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Interview: Nick Upton

Nick Upton / Alamy Stock Photo

Where would you rather you be – sitting in a freezing cold hide for hours or having a stimulating discussion in a warm lecture room? For photographer Nick Upton it’s no contest. Nick was all set for an academic career but is now one of the UK’s leading wildlife and conservation documentary photographers. He explains why and how he made the switch.

In 1987, Nick Upton made a life-changing decision: he would abandon a career in academia and join the BBC as lead researcher for David Attenborough’s epic television series The Trials of Life. This led to Nick becoming a wildlife filmmaker, a role he had for over twenty years. Today, he’s an award-winning wildlife and conservation documentary stills photographer, whose work has appeared in National Geographic, BBC Wildlife Magazine and numerous other newspapers, magazines and books (including the new edition of David Attenborough’s Life on Earth). Nick won the Documentary Series Category of the British Wildlife Photography Awards in 2014 and 2016 and produced many award-winning films for the BBC and other major broadcasters in his previous career.

He’s also worked for the National Trust, the Wildlife Trusts, the RSPB, and his stills have documented many major conservation projects, including UK reintroductions of cranes, beavers, water voles and pine martens. “Even though I come from a documentary film background, I was always taking still photographs to promote my work, and I was into photography at a very young age,” says Nick.

KTE74W Adult female Pine Marten (Martes martes) visiting bird table at a guest house at night to feed on fruit cake, watched by a guest, Knapdale, Scotland.
Nick Upton / Alamy Stock Photo

Nick was born in Enfield, London in 1958, although he grew up in Hertfordshire. “My father did lot of photography, and when I was about seven, I was given a plastic Diana camera,” he recalls, “When I was fourteen, I got a Zenit B SLR.” Nick and his brother had a keen interest in wildlife and would photograph birds in their back garden, “I saved up for a 135mm lens, but discovered that it wasn’t big enough for wildlife photography!”

Fortunately for the Upton brothers, Don McCullin – one of Britain’s greatest photojournalists – lived next door. As well as giving the brothers advice on photography, he loaned them a 300mm lens. “It was only years later that I realised what an influence he had on my photography,” says Nick.

After studying biology at Cambridge, Nick held a Junior Research Fellowship at Oxford and was all set to start lecturing there, but then, he joined the BBC. He explains why, “In academia, there’s a pressure to specialise, but I’m interested in lots of different things. It was also an opportunity to travel the world and see all kinds of amazing wildlife.

After four years with the BBC, Nick worked as a producer, director and writer for an independent film company in Bristol for ten years, before becoming a freelance filmmaker. In 2008 he switched from film to digital still photography, “My output increased by about ten-fold,” says Nick, “I began selling a lot more shots, especially of bugs and the RSPB used a lot of my crane images. I won €1000 in a major European photography competition and thought, ‘I might just be able to do this professionally!” In 2012, Nick became a full-time photographer.

PBACXF Veterinarian from Royal Zoological Society of Scotland checking heart rate of Eurasian beaver (Castor fiber) using handheld ECG. before being checked for Tapeworms (Echinococcus multilocularis). Beaver from escaped population on River Otter. Project overseen by Devon Wildlife Trust, Devon, UK, March 2015. Model released.
Nick Upton / Alamy Stock Photo

“I enjoy telling stories with photographs about wildlife and conservation,” explains Nick, “and I’ve adapted my filmmaking approach to stills. As a film director, you’re looking for a rounded coverage of your stories – you’re trying to capture both wildlife activity and location – and I also like to include people who are involved. I like to get a range of shot sizes and different angles. I feel you have missed a trick if the story isn’t really clear visually.”

He adds, “As a director working with talented cinematographers, I learnt a lot about lenses, camera angles and experimentation – using probe lenses, infrared cameras and mini-helicopters to get aerial shots. It was about getting unusual or arresting shots. That definitely influenced me as a stills photographer.”

“I love photographing bugs, bats and amphibians,” says Nick, “and some people ask: ‘is there a market for that?’ But when someone is looking for an image of an obscure invertebrate, the chances are that I’m the only person with a picture of it. I also do seashore wildlife photography, and not many people do that either. Doing something different helps you make sales.”

This philosophy also influences how Nick shoots, “If I’m photographing something that is very familiar, I’m always trying to find ways of doing it differently. A wildlife photographer once said to me, ‘Your shots have to be better or different from what is out there to sell.’”

EG4DP2 Bloody-nosed beetles (Timarcha tenebricosa) mating on grass stem in chalk grassland meadow Wiltshire UK April.
Nick Upton / Alamy Stock Photo

Documentary photography is about telling stories, but “context can determine what shots are possible,” says Nick, “if you’re in an urban setting or a wilderness location, or if the action is at night or in a cave, you’re going have very different looking shots. Whatever the situation, a good portfolio of images should capture the context. I often use close-focus wide angle lenses to shoot small subjects so they look really bold in the foreground, but I capture a lot of background detail too.”

Nick mostly shoots people and wildlife interactions with a Nikon D800E and 24-120mm zoom, often with a flashgun and diffuser, although he uses flash with care for sensitive wildlife. “White flash stresses some animals, so I prefer infrared techniques for them.” He often brings at least one of his other four Nikon cameras on shoots to pick up wildlife detail shots. “I usually work with a big bag of lenses, so I can vary the style from close-up macro to long lens, and I use a 15mm fish-eye lens a lot. I do very little post-production work because I like to achieve what I want in the camera.”

Being a successful documentary photographer isn’t just about kit or technique, he adds, “Good research, diplomacy and people skills are important. You’ve got to get people’s trust before you can photograph them or a sensitive wildlife project. Get release forms signed so you can use the images. You need to have a clear idea of what visual elements are crucial to capture the story, and you need to be very flexible because you often have to adapt to the weather or other people’s plans. And be dogged – if there’s a story you want to tell, keep going until you get the shots to tell it.”

K5X1T5 Three Hedgehogs (Erinaceus europaeus) feeding on mealworms and oatmeal left out for them on a patio, Chippenham, Wiltshire, UK, August. Taken with a
Nick Upton / Alamy Stock Photo

Professional photographers need a variety of income streams, and for Nick, that includes stock. “I noticed Alamy’s name on a lot of newspaper and magazine credits. I also take travel shots, so I put them on Alamy. Then, I decided to put a subset of my best wildlife and documentary images on as well. Since doing that, I’ve noticed my sales have increased quite quickly.”

He adds, “Some people say stock is dead; it’s not, it’s just harder work than it used to be. Try to add stuff that isn’t there, and work with a stock agency that goes that extra mile for you, communicates with you and supports your work.”

Nick’s advice to budding photographers is, “Work out what you do best and do it really well. The way to do that is to be hugely self-critical of your work. Look for gaps and if you see if no one else is doing something, then go for it. Take inspiration from other people but don’t just do what they do. Enjoy your photography, because if you really engage with a subject, you’ll put in longer hours to do a better job. I only want to do work I care about, and if I care about something, I will push myself to get the best result I can.”

Having a supportive partner with a stable career has helped Nick choose what he does, “I’ve been lucky enough to have only worked on projects I cared about and actively avoided others that didn’t appeal. That’s not always the best career strategy, but it means you can stay true to core beliefs and can sometimes come up with a ‘different take’ that does well as it stands out from other people’s work. I’ve always been more interested in having interesting and varied experiences in life than improving my bank balance and being able to buy ‘stuff’ (apart from camera equipment!). I am never happier than when spending time in nature or seeing amazing wildlife in action. I really love what I do.”

Check out Nick’s diverse and informative collection here.

Nick’s profile here.

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