Shooter: Flip Nicklin

For more than 32 years Flip Nicklin’s primary job has been to photograph whales, usually for National Geographic magazine. He has a new coffee-table book, Among Giants, and the North American Nature Photography Association (NANPA) is bestowing one of its highest honors, Outstanding Photographer of the Year, upon him in early 2012. That Flip Nicklin was genetically predisposed to the visual arts should surprise no one; he is the son of famed filmmaker Chuck Nicklin.

Before Flip started finning his way down his own surge channel, his father had been shooting stills and motion pictures of whales for 16 years, including a 1972 National Geographic story about right whales with Bill Curtsinger, written by Rodger Payne. This was National Geographic‘s very first story featuring whales in the wild. In Flip’s words:

FLIP NICKLIN// Before I’d ever seen my first whale underwater, I’d been warned about the legal and political issues involved in working around endangered whales. Even so, I jumped into this challenge happily. I never dreamed it would lead to a life’s work. Neither did National Geographic, for upon submitting my first whale story proposal to them in 1980, I was told, “No, we think we have done enough whale stories.” Happily, that opinion changed; I’ve done 18 whale stories since.

Headshot of Flip Nicklin
Nicklin in Maui, 2006

It was a tremendous advantage for me going into the diving and whale worlds as Chuck’s son. He is a pioneer in both and a great talent, but far more important, he is a really decent guy. I learned at my father’s knee that people and relationships were more important than success or “stuff.” I still admire, maybe more than ever, my dad’s smile and style. The fact he is a world-class cinematographer and did some very early and groundbreaking films with whales didn’t hurt either.

STEPHEN FRINK// Who were some of your other influences?

FN// Bates Littlehales was the first National Geographic photographer I met. At the time, he was NGM’s “underwater guy” and the one I emulated when trying to build a team of support personnel for whale projects. For make no mistake, whale photography does not happen casually. A great deal of preparation and infrastructure happens well in advance of the first shutter click. I learned these things from Bates.

Once immersed in the world of National Geographic, I recognized I had to find a different hook than their most established underwater talent, David Doubilet. I have always been in awe of David’s limitless creativity but recognized my success with the magazine would come from doing something unique. David and I always kidded each other we had a “union” deal: He wouldn’t shoot whales, and I wouldn’t shoot fish of color.

For my first 10 years, if I could get close to a whale, have it in focus and in the middle of the frame, it was a good whale picture. I became more discriminating, as did my editors, with experience and time.

People gather on bow of boat to watch porpoise swim by
Bow riding on a sailboat in southeast Alaska in 1998 as a Dall’s porpoise splashes by

SF// Whales are animals that give up their image grudgingly. You must have had to invest a massive amount of time to deliver the variety and depth you show in Among Giants.

FN// I averaged eight months a year in the field for 27 years, typically working with the very best cetacean researchers in their respective fields. Another of my influences and mentors, photographer Koji Nakamura, taught me a philosophy that would guide me in wildlife photography underwater and above. His approach was “if you follow one animal long enough, it will do all the things that animal does.” Logical, but also an epiphany, for it suggested I had to invest significant time in my pursuit of whale photography. It was greatly synergistic that I was intending to do so for National Geographic, as no other magazine encouraged photographers to spend as much time on location, getting the story exactly right.

I’d had some insights into whale photography as the production stills photographer on Nomads of the Deep, a 1979 IMAX film shoot in Maui. My father was the cameraman, but my job was to get the shot and without ever getting in the way of the big camera.

It was on the Nomads job I found the keys to whale photography:

  • Work with people who know whale behavior and have a unique perspective to illustrate. Jim Darling, Peter Tyack, John Ford, Greg Silber and eight or nine others were young whale researchers at the time who led me to an endless line of new whale research stories. These young grad students were changing how we look at whales and moving us into the benign study of whales and dolphins in the wild.
  • Invest the time. I tried to get sponsorship for triple the time on location I thought might be necessary if things went perfectly, because nothing ever goes as you might expect in cetacean photography.
  • Be ready constantly. Chances are few and far between. Having your equipment always ready was another lesson drummed into me by my father. Getting in the water quickly made all the difference in these often very short encounters.
Aerial view of a neat row of male narwhals floating at the surface
Male narwhals in a lead, Navy Board Inlet, Nunavut, Canada, 1987

There is another reason it takes so much time to do this work; great opportunities are very rare. In my 2009 National Geographic blue whale story, “Still Blue,” we spent 30 days at sea, hundreds of miles from shore, and all the underwater images came in a one-minute free dive. Often the best view is found floating right next to the research boat, sometimes even hiding underneath. I am most focused on capturing behavior; I want to be there while it is happening without interfering with it. I feel I’ve spent a lifetime waiting for the action to come to me. This is probably intuitive, but the main attribute above or below the surface is patience.

SF// National Geographic has a different way of looking at photography, as a means to tell a story rather than creating isolated single images. I assume that had to influence your vision and execution.

FN// Yes, absolutely. Because all of my early photography was aimed at getting published in National Geographic, I had very few rules:

  • Shoot something new, or shoot something old in such an original way it becomes new again.
  • Get close to the action.
  • Tell a story.
  • Shoot fast enough to stop the action.
  • Keep trying new things. I never wanted to hear National Geographic‘s fabled photo editor Bob Gilka grumble the

The one thing I wanted to do differently was to look whales in the eye, to shoot them as I would land animals — not just as big shapes underwater but real portraits of spectacular mammals. I also knew I was in on a world of groundbreaking ideas and opportunities in cetacean research, and I wanted to show that. Behavioral insights and the eyes were most important to me. Then as time went by, I learned the craft of photography.

Elephant seal holds court with a large group of penguins
A southern elephant seal towers over king penguins on South Georgia Island, 2008

SF// Are you a gear aficionado, always trying the newest and best underwater photo gear? As difficult as whale photography is, I assume you’d want technology on your side.

FN// Photography, especially underwater photography, is very dependent on equipment. New pictures are often the result of new gear — wider lenses or ones with a greater zoom capacity. Yet, I was never very methodical about testing gear; if Littlehales, Doubilet or Nakamura were happy with something, I knew I’d be happy. Often my decision about gear was easy; I used whatever I hadn’t broken yet.

I tried to travel light and keep it simple. As a general rule, if I spent a hundred days in the field, I’d get only four or five chances at something significant. During those moments of opportunity I tried to keep focused, keep it simple and get something new. On assignment in those days, “light” might mean three or four extra bags to carry or ship. These days I try to travel without excess baggage, taking only as much as the average traveler.

I love the new digital cameras and zoom lenses. The high ISO ranges now available (which have a greater sensitivity to light) have really kept me in the game. I get a great kick out of the fact that as I get older and slower, cameras get faster and more forgiving. Shooting at very high speed and great depth of field opens the door to shooting new situations and using new approaches. I think photography has never been so welcoming, but at the same time the bar has never been so high.

Three killer whales surface and a young one breaches
Nicklin took this photo of a 1-year-old killer whale breaching with its pod close by, near Seward, Alaska, in 2003, while working with researchers Craig Matkin and Eva Saulitis.

SF// What is the most important tool you must have with you when you go on an expedition?

FN// My most important tool hasn’t changed in 30 years: a researcher who wants to share new discoveries and is willing to put me in the right place at the right time. It’s amazing how long you can wait for great situations and how easy photography is when those situations are happening in front of you. The researchers know where to look for those moments, and, luckily for me, they’ve let me tag along with them. They also taught me a bit of their philosophy. You can’t save everything cute, eat everything that tastes good, and kill everything you’re afraid of and expect a working ecosystem to come out of it.

SF// Tell me something about working with whales that would surprise those thinking about doing it.

FN// The amount of federal and state permits required to do so. A commercial photographer’s options in the U.S. are:

  • Apply for a commercial/educational photography permit from National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS).
  • Abide by the NMFS regional viewing guidelines. Each NMFS region has recommendations on the distance you should remain from marine mammals.
  • Accompany a permitted researcher. Photographers can choose to partner with researchers already authorized to approach marine mammals, though filming must not interfere with the research.

Abiding by these processes has allowed me close access to whales over the years. However, there are places in the world where whale access is not under government supervision and the rules and expectations are different. Local knowledge and good planning will serve the whale photographer better than luck, although a dose of luck is always appreciated!

Aerial view of a research boat next to body of dead blue whale
Researchers aboard the R/V Pacific Storm, under the leadership of Bruce Mate, investigate a blue whale killed by a ship strike near Santa Barbara, Calif., in 2007.

SF// Can you give us a few specific tips you’ve learned on lighting whale photographs?

FN// Sure. Let’s take strobes, for example. I know how important they are for a coral reef photographer, but I usually don’t use strobes underwater in the wild. I worry the bright flash and recycling hum are distracting to my subject. They also slow me down; getting into the water quickly and swimming freely are both very important in these often very short encounters.

I have used flash in captive situations but would be very sensitive to possible reactions by dolphins. This has really been successful only in bright situations. Here the pop of a strobe can help. Using natural light means always thinking about light, or lack thereof. Shooting whales at 50 or 60 feet is tough — light and contrast go away. But the behavior is often not on the surface.

The new digital cameras are much better than film in these situations, but you have to be very conscious of what light you have. The new image-processing software helps augment color better than slide film did, but still, many whale images are inherently monochromatic. Wide lenses and working close to animals are really the key to crisp, clear images.

Close-up photo of a humpback whale eye
Eye to eye with a very friendly “singer,” Maui, 1998 Left: Humpback whale, Maui

SF// For me, your topside images of whale action are as compelling as the underwater ones. Can you share some insights into that discipline?

FN// Shooting from moving platforms that bounce and vibrate is sort of a specialty for me. I have few, if any, whale pictures shot with a tripod. Maybe some on the ice, where I carried a 600mm f/4 lens. But I got much more use from a 300mm f/2.8 or 80-200mm f/4 zoom lens. Usually I use a handheld, but I have used a monopod from time to time.

With Kodachrome 64 back in the film days, I was shooting 1/1,000 sec at f/2.8-4 on sunny days. This stops action only at the apex of a leap, but it’s all we had. With higher shutter speeds things got much better. With the Nikon D3 and higher ISO speeds, I’m now shooting at up to a 1/4,000 sec and f/8-11 on sunny days. I get better depth of field and can stop the action, and the high ISO performance of these modern cameras is so good the digital “noise” is minimal.

Pod of beluga whales
Beluga whales looking up from below, near Floe Edge, Navy Board Inlet, Nunavut, Canada, 1987

Of course, calm water is my friend. It is much easier to shoot on mirror-flat days. You see more, and the reflections make much more interesting images. If I had the choice, I would go home at the first sign of wind, but that is not how the world works. Some great things happen in the wind, like leaping whales with spray. But cameras do not like salty spray, and I’ve killed more than my share. I try to shield the camera with my body or keep a cooler with me to store gear. I have always been more careful with gear at the beginning of an assignment than at the end. Use your oldest gear in the worst weather, and remember that waiting out bad weather is always an option.

SF// Tell me about some of the different types of whales you’ve photographed and how your consider the shot.

FN// Most of the time whales can look like big lumps. Narwhals without the tusk up are very hard to read. Others are more enigmatic. Killer whales are very photogenic because of their big, beautiful dorsal, and they can be very active on the surface, breaching and waving tails. Humpbacks are another very active whale, and breaches are always popular. You can really see the whale.

I try to find the rhythm of jumps or tail lobs (there will usually be a pattern), but sometimes you just have to guess where the action will be. Gray whales in the Mexican lagoons may be the most fun. It feels great when a mom pushes her youngster to the boat!

SF// Is it critical to be in or on the water to get a decent whale shot?

FN// No, boats are certainly not the only way to shoot cetaceans. I get up in small planes or choppers anytime I can. Usually you have to stay above 1,000 feet, sometimes more, and it is good to measure off distances to see what lens you might want. For me, usually the 300mm and 70-200mm range works well. I also feel I have not shot enough from cliffs and beaches with long lenses; I’m leaving some of those things for my old age.

Southern right whale surfaces and stares at camera
Southern right whale in Gulfo Nuevo, Patagonia, Argentina, while Nicklin was with researcher Roger Payne in 1986

SF// Your dad once told me he thought your freediving skills were as important as your photographer’s eye in the development of your career. Do you agree?

FN// I grew up freediving and would be very happy to do all my diving with only fins, mask, snorkel and a camera. I freedive because it is less likely to influence cetacean behavior, and it is fast. I couldn’t have done what I’ve done without good in-water skills and the savvy to avoid associated hazards.

I love diving in Hawaii, where my gear is a T-shirt, fins, mask, snorkel and camera. Diving in the Arctic takes a lot more gear and effort, and I think closed-circuit systems and remotes will produce great images of whales and dolphins in the future. Freediving is enough for me.

I don’t push it though. Much of my best work is done floating on the surface quietly, letting behavior happen around me. I think I’ll be doing that for a while to come. Like my dad always told me, “If you get dead, you can’t take any more good pictures.”

© Alert Diver — Q4 Fall 2011