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“You can’t always get what you want. But in 40 years I got close.”

“You can’t always get what you want. But in 40 years I got close.”

© Michael Nichols/National Geographic Creative

August 2016

Photographer, conservationist, activist and Canon Master Michael ‘Nick’ Nichols, bowed out from National Geographic in suitably impressive style this year. His final photo essay – a grand finale involving teamwork, logistical hurdles and the occasional stray bear – was perhaps his biggest career challenge yet, as he reveals to CPN Editor David Corfield...

“Yellowstone was a great one to go out on,” admits Nick. “It sums up my consciousness; my life as a photographer – and my closure...”

Nick Nichols is in a reflective mood. One of the world’s greatest photographers of the natural world, he left National Geographic this year after a career lasting 40 years. His last essay on Yellowstone National Park has already won the magazine numerous compliments and yet, for Nick, the plaudits carry little weight against the continuing message he seeks to impart about the fragility of our planet.

© Michael Nichols/National Geographic Creative
© Michael Nichols/National Geographic Creative

Bison migrating out of Yellowstone National Park cross the Highway 89 bridge into Gardiner. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X with an EF70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens at 200mm; the exposure was 1/250sec at f/2.8, ISO 640.

“When [the assignment] came to me, Reba [Nick’s wife] and I looked at each other and we knew. I said that the one place I needed to go and look at in the world was Yellowstone. It represents something.”

He continues: “There are certain things we need to protect, just because they are there. Yellowstone was the first National Park in the world. It was created because they wanted to create a railroad and sell tickets to this wonderland up in the mountains with all this weird stuff. It had nothing to do with wildlife. With the work that I have done about wilderness, Yellowstone acts as a metaphor.”

Working behind the scenes

Getting Nick involved in the project was one of the key priorities of the National Geographic team. They knew that with him on board, dealing with the Park authorities would be a whole lot easier.

“I was approached by Chris Johns, the long time editor of the magazine,” Nick recalls. “He started to bait me; he wanted me to go and do what I did with [Serengeti] lions with wolves and the first thing I said was ‘dude, that ain’t gonna happen. You guys just don’t understand, it’s just impossible, so get that one out of your head.’ So he kept on at me and said why didn’t I just go out with them on the scouting trip. It was an itch I had to scratch.”

© Michael Nichols/National Geographic Creative
© Michael Nichols/National Geographic Creative

Along the Firehole River in the Upper Geyser Basin, snow melts faster, and bison are able to graze. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with an EF24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 45mm; the exposure was 1/250sec at f/11, ISO 160.

Nick’s first impression of Yellowstone was memorable. “When you approach it you see that it’s all uphill,” he recalls. “That’s the reason it stayed hidden for so long, because of its high altitude. So we went up the mountain and the first night I called home and said to Reba: “we’re moving to Yellowstone!” Chris [Johns] knew if I went out there I would get addicted within five minutes.”

“I wanted to put together a magic team. And the word that was used that evening in conversation with the magazine editor Chris Johns and Bill Marr, the creative director, was ‘field marshall’. They wanted me to run the field thing and Kathy Moran [senior editor, natural history] would run the show back at the [National Geographic] office. I kinda liked the sound of that. It was recognising that I was the old guy, the one who was so obsessed. It was like them saying ‘give him a team that he takes care of.’ They knew that I could sell, because of my enthusiasm.”

“So when we came to sit with the Yellowstone National Park team, I was an evangelist. The park rangers were rolling their eyes thinking ‘who is this guy?’ and then they started saying that we couldn’t do what we did with lions. So no drones, no robotic cameras but I was thinking to myself ‘I’ll convince them’.”

“And literally the next day, the superintendent biologist called all his team in – the wolf biologist, bison biologist and so on – and said ‘we’re doing this project with National Geographic.’ Now that never happens. They never do that. They don’t allow anyone free access – not even the BBC – because Yellowstone is scrutinised. They are really tough. What I did in the Serengeti I was able to do because I was in a hidden corner and nobody could see me; I was off the radar. But that’s not the case with Yellowstone. You are in a complete spotlight the whole time. I had handlers assigned to me, who took care of permits, and I started to sell the idea of drones to them. But they wouldn’t allow it.”

© Michael Nichols/National Geographic Creative
© Michael Nichols/National Geographic Creative

A remote camera captures a grizzly bear reaching for fruit in the branches of an apple tree. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark II with an EF24-70mm f/4L IS USM lens at 33mm; the exposure was 1/15sec at f/5.6, ISO 1000.

Nick is still irritated that his drones were grounded, and it’s clear his reasons for using them were valid. “Yellowstone is particularly dramatic when you get up in the air, but there was no way they would allow us to fly a drone. I could get no movement so I ended up in a helicopter, which was ridiculous! I couldn’t use a benign thing like a drone, where if it crashes no-one dies, so I had to use a chopper instead. I was constantly battling to get these special access points and to fully document a place like this I started adding to the team. I wanted [David] Guttenfelder. If he could photograph North Korea, he can handle the issues of Yellowstone. So he was top of list to do the issues.”

Another one for Nick’s list of photographers was fellow Canon Explorer Charlie Hamilton James. “Charlie is becoming a f*cking tech wizard,” Nick laughs. “Kathy Moran really wanted him to do the aquatics and he only had a six-week assignment. But the f*cker moved his whole family to Jackson Hole and lived there for almost as long as I did – nearly a year – and did other assignments in the meantime, flying in and out – but kept putzing around with his technology and making some really cool pictures.”

And then there was Ronan Donovan, the new kid on the block. His speciality? Wolves. “There is one way to do wolves in Yellowstone: complete hard work and constant failure,” Nick states. “There is no magic. It’s just a matter of diligence. Ronan tackled that subject. He lives in Montana and so we called him up and he was really smart and hardworking, and he was also my assistant for camera traps. We were protective of him, he was ‘the kid’ in the project.”

“David Quammen was brought on board as the writer and in the end he wrote the whole issue. That was important as it gave it the clarity and continuity that the project needed. He wrote every word except the captions. So that was the package. We started the ‘siege’ in March two years ago and the only time I had a break was when I won the Wildlife Photographer of the Year Award in 2014 and had to come to London to accept it.”

Technical and logistical challenges

Nick made the Park itself his ‘beat’ with Charlie Hamilton James a five-hour drive south in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, near the Teton Mountain range. The sheer size of Yellowstone National Park meant that, although they were working on the same project, they never actually saw much of each other. “I drove the roads of Yellowstone getting bits of what I knew were the issues,” Nick remembers. “It’s the haven for wildlife photographers. There are people who live for going to Yellowstone. These people stand on the roadside with their 800mm lenses and there are 100 of them shoulder to shoulder, because it’s illegal to get within a 100 yards of a wolf or a bear or 25 yards of a bison. So I’d shoot this photography craziness.”

© Michael Nichols/National Geographic Creative
© Michael Nichols/National Geographic Creative

Wildlife sightings often stop traffic at Yellowstone National Park. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark II with an EF24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 70mm; the exposure was 1/30sec at f/8, ISO 160.

And then there were the traffic jams. But with a difference. “You’d have these bear jams, or bison jams, where they would get in the road and block traffic. I didn’t want to do nature. I wanted to do irony.”

He continues: “I figured camera traps were the best way to capture wildlife the way I wanted. But with Yellowstone’s privacy issues it meant that I had to keep away from the hiking trails because if a walker went through one of my traps it would spoil their ‘wilderness experience.’ I mean, c’mon! Yellowstone gets billions of letters about that. So our camera traps had to be a way apart from the public. Working around these complex socio-political issues was the biggest nightmare of my whole career.”

But then the magic started to happen. And much of it was down to the remote camera traps Nick was one of the first to pioneer. “We had a camera trap on a carcass dump, which was right behind the bison biologist’s house and we started a long project on those dumps. Actually one of Charlie’s best pictures was of a dump near the Teton Mountains, and these proved to be great locations.”

“We found a little water pool in the forest, miles from anywhere, and set a trap up there. It was perfect. The bears would use the pool to bathe and I got some great shots from there showing animal intimacy. The bears get to a time of year when they are getting ready for hibernation. They go into a sort of frenzy looking to get as many calories inside them as possible. They would get really dirty stealing these nuts from squirrels and go over to the pool and take a bath! So we called that trap the bear bathtub.”

The relationship Nick and the team had with Yellowstone’s resident animal biologists was to prove crucial to the success of the project. Once the team had shown their commitment the opportunities started to flow and the camera traps – using EOS 5D-series and 50D bodies – were a vital part of the project.

“We got some stunning images from that cooperation. We all gave our pictures to the park service, and they could do anything they wanted with them to create public awareness.”

“Although this story is less about equipment and more about the political challenges we faced, everybody on the project was using Canon,” Nick affirms. “I used an EOS-1D X and a 5D Mark III and one lens that proved to be really important was the 200-400mm super telephoto. It was a really cool lens to use and I used it a lot handheld.”

Letting go

As the project came to a close, Nick started to reflect. “I found it hard to come down after this. I realised that this was it for me. But still nobody believes me. What people don’t realise is that my body is giving up. I’ve been doing this for 40 years and you cannot do this kind of work for that amount of time without damage to yourself. I depend on walking for my mental as well as my physical health but my knees are completely gone. I was doing steroid shots every three months while I was at Yellowstone, just to cope with the pain. I am not photographing in the street and going back to the hotel; I have used up all my luck but I wanted to go out with flags and trumpets but I couldn’t achieve that with Yellowstone.”

“I worked as hard as I have ever worked and got about ten percent of what I was after. That, for me, is what photography has always been about. You can’t always get what you want. But in those 40 years I got pretty damn close...”

Biography: Nichols ‘Nick’ Nichols

Nichols ‘Nick’  Nichols

Born in Alabama, USA, in 1952 Michael 'Nick' Nichols began his career as a US Army photographer. After leaving service he got his first assignment working for Geo magazine in 1979 and in 1982 joined the famous Magnum agency. In 1996 he joined National Geographic as a staff photographer and is now an editor-at-large of the world famous publication. Well-known for his environmental outlook he is the author of seven books including Brutal Kinship, with anthropologist Jane Goodall, which looks at man’s relationship with the chimpanzee. Nick spent two years documenting the ‘Megatransect’ expedition, crossing 2,000 miles of Congo forest on foot. His photographs were used to convince the president of Gabon to set aside 11% of his country to create 13 national parks. He has won first prize for nature and environment stories in the World Press Photo competition four times and his other numerous awards include Wildlife Photographer of the Year. In April 2012 Nick presented the Sem Presser Lecture during the World Press Photo Awards Days in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, and in 2014 he won the prestigious Wildlife Photographer of the Year Award in the UK.


Rutting bison in Yellowstone’s Lamar Valley. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X with an EF800mm f/5.6L IS USM lens; the exposure was 1/60sec at f/8, ISO 320.