Nick Hawkins is a Canadian conservation photographer and photojournalist specializing in natural history, science and conservation-related issues. A biologist by training, Nick believes that photography and storytelling are key components of conservation.
Nick Hawkins takes over our Instagram feed for the week (August 4 to 10), sharing some of his most spectacular aquatic imagery. To celebrate the breathtaking work Nick creates, we've partnered with PhotoShelter, an online platform providing dynamic, leading websites for photographers. Nick will be taking over both the World Photography Organisation and PhotoShelter Instagram feeds.
How do you approach lighting when shooting underwater?
Over the years I’ve come to find that when it comes to lighting underwater, less is more. I often try to stay shallow and use natural light when at all possible. Light underwater is constantly changing and very dynamic, I try to take advantage of that as much as possible. When I do need to use strobes, I try to light as sparingly as possible to keep those natural shadows and textures that make the best underwater images so interesting to the eye. The most important underwater gear is the kit that keeps you warm and comfortable – I find BARE wetsuits and drysuits best. Lastly, my boat (named Calanus) can get us anywhere we need to shoot, from offshore pelagic area to isolated islands and coastline, it can handle the seas and always gets us home safe.
What's the craziest or most interesting interaction you've had during a shoot?
As an underwater shooter, we get to have some incredible interactions that just don’t happen with terrestrial wildlife. My most memorable experiences are typically with big, intelligent marine life like sharks, whales and seals. Last year I spent some time far off the coast of Nova Scotia working on a project to show just how rich and vibrant life off the coast of Atlantic Canada is. One day I found myself 20 miles out at sea, surrounded by half a dozen blue sharks and then going face to face with a giant mola mola fish. The next day I was in the murky waters of the Gulf of Saint Lawrence surrounded by 800-pound bluefin tuna until my shoot was crashed by a pod of pilot whales. I met all these animals eye-to-eye in their own environment and felt nothing but curiosity, beauty and intelligence. It was life-changing.
How did you get into underwater photography? How has your work with underwater photography affected your thoughts on conservation?
I didn’t pick up a camera until I had completed a degree in biology from the University of New Brunswick. My interest in photography stemmed from a desire to communicate science and share my love for the natural world. During my studies, I had seen that science wasn’t being well communicated to the public and I felt that I could contribute through images and stories that spoke to a more general audience. So I teamed up with researchers and scientists that felt the same way and together we worked to help fill this gap and share their important work in a more accessible way.
How did you get involved with the International League of Conservation Photographers?
I applied and was accepted into their emerging league program, which gives photographers in the early stages of their career a chance to meet with and be mentored by their fellowship. It's a great way to meet some of the photographers who were very influential to me.
Can you tell us more about Saving Salmon?
Saving Salmon is a project I started with my good friend and writer, Tom Cheney. We both grew up fly fishing for Atlantic salmon on the Miramichi river and connected through this common interest. We were both very concerned about the declining runs of Atlantic salmon and decided to start producing stories that shared the beauty of Atlantic salmon with more people. We starting producing a couple of stories each year for the Atlantic Salmon Journal, a magazine about Atlantic salmon fishing and conservation. We created the Saving Salmon website so our stories and images had somewhere to live more permanently and be easily accessible. The project has taken a bit of a back seat as Tom and I have been busy working on projects for Smithsonian Magazine and National Geographic, but we hope to share some new stories and images in the coming months.
What are the unique challenges that come with this type of photography?
Underwater photography is certainly the most demanding form of photography I’ve ever done. It’s really more about being a very skilled diver and mastering the logistical challenges that come with it. It can be very frustrating at times and there are many days where you come away with nothing. Although, the higher the difficulty and risk, the greater the reward. If you can get into the right place at the right time, you can come away with images that few people have ever seen. So much of the underwater world has never been captured, and that’s what makes it so exciting as a photographer.
What do you hope people will learn from your work?
Much of my work is now focusing on ecosystems and species that are in decline as a direct result of human activity. All species are part of a complex natural system that depends on diversity to be resilient and productive. Humans are part of this system and will suffer the consequences as we gradually erode that which we depend on most for survival, for a meaningful life and for freedom and the pursuit of happiness. Much of my work is done in conjunction with organizations and researchers who are working hard to push policy and decision-making that will bring us towards a more sustainable future. I hope my work helps to elevate their efforts. I think if we were to save the world with beautiful photographs alone, we would have done it long ago.
What's the proudest moment of your career to date?
Any time I can get an important issue a major headline a feel a profound sense of accomplishment. Over the past month, I've been working in Eastern Canada covering the current mortality crisis facing North Atlantic right whales, an endangered species that now number less than 400 individuals. Our story was just released by National Geographic and can be read here.