Nils Nilsen is one of the finest photographers in triathlon and he is also a super nice guy who is highly respected by other industry folks and media people alike. He owns the N2 Photo Services company and contract works for Ironman.
Slowtwitch: Thank you for your time Nils.
Nils Nilsen: Herbert, it's my pleasure. I've been a long time fan of ST and follow you all pretty closely. I appreciate the opportunity to chat with you.
ST: Did St. George find you well?
Nils: St. George did find me well, a bit tired but well. It's an event that is easy to get excited for.
ST: Obviously you can get great shots anywhere, but man there is something majestic about that background in Utah.
Nils: Well thank you, but location does have a lot to do with my imagery. Utah in particular is as you said, majestic and showcasing that in photos is my primary goal. I think St. George’s unique terrain is special. From the red sand of Sand Hollow Reservoir, to the mix of colors on the bike, the run through huge boulders in Pioneer Park and finally an ending in a very attractive downtown – St. George is an epic background for the IRONMAN 70.3 US Pro Championship event. It’s the total package.
ST: How much time did you spend there?
Nils: I arrived the Thursday before and left the Sunday after. Luckily I photographed this event last year and the course didn't change, so my prep time to scout certain locations was much shorter than normal.
ST: Isn't that true for most race venues by now?
Nils: Yes and no, courses change ever year even when the route doesn’t change. Things like construction can change a great location into something not worth photography or visa versa. . For a full distance IRONMAN, no matter how many times I’ve been there or seen it; I’m always looking for something new.
ST: Word though has it that you are already on your next assignment.
Nils: I am in fact on a plane now to Philadelphia for a shoot with Fuji bikes. We will be creating most of their visual collateral for their 2015 lifestyle line. It should be a very fun week as I'm a huge fan of Philadelphia and the history it holds, not to mention I'm an avid cyclist so anything bike related gets me extra motivated.
ST: But is it much harder now to be away from home with Coop in your life?
Nils: Now your tugging at heart strings. My son, Cooper, is just now a year and a half old and starting to realize when I'm not home. So traveling is definitely much harder. Without the understanding and support from my wife I don't think I'd be able to do what I do with him in my life.
ST: Do you Skype or Facetime much?
Nils: My wife and I are starting to use Facetime more now that Cooper is interacting and saying hello and goodbye. As you know from your traveling, it’s a blessing to be able to see the ones we love even when we are so far away.
ST: Has he yet tried to either join you in that box or asked you to come out?
Nils: Cooper hasn’t yet done that and I’m not really looking forward to those days. I will say, Cooper is a well-adjusted toddler. He hasn’t yet had any bad separation anxieties.
ST: I think your photo career got started as a photo assistant with the San Diego Padres. Are you much of a baseball fan?
Nils: I did work for the San Diego Padres during their 2005 season. Not sure that is the official start to my career though. That credit goes back to my years at Brooks Institute of Photography in Santa Barbara. The Padres was an amazing experience for sure and a big play in where I am today. I met some amazing people, learned a lot of valuable lessons and got to create some amazing images. One of the many highlights to that job was being under the American flag during the national anthem before the first playoff game that post season. The flag took up the entire outfield; it was surreal. But I'm not a huge baseball fan - that distinction goes to my wife. I'm more of a casual fan and would rather ride my mountain bike to be honest.
ST: Did you meet her at a game?
Nils: My wife and I actually met in High School and have been together ever since. We will be celebrating our 11th anniversary at the end of this month. I like to joke with her we’ve been attached for half of her life; that drives her crazy a little bit.
ST: Then came Sports Illustrated?
Nils: The Padres gig ended and the Sports Illustrated opportunity came about through a friend working for the Lakers as an assistant. This was a huge moment for me and working for SI was always a goal. I was attached to one of their staff photographers as a lighting and remote camera tech. I spent about 3 years with SI traveling the country lighting arena's and setting up remote camera's for basketball games, working the sidelines of NFL Games, lighting portrait's in the belly of stadiums and pretty much everything in between. The culmination of my time with SI was working the 2008 Olympics in Beijing – that was a big bucket list item. My time with SI is where I really learned how to cover an event, thinking of angles not often seen. My favorite and probably most dangerous remote angle to set up at a basketball game was the shot clock camera. To install this camera I had to use a 20ft ladder and precariously balance on the very top to install some $10,000 worth of gear all while working around the remote TV camera. The crazy part is sometimes you had to adjust the camera right before game time, so you had some 20,000 people watching you – no pressure, right?
ST: Do you work well under pressure? You seem calm whenever I see you.
Nils: Pressure is what you make of it. Yes, I’ve learned to deal with situational pressure during jobs and have found a way to keep a level head. The key for me is to be aware of everything I can be. I scout venues, I double check my gear before hand and I have maps of where I’d like to be. It’s on the verge of OCD sometimes. You still have bad things happen, seems like every event, and you just roll with it over to plan B. This is a direct result of my work with SI. There where so many moving parts to travel, our photography system and the editing back in New York that you had to keep calm or things got a lot worse.
ST: You worked freelance for a while before working for Inside Tri and Triathlete from early 2010 until May of 2012. Had you had an interest in the sport before you started there?
Nils: I have always been drawn to endurance sports – I raced road bikes as a kid and still love that sport to this day. To be honest, triathlon wasn't really on my radar, except for XTERRA whom I have worked with for many years. I didn't shoot my first road triathlon until 2009 in Arizona at IMAZ. That event was an eye opener, the hours and effort were daunting but there was something about it that hooked me. I think it was the relative freedom to shoot from wherever you wanted. That is something not found in the major TV sports, you'd be amazed at how restrictive those events are to nearly all media. So shooting road triathlon was a breath of fresh air.
ST: Was it surprising for you when you learned that Inside Tri was going away, or did you have a vibe about that when you left?
Nils: Losing Inside Triathlon was a big loss for the triathlon community. It was a publication that always had huge potential but was hard press to find a large enough following to keep it alive.
ST: Now you have your own brand N2Photo Services and you do contract work for Ironman. Does owning your own brand match the expectations you may have had about it?
Nils: Owning my own company and building a brand has been an eye opening experience. There are nuances that you don’t think about and you really end up doing more than what you thought. When I started N2PHOTO Services in 2012 my goal was to create an identity separate from my personal one. My expectation then was very small and I was expecting a long road to achieve my goals. The traction I was able to generate in such a short time was really unexpected and I think my partnership with IRONMAN has helped validate my work. Opportunities like this still amazed me and I’m humbled to think people like to see what I create. Over the last year, I’ve found aligning with other professionals to help keep this thing going and that has been a big part in the growth. For instance I recently found legal counsel, as crazy as it sounds, and I never had an expectation of needing that.
ST: What is the toughest part about your job now? Is it invoicing and or chasing invoices?
Nils: Invoicing and sometimes having to chase invoices is definitely up there, but the toughest part of the job changes every day. On some days it’s the editing and others it’s the keeping up on expenses. Balancing my time between shooting, office work and family is always a challenge and something I’m still looking to achieve. It’s easy to get wrapped up in work and always want to send one more email or edit one more photo.
ST: What about copyright infringements?
Nils: Hot button topic alert! Man, copyright infringement is a constant battle for any image creator. I have found that the social media age we currently live in complicates it. Photographers, professional and enthusiasts alike, want to share what they create and do it instantly, but this blurs the lines between personal use and professional use. I believe a lot of the infringement stems from a lack of knowledge of copyright in general. People don’t want to “steal” they want to share and it’s on me and other photographers to educate the masses on how to do that legally.
ST: Do you really think people don't want to steal?
Nils: The short answer is yes, but I’m an optimist. My rule of thumb is give them the benefit until they exhibit other wise. You get a feel for who they are or what there company values are from the first response. When things get unruly, you just defer to someone who speaks the legal language.
ST: Do neighbors and other friends also reach out to you since you are the photo guy?
Nils: All my friends love to ask questions and I’m more than happy to answer. Photography is such a cool hobby and for friends and family to express interest, I want to encourage that. From what camera to buy to how to take a better photo, I get it all.
ST: You have taken many great images over the years, but are there any pictures you took that mean more to you and can you tell us more about these images?
Nils: Again, thank you. I’ve been fortunate to create and capture some amazing moments over the years. Picking out a few is tough. I think the image of Manny Huerta celebrating his 2012 Olympic spot at the finish line in San Diego is very special. The raw emotion and all the elements just came together.
Also, since working with IRONMAN, I’ve spearheaded creating a final-hour gallery for IRONMAN.com. These galleries have captured some very special moments and images. It’s all about the raw emotion and there is an abundance of that in the 16-17 finishing hour.
ST: Is there anything else we should know?
Nils: Herbert, I think you are pretty thorough. I would like to say thank you to all my clients. Without the opportunities they have provided me to work, we would not be talking now. It’s a special thing to earn a living doing something you love and to do it in a community like triathlon makes it even better. From the pro’s I’ve worked with to the age group athletes I’ve been fortunate to meet, being accepted has been a real treat. I do have a dirty little secret though; I never competed in a triathlon. I’m just not that into running or swimming. I’d rather push myself at a 24hr MTB race.