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Tuesday, August 9, 2011

The Big Story

Famous for his near-specialization of difficult African assignments for National Geographic, Michael Nichols continues to deliver the excitement of photographic discovery, always testing the limits of his equipment and technique

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SECURITY AND SUPERVISION: Elephant photography is all about families and interplay. In a single scene, an infant leans on the leg of an adult, which finds an opportunity for a satisfying scratch behind the ear, while two adolescents tussle amiably.
For me, the car had to be an advantage in a game park situation or I would have gotten a permit to get me out of the car and on foot. With the elephants, we found the right kind of Land Rover with a short wheelbase. For the lions, we're building a long-wheelbase car because we have to sleep in it. With lions, you have to sleep or you'll blow your brains out because that's all they do. We bought the car in London, shipped it to Kenya. It's totally tricked-out with infrared equipment; it's going to glow in the dark [laughing]!

OP: Sleeping in the vehicle, that shows the level of patience necessary for this kind of work.

Nichols: If you leave them, when they wake up, they're going to do something, and you're going to miss the opportunity. We have a tent on the top, but the main thing is all the tech that we're putting in it. I feel like the technology is there that will allow me to do something different. I might fail, but I'm counting on bringing you lions in a different way.

Disney released a film called African Cats; three years of filming with Disney budgets. What could they have done? But everything I've seen for the trailers is still in daylight. Planet Earth had a great sequence of lions climbing on the backs of elephants using big trucks with infrared lights on them. Aw, c'mon! Nathan Williamson, my assistant of many years, said, "Do we have to...?" "No," I said, "with our cameras we only need little itty-bitty lights. But we need them on another car; we'll use the cook car to shine the lights from an off-camera direction.

Some of my cameras are going to be converted to infrared. There's a modification that's made to the sensor. We've been doing that with camera traps. When I first started fooling around with night vision, it was totally disorienting. We'll see if the Geographic can swallow it [the look]. But I think that the behavior will be so interesting, it doesn't matter that it's not color.

OP: So much wildlife is active at night, in some places almost entirely nocturnal.

Nichols: It's like you spend most of your life shooting in low light with chrome film with no latitude. I'm just desperate to enjoy the new era that the new cameras are bringing. It's almost magic, the way they can focus and see in low light. A lot of what's interesting in terms of time of day, weather and animal behavior happens under conditions that have been traditionally at odds with photo equipment. All my life, I haven't been a good focuser. Now, you can work into the edges of the day, you can shoot handheld in the moonlight. It's a wonderful moment in time. The picture doesn't fall apart at high ISOs. I try to take the ISO to where the shutter speed lets me handhold the camera, so my lens is wide open. I could never do that for 25 years. I had to pioneer all that flash-blur technique to make things work with low ISO film.

I always wanted to do night vision. In the first place, I couldn't get the gear out of the country. "You're taking that to Africa? No, you're not!" was the official answer. I was trying to travel with military-grade stuff, not stuff that you can order from Cabela's. The officials would get to the dance with me and then they'd pull out [laughing].

OP: Back to the subject of patience and waiting for the shot. The process makes you stay in contact with the subject.


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