Q&A With the World’s “Coolest” Wildlife Photographer

Paul Nicklen
In a world with virtually no humans, Paul has been able to get closer than ever to wildlife. (Photo by Paul Nicklen)

National Geographic photographer Paul Nicklen has spent his life capturing images of wild creatures in the world’s coldest places.

From northern icons like polar bears, walruses, and British Columbia’s spirit bear, to Antarctic stars like penguins and leopard seals, Nicklen has photographed it all. He has a commitment to seeking out the wilderness spirit and finding a way to connect National Geographic’s readers to nature through his photos.

Nicklen recently answered questions during a live chat on National Geographic’s Facebook page about photography, frozen expeditions, and conservation. Here are some of his wildest answers.

Q: When you are photographing bears, in particular the spirit bear, how did you go about locating them? Put in other words, how do you find the bears?

Paul Nicklen: I often work with local guides who know the areas well. Then, I am willing to sit in one spot for weeks and months on end, waiting for that rare moment to materialize. Patience is the most powerful quality in being a wildlife photographer.

Q: Did you ever miss a shot? And do you regret it?

PN: Good question. I miss all of the time. In fact, I fail about 90 percent of the time and it is these misses that make me hungrier to work harder and to capture rare moments that help me tell important stories.

Q: As someone who has been on the front lines of witnessing climate change for decades what [are] the most significant changes you have seen and what are your concerns for the future?

PN: This summer, I found places that were completely void of sea ice. Historically, there was a lot of ice in these areas year-round; and, in fact, we found several polar bears that had starved to death as they could not access seals. Change is happening rapidly. Follow my @paulnicklen Instagram for visuals and updates from the field.

Leopard Seal Story
The incredible size of a leopard seal becomes clear when seen at full next to a human diver. (Photo by Paul Nicklen)

Q: What was the most dangerous situation you have ever encountered while on assignment?

PN: I have had many scary moments, but perhaps the closest I have come to meeting my end was when a breeding elephant seal bull tried to crush me in the inter-tidal zone. I also crashed my airplane upside down in a lake. That was also interesting.

Q: What’s the most beautiful place you’ve been?

PN: South Georgia, Antarctica.

Q: Are there sources of inspiration that guide your photography?

PN: The purity of nature is my inspiration and the urgency of the issues drive me. I look at how hard my peers work on their stories. Together we can make a difference.

Q: Did you have a breakthrough moment in your photography when you knew you were going to do it for your job? If so, what was it?

PN: No breakthrough moment, just a long path of hard work with many great moments and some low ones. Persistence is essential. Winning World Press Photo the first time was exciting. The Leopard Seal story put my career on the map and I give thanks for that seal everyday.

Q: Which is your best picture?

PN: The next one … the one I haven’t taken yet.

Nicklen will connect again with National Geographic readers and enthusiasts live in New York on February 4. You can join the visionary photographer for an evening of stories from behind the pages of National Geographic Magazine. Nicklen will share gripping encounters with his wild subjects that animate our world at the NYU Skirball Center for the Performing Arts.

For more information or to buy tickets, please visit National Geographic Live’s event page.



Meet the Author
Caroline Gerdes recently graduated from Louisiana State University where she studied journalism and history (her major and minor, respectively). As a native of the Greater New Orleans Area, she decided to explore her own backyard with help from a Young Explorers Grant. Caroline is currently conducting an oral history project about the New Orleans Ninth Ward. She seeks to record the community’s full history — its immigrant beginnings, the development of jazz, the depression and prohibition, desegregation and hurricanes. Caroline’s exploration is also a personal quest as her father and paternal grandparents grew up in the Ninth Ward. Her blogs reflect an inside look at New Orleans life and culture, especially the edible aspects.