The Technical Ingenuity of National Geographic’s Photo Engineering Department

January 6, 2015

By David Walker

While working on a story about coral reefs several years ago, underwater photographer David Doubilet was trying to figure out a way to trigger cameras mounted on a retired military ship as it was scuttled to create an artificial reef off Key West, Florida. He planned to mount cameras on the deck to capture still images and time-lapse video as the ship sank, but for safety reasons, he had to trigger he cameras from a distance.

“You cannot—cannot—use a radio trigger,” he explains, because it could prematurely detonate the explosives being used to sink the ship.

He took the problem to National Geographic’s photographic engineering department, which for decades has helped photographers figure out how to make technically difficult images from land, sea and air, of subjects that are often too dangerous, elusive, or physically challenging to approach.

“Kenji and Dave put their heads together”—that’s Kenji Yamaguchi and David Mathews, who now comprise the entire engineering department staff—“and they said, ‘What about a toilet bowl float?’ So they attached a coil of wires with a toilet bowl float draped over the side of the ship, and as it begins to sink, the float pops up and turns the camera on.”

It was an ingenious work-around, elegant in its simplicity, and typical of the department’s creative problem-solving skills. Never mind that Doubilet unwittingly mounted one camera near one of the explosive charges, which blew the toilet float into the sky. It worked anyway. Doubilet recovered the cameras (which were protected by Nexus underwater housings) and NatGeo’s online audience was able to see the ship sink from an on-deck vantage point.

“What happens on the back of a cocktail napkin eventually becomes a published reality, and that journey is extraordinary,” Doubilet says. He adds, “It’s not enough to go someplace with camera and make images, you have to stretch your imagination” beyond what seems technically possible. They call the department of photo engineering.

“The ethos of the magazine is getting pictures of stuff that nobody has seen before,” says long-time contributor George Steinmetz. “These guys [in photo engineering] are the unsung heroes of the Geographic.”

The department, which is under the direction of deputy photo editor Ken Geiger, once employed ten or more engineers and technicians. It is now down to just two: Mathews, who was trained as an electronics specialist in the Navy before joining National Geographic nearly 20 years ago; and Yamaguchi, who joined nearly 32 years ago as a Nikon camera repairman. His skills as a technical problem solver are the result of accumulated experience under many of the department’s now-retired staff, he says. 

“My philosophy is, I’m always looking for the simple solution,” says Yamaguchi. “I don’t want to go through a whole bunch of trouble. If you make something [complicated], if anything goes wrong out in the field, what would you do?” 

Long-time NatGeo contributor Michael (Nick) Nichols has depended on Yamaguchi and Mathews for his recent projects, notably his work on the lions of the Serengeti and on Yellowstone National Park, the story he’s currently working on. “He’s one of our big customers,” Mathews says. Nichols says “every cool picture” in the Serengeti project has Yamaguchi’s and Mathews’ fingerprints on it. “You wouldn’t know my name if I hadn’t been able to dream about these big pictures that require resources, and they get no credit at all. It’s not me. It’s a team,” Nichols says. 

Paul Nicklen, who is best known for his close-up images of cold-climate wildlife, including polar bears, grizzly bears and seals, says photographers typically limit themselves to what’s possible to shoot with the gear they have. But with his access to NatGeo’s photo engineering department, “You ask yourself, ‘What pictures do I want to make?’ and then work backwards. You can dream up any shot you want, and as long as you give them enough warning,” they’ll help figure out how to shoot it.

One of his most iconic images shows a polar bear swimming under an ice floe. The water was too cold for diving, not to mention the danger of swimming with polar bears. So photo engineering set Nicklen up with a camera in an underwater housing, mounted on a pole, with a video feed to a computer that Nicklen used to control his camera from the surface. “They gave me a virtual reality setup that nobody else was making at the time,” he says.

Nicklen, who won the London Natural History Museum’s (NHM) Wildlife Photographer of the Year Award in 2012 for an underwater shot of emperor penguins, says the pole camera’s computer controls and video feed allow him to control aperture and shutter speed, frame shots and trigger the camera from a laptop at a distance of “10 to 500 feet.” (The department has been perfecting pole cameras since Doubilet got the department to rig one for him to shoot inside the mouth of a great white shark more than 30 years ago.)

And then there are the ever-more-sophisticated camera traps, which have enabled Nicklen and other photographers—most notably Nick Nichols and Steve Winter—to leave cameras in the wild for days or weeks on end so they can capture images of lions and tigers and bears as they walk by.

Winter, for instance, shot a story about snow leopards in northern India in 2008. The conditions were nearly impossible because of the rough, steep terrain, the altitude (up to 18,000 feet), the temperatures (as low as -40 degrees Fahrenheit at night) and the notorious elusiveness of the cats. He spent 13 months on the story, shooting exclusively with 14 camera traps customized by the photo engineering department. He got just eight pictures, but one of those images won him the NHM Wildlife Photographer of the Year honors in 2008.

“I could not do what I do without their help,” Winter says of the photo engineering department. He has shot other stories about big cats and megafauna all over the world using camera traps (he’s currently working on a story about leopards from Siberia to South Africa).  

He marvels at his success rate with gear modified by the engineering department. “I have to have camera traps that work in heat, cold, and rain,” he says, adding, “99 percent of the time, everything works.” 

The improvements have been incremental. When he first started, he says, “We used to put flashes [for the camera traps] in plastic bags, until Kenji said, ‘This will fit in a PVC pipe.’” The engineering department promptly machined parts and made connectors, and suddenly it was possible to shoot with the traps in Asia during monsoon season.

In the past year or so, Yamaguchi and Mathews finally came across a reliable and affordable transmitter for firing camera trap strobes wirelessly. “I knew they wanted wireless strobes, but it was too much money,” Yamaguchi says. Nichols points out that it’s not a matter of just buying off-the-shelf tools, such as Pocket Wizards and Trailmaster remote camera triggers, and expecting them to work. “A lot of this stuff is not built for what we put it through,” Nichols says.

The photo engineering department hacks those tools to make them more dependable, and in the case of batteries, longer-lasting. Those improvements have enabled photographers to leave camera traps unattended for weeks, eliminated their frustrations over animals chewing though strobe wires, and given them the ability to use numerous wireless strobes with each camera trap. Rather than a maximum of three hard-wired strobes, they can light entire environments.

Nichols, who is now at work on what he says will be his last story for National Geographic—about the ecosystem of Yellowstone National Park—says photo engineering’s improvements to camera traps now enable photographers to compose and light images of animals in their natural habitats that look like museum dioramas. Nichols has been taking it a step further, combining remote cameras with infrared lights, as well as using spy cameras without visible light, to avoid any disturbance to the animals. “With some creatures you just cannot use light,” he says. “So the whole concept has to become about nothing being there.” 

A particular challenge for the Yellowstone project is photographing wolves, which are notoriously elusive. Nichols used robot cameras and drones to great advantage on his last project about the lions of the Serengeti. But drones are illegal in U.S. national parks, and while the National Park Service chose to allow Nichols access because his photography supports research being conducted by biologists, out of concern for the wolves, the Park Service imposed strict conditions on how he uses remote cameras to monitor wolf dens: the cameras have to be out of reach of the wolves, they can produce no sound or light, they must have no external cables, and Nichols must leave them in place without checking them for at least three months.

To heed their restrictions, Nichols called Yamaguchi, who told him National Geographic’s research division—which has its own engineering department—had already built remote cameras to those specifications for an earlier (but fruitless) effort to photograph ivory-billed woodpeckers in Arkansas. (Whether the birds are extinct—or if a few continue to survive—is subject to debate.) 

Nichols plans to deploy the remote cameras this spring and recover them in early summer. He’s hoping to capture intimate, emotional images of wolves and their pups as a contribution to the ongoing debate about the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone. If the remote cameras are successful, “The images will provide an important view to the researchers as well as media,” he says. His story about Yellowstone is currently scheduled for publication in the May 2016 issue of National Geographic.

The photo engineering department was also behind Nichols on his last high-profile project, about lions of the Serengeti, published in August 2013. “The stuff I could shoot by holding the camera, with a long lens, the world has seen a million times,” he says. He wanted to document a single pride of lions at close range, which required a heavily modified Land Rover, remote-controlled camera cars and camera drones.

Though an Africa-based Land Rover specialist made structural modifications to the Land Rover, the rest was all the photo engineering department. About the process of figuring out solutions, Mathews says, “Some of it is trial-and-error, some of it is mechanical design.” But the basic questions are usually these: What’s an appropriate camera platform? And how do we trigger the cameras remotely? We have to think about how to take an image from the camera and transmit it back to the photographer so that he can compose the photo and fire the camera.”

“We employ different techniques to get that done,” depending upon the environment and conditions, Mathews continues. Although the engineering department has a machine shop for fabricating just about anything from scratch, most solutions start with off-the-shelf gear they purchase, then improve and continually modify.

Mathews says the department takes new technology—often consumer-grade tools, such as drones, when they were first available at an affordable price—and combines it with professional camera gear.

To photograph lions from their perspective, photo engineering purchased two off-the-shelf remote-controlled cars for about $600 each. Walter Boggs—an engineering department employee who has since retired—spent nearly a year modifying them with video and still cameras and infrared lights so Nichols could photograph the lions on the dark, moonless nights when they were most active, and a Wi-Fi-enabled video monitor so he could control the cameras via computer from the safety of the Land Rover.

“We made one of the signature pictures [of the story] on the third day” using a camera car, Nichols says. But ultimately it lacked the power and ground clearance he needed. So he talked National Geographic into buying and modifying a 40-pound robotic vehicle that ran on tank treads.

The camera drone was also a challenge. Although camera drones are now widely available, off-the-shelf drones capable of carrying heavy professional cameras were unavailable in 2011, when Nichols started the project. “There was a popular camera copter that came as a kit,” Mathews says. But it vibrated too much, and was capable of carrying nothing heavier than a point-and-shoot camera. “The quality of imagery wasn’t there.”

The photo engineering department tried all kinds of modifications, including varying the size and orientation of the propellers, adding motors, lengthening the craft to stabilize it, and modifying the shock absorbers to insulate the camera from vibration. Eventually, they were able to get it to fly with a Canon EOS 5D, and Nichols used it to shoot some landscapes. The effort was an example of how photo engineering takes emerging technology and pushes the limits on behalf of photographers.

Between the big projects, Mathews and Yamaguchi research new technology that might improve the pole cameras, camera traps, drones and other gear they’ve already modified. Mathews says he’s always on the lookout for new micro controllers (computer chips) that give photographers better control over remote cameras and other gear. “Sometimes we have to do something as quickly as possible, then it comes back in the door, and we have time to ask: How can we do this better?” 

Yamaguchi and Mathews are also working constantly on making power supplies for cameras, strobes, and other gear more dependable and longer-lasting. They have mastered sleep-mode hacks to all sorts of gear, to preserve battery power in the bush. And when we spoke with Yamaguchi in October, he was busy wiring lithium ion battery packs for a popular brand of strobes that were lighter than the OEM battery packs, and one-quarter the cost. 

But to the dismay of long-time NatGeo contributors, many of whom attribute the magazine’s success in no small part to the photo engineering department, the department’s future is unclear. Staff has been cut by attrition. The department’s budget is shrinking, and may be cut even more in the coming year, as National Geographic grapples with declining print revenues.

“These guys have made it where I can do this stuff, and I love ’em to death. This can’t go away. You can’t be National Geographic without this,” Nichols asserts. “If someone discovers the last ivory-billed woodpecker, you better figure out a way to photograph it.”

Doubilet says, “Regardless of wonderful or amazing [gear] you can buy on the Internet, photographers will always dream of taking it one step farther, which means that photo engineering need never go out of business.” 

But it will be administrators, not photographers, who determine the department’s future. Asked what he thinks of the department’s prospects, Yamaguchi says, “If you find out, let me know.”

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