a living, but this is very satisfying,” he says.


Paul Nicklen, Narwhals

From Nebraska, USA, Sartore modestly credits his Midwest work ethic for keeping him employed in one of the world’s most desired photography jobs. He hates to waste anything, especially time, and works hard for each shot. When he’s on assignment he works 18-hour days. “National Geographic can’t publish my excuses, I must get the shot.”

He says it’s his job to do things never seen before, that are difficult and will surprise the readership. He calculates a National Geographic assignment of eight weeks to capture a story on grizzly bears equals 56 days. “That is only 56 chances to get the story, and my shots have got to be better than any ever taken before or I won’t be hired again.”

Like Nicklen, Sartore goes to extremes for his result, living by the simple motto ‘if you don’t take the risk you don’t get the shot’. He’s been chased by wolves and bears, and attacked by a stingray. Once he even had a cave fall away from under him, and it was only grabbing hold of grass that saved him from falling to his death.

When shooting bats in a cave in Uganda, he removed his glasses and bat guano (excrement) fell into his left eye. He was medically evacuated and had to self-quarantine for three weeks, assessing his condition in case he contracted the Marburg virus, similar to Ebola. Thankfully he didn’t contract it, but he was less lucky in the Bolivian jungle when he caught leishmaniasis — caused by a flesh-eating parasite. The infection spread to his lymph system, a hole developed in his leg and, while the infection was controlled, the parasite is something he still lives with and which has to be monitored.

Just like Nicklen, Sartore will wait endlessly for his desired shot to eventuate. In the jungle he camped on a platform for four days with four others waiting for wild pigs. They each bathed their bodies in acrid swamp water to mask their scent, and dared not move in case of scaring pigs away. Bombarded with bugs, he was stung by wasps and bats urinated on his face. In his diary notes he recorded, “We poop and pee in a wooden box in front of each other. Can’t leave platform, might scare pigs.”

The magazine’s cover shot of red-and green macaw parrots in beautiful symmetry mid-flight took 10 dedicated days to capture. Standing next to his tripod on a high platform above the forest canopy, Sartore waited for the macaws to pass by from a nearby nesting cliff. His reward? The story’s coverage stopped plans for a hydroelectric dam which, if built, would have flooded and destroyed more than 2500 square kilometres of forest.

So far Sartore has published four books, and his work appears in many publications like Time and Life magazines. His images regularly receive commendations in the Veolia Environment World Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition.


Joel Satore, Macaws, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Also not sponsored, he shoots with Nikon D4s using numerous zoom lenses ranging from 14mm to 400mm, including macro lenses. He has a Nikon 600mm f/4 lens and names Nikon’s 28–300mm f/4-5.6 as his favourite, because of its versatility.

His latest work, done between assignments for the last eight years and with plans to continue as long as he is able, is Photo Ark — Sartore’s ambition is to photograph endangered species around the globe, from the smallest bug to large species like rhinoceros. So far 3000 species have been photographed.

The project takes him to zoos with breeding programmes, where he sets up a mini studio and photographs creatures on both a black and a white background, using even lighting from three to four portable lights.

“Individually as shots, they might not be much — but together they are a strong body of work. I hope this will be my legacy, to capture the plight of endangered species around the world.”
Both Nicklen and Sartore are living proof that with enough passion, determination and ingenuity even the most impossible-seeming shots can be achieved. And if they can be used for positive ecological change then all that risk, time and effort will always be worthwhile.


Joel Satore, Grizzly Bear and Salmon

Want to assist the best?

Nicklen and Sartore have many people emailing them every day wanting to work as their assistant. Here are the attributes they’re looking for.

For Nicklen they need to be:
• A good rock climber, tree climber, ice and cave diver
• Rebreather-trained as an ice and cave diver
• A good cook
• Extremely nice and to the point

For Sartore they need to be:
• Available to work for 18 hours a day for 14 days
• Open to working as Sartore’s secretary while he is ‘in the blind’
• Able to pay their own airfares and expenses
• Willing to eat poorly and infrequently for the assignment duration
• Knowledgeable of the area in which they’re working
• A positive person with a sense of humour