In-depth Written Interview
with Nic Bishop
Nic Bishop, interviewed in his home in Kalamazoo, Michigan on June 30, 2009.
TEACHINGBOOKS: You are an author and photographer of nature books for children.Have you always been a photographer?
NIC BISHOP: I took my first photographs using my sister's camera, which I borrowed when I was about nine or 10 on a trip to Africa. My father filmed and edited movies, which we'd watch in the evenings.
My mother took black and white photographs, mainly for her work in a hospital studying chromosomes. She taught me how to print and process black and white film.
TEACHINGBOOKS: What kinds of things did you photograph as a boy?
NIC BISHOP: At the start, I photographed everything. I had a fairly general interest. You can imagine—traveling overseas, one comes in close contact with everything: changes in culture, history, landscapes. I think I was primarily interested in the culture of the places that we were going to. But I was still too young to go wandering off looking for natural history. That came later, when I was a teenager in Papua New Guinea. Then, I spent a lot longer searching for things like Birds of Paradise.
TEACHINGBOOKS: Why did your family travel so much?
NIC BISHOP: I was born in England. That's where my parents grew up and got married. When I was three years old, my parents felt bored with life; they thought there should be something more exciting.
My father applied for a post with the British Council, which employed teachers togo and work in Bangladesh. So my family went to live in Bangladesh for a few years. Once my father got that one posting, he got others in the Sudan, Papua New Guinea, Indonesia, and Nigeria.
Apart from going to the university in England for three years, I grew up living abroad. After I finished university, I traveled a lot by myself. I lived in New Zealand for 16 years and then came to the U.S.
TEACHINGBOOKS: Do you have a collection of photographs that you took when you were a kid traveling to all those places?
NIC BISHOP: I have a few. We have moved around so much that I've lost quite a lot of them, but I did take a lot in New Guinea. When we lived there, I was a teen, and I went on a lot of very long walks. It was kind of a strange teenage time, because I didn't go to school in the normal sense. When I was young, I went to boarding school, but I hated it.I asked my parents to allow me to home school. So between the ages of 14 and 18, I home schooled in Papua New Guinea. There were no other white kids my age. So as a teenager, I was fairly self-sufficient, and I used to wander off into the forest visiting the villages and trying to get villagers to show me Birds of Paradise.
I went off on longer and longer trips, until I started going on trips that would last a week or two weeks, which is an unusual thing to do when you're 15 or 16 years old.
TEACHINGBOOKS: Did your wanderings start you on a path to become a naturalist?
NIC BISHOP: Yes. That and the fact that my father was a biology teacher, so he never lost any time in explaining plants and animals and natural history to me. I had a ready source of good information to explain everything that I saw.
I was exposed to exotic places and extraordinary wildlife. Boarding school presented an awful contrast. I would spend a holiday in, say, Africa with my parents, and then I'd have to go back to boarding school in England. One minute you're out in some exotic place, and the next minute it's just kind of freezing cold and overcrowded and sort of polluted and dark, just like something out of Harry Potter, which is kind of awful when you've just come from an exotic place overseas.
TEACHINGBOOKS: And now you're in the United States.
NIC BISHOP: Yes. For most of my life, really.
TEACHINGBOOKS: Do you also consider yourself an illustrator?
NIC BISHOP: I'm a photographer, but there is such a thing as photo illustration. There are two types of books that I'm doing at the moment. There are the Scientist in the Field books where I'm traveling overseas with an author, Sy Montgomery, and we follow alongside a scientist who's doing fieldwork. In these instances, I'm a photojournalist, because I'm documenting the story of the expedition.
Sometimes I'm photographing animals in the studio where it's a much more controlled situation—where I decide what animal I want to photograph and what sort of light to use, what sort of pose I want, and what the animal is going to be doing. I consider that sort of book much more illustrative, because it's not stuff that's necessarily always happening naturally. That type of work I call photo illustration, and the fieldwork books I call photojournalism.
TEACHINGBOOKS: Please share your process for creating the Scientist in the Field books that you make with Sy Montgomery. They have such a depth of writing and the writing is so well connected to the photographs in the book.
NIC BISHOP: Usually, Sy and I work together on these books. Sy may come up with an idea for a book, or it might be me. It depends on securing a scientist that we can follow. The scientist has to be photogenic, easy to interview, and fun to be around. They have to be willing to put up with having a photographer and an author trailing alongside.
When we secure a scientist, then we go on an expedition together. It may not last that long, so it's extremely intense for me. The expedition might take three weeks, but I may only actually be in the field for two of those weeks, with maybe a week of travel back and forth. So I've got two weeks to do the whole book, which means about 80 photographs. That works out to a new and interesting photograph—a "keeper"—every two hours of every day I'm in the field.
It's a huge undertaking. Every time I think, "There's no way I can possibly do this." Normally, I would imagine taking a whole year to take an illustrative book with 80 photos.
TEACHINGBOOKS: What do you do to prepare for expeditions?
NIC BISHOP: I exercise a lot to make sure I'm healthy, because the worst thing that can happen is to get sick. It is very easy to get sick when you go to a foreign country. It's unfamiliar, remote, and I have to keep working the whole time. So, I make sure I'm as fit and healthy as I can be, and then I just work like crazy when I'm there.
TEACHINGBOOKS: The expeditions must be exhilarating.
NIC BISHOP: When I return, I don't necessarily have a great memory of what happened because I was looking through my camera the whole time I was out there. The neat thing is that Sy and I go together, so we both witness the same events. To a certain extent, we might see slightly different things, but on the whole, the text and the photos go together well.
Once I've taken the photographs and I get back home, I send them to Sy just so she knows what I've documented. I think seeing the photographs helps to bring back the memories of the expedition to her when she's doing the writing.
She takes copious notes in the field when she's turning her notes into the text and deciding which events to leave out and what to put in and how to describe it. I think having the photos is just a little extra thing that helps.
TEACHINGBOOKS: What equipment do you take with you on photo expeditions?
NIC BISHOP: I take two cameras. I don't know how many batteries ... probably 15 or something. I take four lenses, tripods, three flash guns, and various soft boxes. I also take wire and things to repair equipment that might break down. Things do break down, so I kind of take a little kit of bits of wire and string and stuff that looks generally useful.
My equipment weighs about 25 pounds, so it's a reasonable weight. I don't have an assistant or anything. I carry the stuff by myself, so I need to be kind of mobile. If I'm too exhausted and struggling under a lot of weight, I'm not going to take good photographs, so I try and trim things down as much as I can.
TEACHINGBOOKS: As the scientists unearth things, are you saying, "Wait, stop, freeze that"?
NIC BISHOP: Yes. That's when it helps if the scientist is patient or is experienced with the research, because I'm constantly asking them to redo things and adjust the lighting. I mean, often I'll set up in the rainforest, because the light's so dim I might even set up almost a sort of studio light situation there.
But I have to be really quick, because the scientist is actually also doing their job. I mean, they want to do some research while they're there. They don't just want to be a photographer's model.
TEACHINGBOOKS: Are the scientists there because of the book, or are they there because they're doing their own research?
NIC BISHOP: Usually, they're doing their own research. But they know this is going to be a project where they're not going to get as much research done as they would if we weren't there. So they're philosophically resigned to the fact that we're going to soak up a certain amount of their time. But their primary intention is to actually do research while they're there.
TEACHINGBOOKS: What kinds of photos do you recall taking for The Tarantula Scientist?
NIC BISHOP: Taking the pictures of the tarantulas took a wee bit of patience, because you find a tarantula hole, and you're not entirely sure what's down there. We worked with scientist Sam Marshall, who was pretty good at picking tarantula holes. He would get along stick, and he would just wiggle it down the hole to the end. Suddenly, something grabs hold of the end of the stick. You pull it out really slowly, and the tarantula will come out. So every time we'd find one of these, I'd set up all my equipment, my lights and everything, and he'd put the stick down and sometimes the tarantula just wouldn't come out, so that was a waste of an hour or so.
Or, a tarantula would run out really fast, then almost before I've taken my photograph, it would decide it would rather stay inside its burrow. It'd sort of dive straight back in again. So we did this numerous times on different tarantula burrows in the rainforest trying to get the right shot. And you never knew when it came out what it was going to do, whether it was going to run like crazy or whether it was going to stop.
While on the expedition, Sam was bitten badly by little mites called chiggers. He had all of these little spots on his face and arms. So I had to clean him up in the photos a bit with Photoshop. It's one of the risks of being in the tropics. You do get bitten a lot.
TEACHINGBOOKS: You also traveled to Papua New Guinea to photograph Quest for the Tree Kangaroo.
NIC BISHOP: Yes. I hadn't been back to Papua New Guinea since I was 18. I returned about 30 years later to do Quest for the Tree Kangaroo. It was amazing that I could still remember enough Pidgin English that I could talk to the local people. We had various local guides to help us find tree kangaroos.
In the evenings, we'd sit around the fire and tell stories. They don't have radio, books, or television, so entertainment in the evening is storytelling. It was just great. I told stories about what I did in Papua New Guinea when I was a young boy, and I could listen to their stories. That was pretty amazing.
TEACHINGBOOKS: Quest for the Tree Kangaroo is really about the expedition itself and all the people and the places first, and then it's about the animals.
NIC BISHOP: Yeah. I love photographing inside forests, because there's such a variety to photograph. I really like books that have photographic variation in them: different subjects, different colors, different-sized objects. I like to photograph almost everything that I see, if I can find a photogenic subject. I don't like books that are just all trees or all birds or something. I like to cover everything, including people and things, just to provide diversity. A place like Papua New Guinea just has so much diversity in its forests. They're just vast and full of different species. I like to convey the breadth and depth of the places I visit, and it's pretty broad and wide in Papua New Guinea.
TEACHINGBOOKS: Your book The Mysterious Universe has such an informative and interesting perspective and story.
NIC BISHOP: It is challenging to photograph for a book about astronomers because all an astronomer does is look at a computer screen, and that's not very photogenic. The intellectualizing about the expansion of the universe is wonderful, but you can't produce photographs of what is going on in an astronomer's brain. So, getting variation in images is really hard.
We had one bonus that we could go to Hawaii to the Keck Observatory. That was kind of a stressful event, because the whole photographic aspect of the book was going to revolve around getting some decent shots at the Keck Observatory. And to get there, I had to fill out quite a lot of paperwork. I had to get a permit and have liability insurance of about $2 million in case I dropped a camera onto one of the mirrors or something. Each paddle of one of those mirrors is worth $1 million or something. There was a lot of red tape into doing this, and then you had to be escorted. So I had this one chance, and I was going to be there for about two and a half hours.
To get to the Keck Observatory, you drive up from sea level to the top (I think it's about 14,000 feet), and the air has two-thirds of the oxygen that it has at sea level. The astronomer suggested that before I came up that I write down a list of every photograph I wanted to take, because up there I would probably forget what I wanted to photograph. That's what happens with low oxygen levels. Luckily, the oxygen thing didn't really affect me that much, and I managed to stay fairly clear minded and get some nice shots.
TEACHINGBOOKS: The book has 13 photographs of people in front of computers, but the photos don't seem dull and boring to me.
NIC BISHOP: Well, I added a little bit—I put color filters over the flashes. None of those shots are taken by natural light. To make flash photography a little more interesting, It end to put color filters over different flashguns so the pictures don't look flat. I spent a lot of time doing the lighting.
But there's a limit to how many pictures of people in front of computers kids ar egoing to want to see. I did a lot of Photoshop illustration work there producing pictures that showed expansion of the universe, supernovae exploding, and that sort of thing.
TEACHINGBOOKS: Do you need to understand science to take a better picture?
NIC BISHOP: I do like to try and understand the science, because I'm a scientist. So for The Mysterious Universe, I read quite a lot about the expansion of the universe and quantum theory and things like that. I've studied biology for decades, so that helps with the natural history books. I like to study these things anyway because I'm curious.
TEACHINGBOOKS: You have written as well as photographed a handful of books, such as Nic Bishop Frogs and Nic Bishop Spiders.
NIC BISHOP: For Frogs and Spiders, I returned to doing the writing, which I did with my first books that were published in New Zealand. Generally speaking, it's a lot easier to do the writing yourself, because I have to actually fit the text, to some extent, to what I can take as a photograph. I don't have unlimited choices. If I were an illustrator producing artwork, I could draw almost any sort of natural event. But as a photographer, I feel it is much harder. There are some things that you might want to have as an illustration, but you can't necessarily just photograph it, because maybe it happens so rarely that it might take you 20 years to witness. It's much easier for me to fit the text around the photographs.
TEACHINGBOOKS: Can you provide an example of fitting the text to the photos in either Nic Bishop Spiders or Nic Bishop Frogs?
NIC BISHOP: When I work on those books, I write a list of the animals I would like to include. I try to include a variety. So in Frogs, you'll find examples of the major types of frogs. There will be a bullfrog, a tree frog, a poison dart frog.
Then I will go and find them in the field, get them from a breeder, or go on location. Generally speaking, I can track down most animals. So I'll pick ones that I know that are relatively common rather than find out later that it's actually pretty rare, and nobody's seen it in the last 10 years or something.
TEACHINGBOOKS: Have you traveled to photograph just one animal?
NIC BISHOP: I occasionally do that sort of thing, but not very often. In the butterfly book, I did go to Costa Rica to photograph a particular caterpillar. It was one I wanted to see for many, many years. From the time I'd first heard about it to when I finally photographed it was about four years.
Also, I spent six months in Australia and I photographed a lizard called a Thorny Devil. It lives way out in the desert. It's just the most amazing lizard. I had heard about it and seen photographs of it for 10 or 20 years. So while I was in Australia, I called up the ranger station, which is in this remote part of Western Australia, and I said, "If I come over, do you reckon I'll be able to photograph a Thorny Devil? And they said, "Sure, sure. You just come over. There's a road from here that goes across the Shark Bay. I see them there all the time." So I flew across Australia. It's about a 2,000-mile flight or something. I hired a minibus that I could sleep in, and I drove up there. Once I got to the spot, I drove up and down all day, and I didn't see any Thorny Devils.
So I drove back to the ranger station and asked a question I should have asked before I had come, "Exactly when did you last see a Thorny Devil?" And he looked at me, and he thought, and he realized the last sighting had been four years earlier.
So here I am. I've spent a few thousand dollars and ten days of my life getting to this spot to photograph this lizard, and it wasn't there. So, resigned to it, I just drove at 20miles an hour, creeping along the road for hour after hour after hour, looking into the sand on the side of the vehicle. And, eventually—amazingly, it's just like a miracle—I saw the lizard in front of me, just 10 feet away. I can't explain it, but it's just amazing to suddenly look and say, "Oh, there it is."
That's what happens then you do these things. You're never really sure when you try and find something in the wild if you'll ever find it. And the same thing was true about the tree kangaroo book. We produced this book about seeing the tree kangaroo in Papua New Guinea, but there was absolutely no guarantee that we would see one.
The scientist we were with had at one time spent seven years looking without ever seeing a tree kangaroo. We were going to be there for two weeks. So, luckily she had figured out the place where they were fairly common. But even so, when you're there for two weeks, you may do a whole book and never see the animal that your book's about, which would be a little embarrassing. But that's natural history. There's just no guarantee of seeing things.
TEACHINGBOOKS: The text in Nic Bishop Frogs and Nic Bishop Spiders is very engaging. Please describe your writing process.
NIC BISHOP: I have a lot of fun writing. It's a lot quicker than photography. It takes me about five or six months to do the photography, and it can, at times, be incredibly stressful, because you're dealing with wild animals. They're not interested in doing what you want them to do. And they're not necessarily going to be where you want them to be.
So I really have to use a lot of patience working with them. Writing the text is often quite pleasurable at the end, because I just get to sit in a comfy corner of the house.
The information I use in my books comes from various sources. Because I have to take the photographs, I've spent months of firsthand contact with the animals that I'm writing about. Quite a lot of information that goes into my books is information that I've learned firsthand. Plus, I've studied biology for decades, so there's a lot of information that I know just because I've sort of absorbed it from somewhere through being at the university. When I research, I'll generally get university textbooks to find snippets of information that you normally wouldn't find in a more popular text.
I like putting all the neat facts into a sequence. I really like a book that moves fast, that is set out in a very clear, logical fashion, and doesn't leave the child at any sort of dead end. When you tell children something in a book, you want the child to know why they've been told this. I spend most of my time just doodling away sentences, long handon notepads. And I might rewrite it six times before I get to the computer where I put it into an electronic file.
By the time I've put it onto the computer, I can probably write the whole book within about four hours from beginning to end. I have a lot of fun doing that because I've spent so much time with these animals. I just find them utterly fascinating, and I try to make the text as interesting as the photographs.
TEACHINGBOOKS: You said some of your photo illustration books are done in a staged environment.
NIC BISHOP: To some extent, many of my books entail a certain amount of staging, even when I'm working the rainforest. Because when you're doing close-ups of small animals, for technical reasons, you really can't rely on natural light unless the animal's going to stand still for a minute or two, which is not usually the case. You have to use a flash. So, immediately, you're adding a theater of light to a situation. Even if I'm working in the rainforest, I will set up flash lighting, using anything from three to eight flashes, just to illuminate one photograph.
I really like light that picks up the texture of the animal. I love pictures that feel three-dimensional. I love pictures that take you down to the same level as the animal—I love to feel as if you are reduced to the size of an ant. Because, often, they themselves might be quite small, but in the photographs they look larger than life. This involves complicated light setups. If I do this in the studio, it becomes a lot easier because it's just more relaxing than working in the field.
I will also do quite a bit of set up in the studio. For example, when I'm catching butterflies hatch out of a pupa, I need to set it up indoors. And I just wait and wait and wait.
TEACHINGBOOKS: The pages that fold out in your photo illustration books are especially stunning.
NIC BISHOP: When we do those books, there's quite a lot of design work. There's a certain amount of moving things around, adding margins to pictures that I do, so that they can fit the page design. A photo doesn't necessarily fit the page precisely, so I work closely with the book designer on those pages.
Sometimes she might say, "I really need a couple more inches on the right-hand side of this picture." I've sort of gotten used to this now. When I take a photograph of something, I'll often take a picture, just to the right of the subject, and another photograph to the left of the subject, so I can sort of sandwich things together to make them wider, making they fit the page.
I love it when we have the double-page spreads, when she puts the text on the photograph itself, because it really immerses you into that picture. You're reading the text, but you're in the photograph at the same time, which I find really nice.
Occasionally, she'll tell me she wants to put the text over the photograph, but there's a leaf that is going to detract from the text. So I'll put the picture into Photoshop, and I'll shift the leaf out of the way.
TEACHINGBOOKS: How would you describe issues of ethics regarding the creation of your primary source materials? You make extraordinary nonfiction books, and yet, in this day and age, we can manipulate anything.
NIC BISHOP: Yes, but there's a big difference between the books where I'm working as a photojournalist and those where I'm a photo illustrator. Photojournalism pictures (the Houghton Mifflin Scientist in the Field books) are not manipulated in any way. I am documenting events as they happen and I do not really have control over the photographs, other than perhaps asking the scientist to stand in particular spot, or smile.
In the Scholastic Nic Bishop animal books, I am often working somewhat more as a photo illustrator, since I do have some control over things, for small animals anyway, such lighting and flash set-up, and when I'm working in the studio, the creation of the setting the animal is in. Often I have to do this for technical reasons, given that close up photos require flash lighting and the high speed work also requires temperamental technical extras like laser triggers. These efforts allow me to produce images that are pretty much what I want. Photoshop is sometimes used in these Scholastic books for design purposes. For example, sometimes to stitch two photographs together so they fit across a double page spread, or to move a leaf in the composition so some text can be dropped onto the photograph. The ethics of doing something like that doesn't worry me, because it's the scientific integrity of the picture itself that's important.
It is very important for me to never produce a photograph that is manipulated in such a way that it shows incorrect behavior of an animal. That would be a bad thing to do. So I like it that the Scholastic Nic Bishop animal books have scientific integrity, even if the photographs are not necessarily all taken in the wild. Also, I offer a photographer notes section at the end of each book where I explain how I take the photographs—how someare taken in the field and some are taken in the studio, etc.—so that people understand my methods.
Other ethical considerations concern the animals, too. I need to do these pictures in a way that's minimally stressful to them. My book called Chameleon, Chameleon, which was a follow-up to Red-Eyed Tree Frog, was a project where I had to think about this a lot. Chameleons are such sensitive animals that it was unacceptable for me to stress them by inserting them together into the same scene at the same time. It was much easier for the animals' sake to use Photoshop and photograph one animal in the scene, and then the other animal in the scene by itself, and then put them together using Photoshop. You might say that's photographically unethical. But in terms of the welfare of the animals, it is ethical. The most important thing is the scientific accuracy of the picture itself. Photography has become much more complicated than it ever used to be before Photoshop.
TEACHINGBOOKS: Please talk about your book Red-Eyed Tree Frog.
NIC BISHOP: I think that the Red-Eyed Tree Frog was probably the first or second book I did when I came to the States. I already knew Joy Cowley, a museum writer. She wrote very spare and simple text. I did a series of prints, and I sent them to her so that she could decide if she could come up with the text to fit around the photographs. She did, but she said we needed a point of tension in the book — something a little bit scary.
I decided I should photograph a snake creeping up on the frog, which was a bit worrisome. This was my frog. I'd had it for two years, so I knew it quite well and I didn't really want it to become a snake's dinner. So, I put the frog on a pond leaf, and I held the snake in my left hand, and looked through the viewfinder. The snake was not the least bit interested in the frog, then all of a sudden, it sort of surged toward the frog and licked with its tongue. The frog looked away, and by good fortune, I took that one photograph. I don't even remember taking it, but I must have just pressed the shutter.
That picture became the point of tension in the whole book, so it worked out well. But that's a case where, if I have to do that now, I might do that with Photoshop and photograph the two animals separately just because I'll be too worried about something bad happening.
TEACHINGBOOKS: Do you have other animals in your possession besides the red-eyed tree frog?
NIC BISHOP: At the moment, I've got a Rainbow Boa. It belongs to somebody else, and I'm borrowing it for a month or so.
When I did Nic Bishop Spiders, I borrowed a whole bunch of tarantulas from the guy who the Tarantula Science book is about, Sam Marshall. He loaned me about 20 of his tarantulas that I kept for a couple of months at home in the spare bedroom—theanimal room. They'd escape occasionally, but they don't usually go very far, just behind the bookcase.
TEACHINGBOOKS: Your Field Guide is designed for young children.
NIC BISHOP: There are a lot of field guides for older kids and adults with hundreds of little postage stamp-sized photographs of each animal.
I thought a much more interesting field guide for young children would be to take many little pictures, cut them out, and reassemble them into one nice big scene in which all of the animals are together. Children then can find the animals in their habitat.
I put a lot of information into this book visually, so that kids could extract a lot simply by looking at the pictures without even needing to read. Children can identify each animal, learn how big each is, and that each animal lives within a community of other animals. That sort of information normally would be included in a field guide in small print somewhere, and I decided to show it visually.
We used a picture index at the end that includes the image and name of every animal in the guide. This match-up helps kids who have trouble reading, allowing them to access the information. It was a huge undertaking. Each of those double-page spreads was more than a month of work to produce. It was a big commitment and a lot of time staring at a computer screen cutting each image out in Photoshop.
TEACHINGBOOKS: When did you start using digital photography?
NIC BISHOP: I used to take film photography, scan it into a digital format, then work on the computer in Photoshop. When I went to Papua New Guinea to photograph the tree kangaroos, I took both a film and a digital camera with me, and I found the digital camera gave me a lot more options.
There were certain things that film was better for, though a lot of the more candid photography in the rainforest was much better with a digital camera, because you can adjust the ISO rating (the sensitivity of the sensor), so that the pictures can be taken under very low light conditions. I was taking photos in the cloud forest, which was really ,really dark, and suddenly I could take a whole string of photographs that I could never take with film. If I'd been using film, I'd have had to have it on a tripod, which is hopeless if you're taking portraits of people and moving around and working. The digital just opened up a lot more opportunities.
TEACHINGBOOKS: When you're thinking about your photographs for your books, how much do you take into consideration that the audience is young people?
NIC BISHOP: I don't think much; I just enjoy what I'm doing. If I'm thinking of an audience, it's probably myself—perhaps as a child. I had to read a lot of fiction when I first went to school, and I just did not like fiction. In fact, I just didn't really read much at all until I got to be in my mid-teens. I just wasn't interested in reading. We had to read fiction books that were all about imaginary things, and as a child, I would look out the window and watch the clouds go by. I was much more interested in what was happening outside ,and why there were clouds and how birds fly. That's what I wanted to know about.
I just write books for children who are curious in the same way that I was curious when I was a child. When I first started writing books, I wrote for adults. I didn't work on children's books until a children's publisher asked me to. After I started doing children's books, I just had so much fun, because I'm writing to children's immediate curiosity, which is refreshing. They just want to know the simplest information: how big it is, how fast it can run, etc. and that's such a lovely thing to write about.
TEACHINGBOOKS: What do you like to tell students?
NIC BISHOP: I really like classroom visits. I like to show students my books, and in a classroom, rather than an assembly, all the children can take part. I can engage all of the kids in a class—even the quiet ones—which is really what I like. The best is when they ask me questions. It's very spontaneous; I'm never quite sure what they're going to ask. They always come up with the most interesting questions. They're just so sharp. Even the youngest kids ask very insightful questions.
TEACHINGBOOKS: What do you like to tell teachers?
NIC BISHOP: I talk at sorts of teacher's conferences. Usually, they're interested in the mechanics of being a photographer, and how I go about taking my photos.
TEACHINGBOOKS: How would you describe a typical workday?
NIC BISHOP: It depends on what I'm doing. If I'm writing, I like to get my pads of paper and sit somewhere quiet, so that I can lose myself intellectually in my subjects, deciding what I want to write about. If I'm taking photographs, then there's a lot of preparation.
When I was a kid, I used to like to build and make things. I still get to do that to some extent. If I'm working in the studio taking a photograph, I might need to use multiple lights to light up a situation; I almost need to build a theater set. Or, if I'm photographing animals in an artificial pond, I need to build all sorts of ponds and heat them with aquarium heaters and things for tropical animals.
There's a lot of creativity and a lot of figuring out how to do things, how to get frogs to jump in front of a camera, etc. Or I might go out in the field with a butterfly net just to wander through the forest and catch things, and see what I can find, or I'll spend time down by the pond.
On a typical day, I also might be booking tickets to fly off to Mongolia or somewhere to do a book for The Scientist in the Field series. Every day is completely different from the previous day. Because so much of my life is dictated by natural history, I can never predict how it is going to change one day to the next.
TEACHINGBOOKS: What do you do when you get stuck?
NIC BISHOP: In terms of writing, I make sure that I don't get stuck. This is the trick: I don't sit at the computer and write. I write by hand like I'm doodling. I'm not pretending to come up with any special prose. I'm just writing it out. I do that several times, so that by the time I get to the computer, it's all in my mind, and I can just write everything out straight away. If I just go cold to the computer and think, "okay, I've got to write 2,000 words today," that's when I get stuck, because I just don't know what to say.
TEACHINGBOOKS: What do you find important about photographs in children's books?
NIC BISHOP: Photos make the book much more authentic, and I'm sure there's an important need, particularly amongst certain children, to have more books illustrated with photographs. There are children like I was who are only into nonfiction. They don't want to read about imaginary things. They want to read about real things. And on top of that, they want to see real things, too. They're much more interested in seeing a photograph of an animal instead of an illustration.
I'm a nutcase-devoted photographer. I will spend months on the details, and I won't rest until I've got that shot as perfect as it can possibly be.
For example, in my frog book, there's a picture of a frog jumping out of a pond catching a caterpillar. That photo took many weeks to do. I used laser beams that I set up and tripper beams and special shutters. The frog was in a pond in my studio just surrounded by flashguns, wires, tripods, and light stands. In that situation, a frog just isn't going to behave naturally. If you just put it in there unaccustomed to its surroundings, it's going to think, "What the heck is all of this stuff?" So I had to acclimate it to the equipment, and get it used to jumping. It took me about three weeks to get it to jump the way I wanted it to. And then it took me two weeks to set up the lighting. It was an immense amount of work, but it was worth it.
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