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Interviews

Paul Nicklen reveals <br class="br_visual"> the story behind his stunning penguin images

Paul Nicklen reveals
the story behind his stunning penguin images

© Paul Nicklen/National Geographic

April 2013

Leaking underwater housings, flooded cameras, hungry leopard seals, sub-zero temperatures and several thousand inquisitive penguins. CPN Editor David Corfield dives into the world of award-winning nature photographer Paul Nicklen…

Canadian photographer Paul Nicklen is no stranger to accolades and this year celebrates his sixth World Press Photo award, with first prize in the Nature Stories category of the 2013 World Press Photo Contest, for his stunning underwater work in Antarctica with Emperor Penguins.

© Paul Nicklen/National Geographic

Emperor Penguins in the Ross Sea, Antarctica. Biologist and photographer Paul Nicklen spent weeks in search of the perfect image, and his efforts were rewarded. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D Mark IV with an EF8-15mm f/4L Fisheye USM lens in a Seacam underwater housing; the exposure was 1/1000sec at f/7.1, ISO 500.

He was commissioned by National Geographic Magazine to undertake an assignment to study the underwater behaviour of the birds in the Ross Sea, a deep bay of the Southern Ocean in Antarctica, located between Victoria Land and Marie Byrd Land and a stone’s throw from the South Pole. It was here that he came nose-to-beak with the charismatic Emperor Penguins.

Nicklen explains: “We were scheduled to live on the sea ice with the penguin colony for six weeks, and we had a surgeon on the team who would attend to us if we got attacked by a leopard seal – which I did, on the second day but I was only bruised. Right before it steam rolled me, it closed its mouth and then landed on me. I had the air knocked out of me and was stunned. It just turned around and slipped back into the water. The unnerving part came when I had to eventually overcome the shock of this incident and enter its domain of the icy Ross Sea.”

Great images like these don’t just happen – they take months, sometimes years, of planning and Paul Nicklen knows all about that. “I’m very much a visual photographer and I adhere to the National Geographic principle that we make pictures, we don’t take pictures,” he advises. “Before I went down to Antarctica I had sketched and story-boarded a whole bunch of images I wanted to make. I knew I wanted Emperor penguins jumping out of the water towards me, and one of those is in the story. I shot that same image over and over every day for several weeks; 10,000 images of that one scene in fact.”

“I always believe I can make a better image until it matches my vision,” he says. “I like to learn my camera so well that I don’t have to think about what I’m doing when I use it, because when you’re underwater you have to be totally focused on the subject matter.”

“I need to remove that left brain mathematical technical stuff and focus on right brain creative art instead and go for my vision. For me it’s a very emotional response,” he reveals.

“The scenes underwater were chaotic and I worked really hard to try and get the best lines as the penguins swam past me. Technically they are not the best pictures because it’s a very loose, out-of-control situation but I persevered and I’m glad I did. For me, these images are a combination of conservation, science and art. I want people to look at them as fine art pieces on their walls and marvel at their beauty, and then remind themselves how fragile the world is because if the ice goes, then so do the penguins. The science part came in because my images showed how the birds use trapped air bubbles to help propel themselves through and out of the water.”

Nicklen had to be careful when making these pictures because there were leopard seals all around him, hunting the very birds he was trying to photograph. “These mammals, particularly in this area, were very dangerous,” he remembers.

It’s not just Paul Nicklen who faced constant challenges. His camera equipment took a bit of a pounding too...

He explains: “My gear gets one heck of a test in situations like these. The underwater camera housing leaks as the O-rings aren’t designed for being used at the water surface in really cold temperatures. They are happiest when they are being used in warm water and when they are being used deep. They are designed to work with the water pressure sealing the unit perfectly. So on a few occasions in that ice-cold water with the O-rings contracting, I would have housings flooding all over the place. Not good for my cameras although all gear just about survived.”

© Paul Nicklen/National Geographic

Paul Nicklen in his underwater gear, preparing for another day in sub-zero temperatures in the Ross Sea, Antarctica.

Paul Nicklen is emphatic in his opinions of Canon EOS cameras: “The sensor on the EOS-1D Mark IV was great at working in low light, although now I’m shooting on an EOS-1D X it’s even better. To have a camera that I can totally rely on to operate perfectly while I am looking for the best picture, well, what can I say? The EOS System has proved itself beyond all reasonable doubt.”

Biography: Paul Nicklen

Paul Nicklen

Paul Nicklen, a Canadian-born polar specialist and marine biologist, moved to Baffin Island as a boy and spent his childhood among the Inuit people. From them he learned the love of nature, the understanding of icy ecosystems and the survival skills that have helped him to become one of the world’s most successful wildlife and nature photojournalists. As an assignment photographer for National Geographic magazine, Nicklen has produced 16 stories covering a variety of issues related to conservation and natural history. Despite the peril he faces while working in some of the planet’s most remote and harsh environments, Nicklen travels constantly in search of stories that can help touch people’s emotions and help the public connect with the Earth’s marine and polar realms.