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

If the essence of National Geographic Magazine could be limited to one word, it would be discovery. Michael “Nick” Nichols is one of the last of the big-assignment photographers at the Geographic. It would be easy to assume that much of Nichols’ success can be attributed to the deep pockets of the magazine, but rather the magazine has been indulgent because Nichols has distinguished himself as hardworking, undeterred, personal-health-sacrificing, laser-focused and bankable.

The new challenges of Africa have made Nichols search farther and harder. He’s one of the most ardent users (and pioneers) of new photo-related technologies, beginning with portable flash and camera traps, and more recently, the most light-sensitive cameras and night-penetrating infrared.

We had a chance to sit down with Nichols after his speaking engagement at The Annenberg Space for Photography in Los Angeles. Wherever he goes, he’s capable of filling a room with a rapt audience that has a special appreciation for his big-story contributions. With an affable Alabama accent, a penchant for candor and introspection curiously combined with a flare for hyperbole and a Twain-like gift for storytelling in pictures and words, he’s endlessly entertaining.

OP: Few photographers have had the depth of experience that you’ve had in Africa. You’ve literally pioneered the darkest regions where few or no photographers have gone before, while to most photographers and tourists, Africa is a place of guided game drives and luxury camps. It’s interesting to contrast the photo experience of the deep jungle of undeveloped countries with the game park savannas of East Africa. The former is all about nature in the raw, sheer exploration, battling to just acquire something publishable. The latter offers the predictability of a day in the world’s most populated wildlife studios where patience and hard work are required, but the fruits are easier to pick.

Michael “Nick” Nichols: In all my years in the jungles of Central and West Africa, chasing chimpanzees and gorillas, I was just trying to get something on film with no ability to see results until it was too late to make adjustments. So many people credited me with being surreal and creative. In truth, that was the only way I could shoot—blurred animals, wildlife obscured by the forest, fleeting glimpses, glowing eyes reflecting strobe light. Everything was dark and mysterious. I’m not saying that the technique wasn’t conscious, but I was also just capitalizing on the conditions at hand and making a positive out of the limitations of cameras and film.

OP: There was a time when you would have told me that you were only interested in assignments to places that were undiscovered by photographers, only interested in breaking new ground like the Ndoki (Nouabalé-Ndoki National Park, Congo).

Nichols: More recently, I have made a conscious decision to get out of those jungles because I had done enough. I couldn’t continue to chase the impossible, things you couldn’t see. But I wouldn’t give up the experience for anything—the camera traps, the surprises that come out of it. All that made me so prepared; it makes the savanna seem like a cakewalk, and I don’t mean that to be derogatory of anything or anyone else. When I switched to working out of cars and I found those elephants that I knew I could get close to [Chad] or the baboons project that came between [Gelada baboons, Ethiopia], it was a conscious decision by the editors [National Geographic] to get me out of the jungle. It was an intervention. “He’s got to shoot with a camera in his hand [versus remote traps], be able to think about what he’s doing. So the process led me to the Chad elephants, but Chad turned out to be impossible, too. I wouldn’t want to classify that as a game park experience because everything [wildlife] was so shot to hell, so edgy and scared. In the savanna of Kenya and Tanzania that you refer to, we’re really talking about animals that are protected and totally comfortable with human presence.

OP:There must be a benefit to the predictability of the animals’ reactions and behavior compared to the forests where they have never seen humans or are spooked by the constant threat of poachers.

Nichols: More to the point, Tanzania will let me get creative again. And digital let me get creative again. I can remember being so worried about the transition from film to digital.

You and I talked about that in the past; now it seems like such an old topic five years later. None of the ethical issues played out. We police ourselves. It hasn’t been the dark side that I had thought it would be when I was concerned that the easy manipulation of digital images would challenge a photograph’s representation of reality.

Now, in low light, I can’t even see the things that I can shoot with today’s cameras. And I can review at lunchtime— I don’t review much while I’m shooting—or in the evening. If I’m shooting with a camera on a stick, or if I’m using a lot of flash, I can see how it’s turning out and adjust on the fly.

OP: That’s the freedom of the game parks that provides allowances for creativity, choosing times and places.

ART FROM TECH: A charging female protects her territory while Nichols snaps and runs at Dzanga Bai, Congo. Right, Nichols records an unprecedented scene of Samburu elephants in reclined slumber, snoring and passing methane. From the charging female on film in 1995 to the sleeping elephants with digital in 2007, Nichols has lived through a paradigm shift in technology for art’s sake. The motion and drama dictated by a slow shutter, flash blur and beady strobe-lit eyes was a favorite technique for dark forests. In contrast, new sensitive sensors make moonlight a workable light source for exploring the nocturnal world. Lions with infrared are next.

Nichols: We can use the elephants as an example. My guide was a young Samburu who could identify 600 elephants without binoculars from a kilometer away. He’d say, “There is Babylon,” and I’d say, “Okay, we’re onto something with her. Let’s go back,” because I have to have continuity. Those elephants would let me get that close three days in a row.

OP: So it’s continuity for habituation and continuity of story like a filmmaker.

Nichols: I was trying a camera on a stick. I didn’t comment on Babylon, the elephant coming down a bank with three babies—a 55-year-old with her newest baby, her daughter’s newest baby and the newest baby of her daughter’s daughter. All the babies should have been with their mothers, but grandmother was such a protector. If they crossed a swollen river, she would get them up against her body so they were eddied, not in the current. If the current was too strong, she would carry them across one at a time in her trunk. And she never trusted me for a second. I had to have three days for her to feel comfortable. It’s a reality with elephants that they have such a big brain and a long memory.

OP: So you could use that recognition to your advantage as well.

Nichols: I would make sure that I smelled the same, wore the same clothes. I would blow through my lips, making contented sounds. All that stuff works. You park your car well ahead of their path and let them come to you. It’s the same with most animals; you let them come to you. Let it be their decision.

In the deep forest, which was all that I did for an extended period of time, we got close because we were able to sneak up on them with our pygmies, working the scent and wind. It was like we were hunting them, so there were always tricks, sitting in trees, camera traps. But when you’re walking, you better have fear and respect.

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.

REAR GUARD: A large family group crosses a river while a younger female stands ground to discourage a male who seems intent on following. Keen as he may be for female company, the male descends the bank with care, skidding daintily on his knees.

Nichols: For me, it’s dawn to dusk, maybe even into the night. That’s something that I’d like to pass along. If you do that, you see new stuff that others don’t see. You stop your world. You slow things down. You focus and observe. If you’re in a place where there are fascinating elephants, why not hang around. My elephants [photographs] aren’t that spectacular, but I can tell you all about the individuals that you’re seeing, the body language is there. Saturn is doting and protecting. Navajo is letting us photograph her sleeping under the moonlight. We always thought elephants slept standing up. At about 2:00 a.m., they all go down. Probably something related to the reduced threat of predation at that hour. But to get there, you have to track them, and you can’t see where you’re driving at night. You keep driving over prickly plants and getting one puncture after another.

Once I knew that the elephants did that, I was determined to photograph the behavior for all to see. But it had to be in a place where they trust you enough. It was positively reverential. And when we were done, I said, “We have to sleep here, too.” We couldn’t let our departure wake them up.

OP: It was a spectacular article (“Family Ties: The Elephants of Samburu,” National Geographic, September 2008).

Nichols: I’m not a businessman. I’m just a pop guy. I know what people like. If I could show you the numbers on my stories for the last 30 years, you’d say, this guy has his finger on the pulse. The stories that I choose to do and the way they get presented are almost always the most popular. That redwood story went over a ton [“The Super Trees,” National Geographic, October 2009]. But there was a moment during production… I spent a fortune taking that giant tree composite picture. We were at four pages and the ratio wasn’t right. I said, “We need five pages. I didn’t go crazy to make this picture for you to not present it right.” The art director said, “Who do I have to fire?” Everyone in the room became silent. Then John Q. Griffin, the publisher at the time, said, “This is why we’re here. This is what we do. Fifth page.” That’s where I’ll go down in flames. I’m Teflon because I’m not in the building [Editor At Large]. I’m the conscience of the place because there’s so much business going on. I can live in the woods and eat nuts. My house is paid off.

OP: People are intrigued by the behind-the-scenes that you’re outspoken enough to share. Our magazine has always tried to present that insight from our beginning. Now, the Geographic does a lot more of it.

Nichols: Because they realized that it’s the strongest part of the brand. The ultimate dream is to be a National Geographic photographer.

OP: My favorite DVD of the Planet Earth set is the behind-the-scenes look.

Nichols: That’s important. Even though it demystifies, it does show you that it wasn’t magic, that it was hard work, a huge investment, a lot of patience. That bird of paradise guy—he sits in the hide for half his life before he gets the shot one morning! I do want people to know it’s not magic. It takes 15 years of scientists being out there before me, and that they’re willing to let me translate it.

The question is, do you push to the detriment of the animal? Because I’m confident with my photography, I can defer to the needs of the animal. I’ve learned there’s a value to having ethics. It’s not about me.

Michael “Nick” Nichols has created a new app for the iPad. Learn more at