EDIT: That's all folks! Thanks so much for your time and questions! I (Tom OBrien) can be found on Instagram @mechanicalphoto. There I blog about my work and my adventures! Hi, we’re both engineers at National Geographic’s imaging lab!

I’m Kyler Abernathy (pictured left), the Director of Research, Exploration Technology. I collaborate with scientists worldwide supporting wildlife research with the use of specialized cameras, like Crittercams that can be worn by all kinds of animals—on land and underwater—collecting video to learn about the hidden parts of animals' lives. Footage from Crittercams deployed on emperor penguins appeared in “March of the Penguins.”

And I’m Tom O’Brien (pictured right), the Photo Engineer (a mechanical engineer) working for National Geographic Magazine. I design and build custom photography equipment, such as camera traps and robotic camera systems, for National Geographic photographers of all types (portraiture, underwater, adventure, etc.) all over the world. Sometimes I get requests for typical camera gear that’s needed in XYZ country in 3 days, and other times, I have to fabricate the custom equipment myself. Follow me on instagram @Mehcanicalphoto for more insights to what I do and what we get up to in the basement.

We’ve both been tinkering away in the imaging lab at the National Geographic headquarters for a combined total of 20 years. Ask us anything!

Read more about inventions that changed wildlife photography: https://on.natgeo.com/2NnKD2p

Proof: https://i.redd.it/p1l0wxnr97811.jpg https://twitter.com/NatGeo/status/1015237016349560832

Comments: 518 • Responses: 59  • Date: 

Korinja344 karma

What camera are you most proud of creating?

nationalgeographic735 karma

Tom here:

Unfortunately the best thing I have created yet has produced images that are not published yet so I can't really talk about it too much! It was a robotic bird camera though!

-T

wuanlai654288 karma

How do you retrieve your cameras from mariner lifes?

nationalgeographic541 karma

Most of our Crittercams automatically release from the animals, both marine and terrestrial. The marine ones have to be built to float up to the surface where they can send out a radio signal that we track to recovery them. KJA

nationalgeographic160 karma

Hello this is Tom OBrien, the Photo Engineer for NGM. I'll be signing my replies "T"

We'll start responding at 1200 EST

:D

2walkTheMoon158 karma

Amateur photographer here! How does focusing a lens work on camera traps? You don't really know where the animal is going to be relative to the camera and you're not around to press the autofocus button. Is it completely manual focus with a large depth of field and just hope for the best?

nationalgeographic226 karma

Tom here:

Solid question!!!

So we actually focus the cameras manually ahead of time to where we expect the animal to be then we leave it there! We usually shoot probably between F/5.6 & F/11. It really depends on the subject and background, it is always different!

Thanks man!

-T

S1NERGY108 karma

First of all, thank you for sharing your passion and creating breathtaking images!

My Question: Has the advent of readily available modular gimbals brought about any new ways of viewing old things that you all find particularly remarkable?

I am a drone operator and the most fascinating thing for me is when you see something you think you know in a completely different light and it teaches you new things.

nationalgeographic85 karma

Tom here:

Yes, it totally has changed things! I like using gimbals as remote controlled camera turret platforms for animal work!

-T

ManCubb102 karma

Do sharks and penguins like having cameras attached to them? Do the cameras bother the animals at all? Is making sure the cameras don't interfere with the animals a design point for you guys? And lastly, how long do the cameras usually stay attached to the animals?

nationalgeographic151 karma

I don't know if I can say any of the animals 'like' wearing the Crittercams but we make a big effort to make sure they don't hurt the animals or impede their normal activities. If we bother the animals too much it defeats the whole purpose of trying to document 'natural' behavior. How long the cams stay on varies depending on the project.

suaveitguy59 karma

Where does Kubrick's famous NASA Zeiss f/0.7 lens stand today? Is it still a rare and unique lens, or is it something that has been recreated or bested since?

nationalgeographic83 karma

Tom here:

Tough question !

So it is still very rare but now very old. Here's the thing. Old glass is great! It can make wonderful contrasts and wonderful images but if you want sharpeness and full usage of modern high MP sensors then you really need to use new glass typically (at least in the still photography world). Old glass was not made to the same tolerances that we can pull off with modern technology. I do love old glass and we have some cool, rare old glass in my shop downstairs here at NGM HQ! You can find more stuff like that on my IG @mechanicalphoto

-T

nationalgeographic52 karma

(Tom Here)I should note that I do not work on Crittercams.....I design and build custom photography equipment and systems for the NGM photographers and supply them with any equipment they may need. Kyler is the person to respond to crittercam questions as he runs that program :D-T

Feel free to follow me on Instagram @Mechanicalphoto where I blog about my work!

disposable-name38 karma

Are you designing actual cameras or just houses and mounts?

How does it feel competing with the BBC?

nationalgeographic83 karma

Tom here. Good question!

So to be honest, NG has been doing wildlife photography and animal born imaging longer than anyone else. We pioneered the Crittercam about 30 years ago. The BBC is a wonderful company and I personally love the stuff they make! We don't compete directly really. Our crittercams are much more science and conservation focused. We try to make a meaningful impact in how we protect species!

AThoughtfulUser33 karma

How hard or easy is it to waterproof these camera’s you put on the animals? How many meters can it withstand?

nationalgeographic71 karma

Pressure is one of the biggest challenges with sending any tech into the ocean. We have to put serious thought into the design to make the systems survive that environment. Our basic system has been tested down to 1000m, but we've built special systems that can go deeper. KJA

-_fin_-30 karma

How did you find your way into this particular field?

nationalgeographic78 karma

Tom here:

As a mechanical engineer I have worked in various fields from DoD to construction to energy work...I happened to be looking for a new job and came across this opening. My predecessor, Kenji Yamaguchi (https://www.nationalgeographic.com/photography/proof/2014/12/04/the-magic-starts-here-kenjis-workshop-of-camera-wizardry/)

was retiring after 37 years at the Geographic!!!

This is the best job I have ever had!

-T

nationalgeographic26 karma

Hello all, This is Kyler Abernathy. I'll start answering questions soon. I'll sign as 'KJA'. cheers, KJA

Zyphit23 karma

Will any of your shark cameras have lasers on them?

nationalgeographic68 karma

Maybe, if someone gives us 'one million dollars'! KJA

talynone22 karma

Has the Fox purchase of NatGeo affected anything in your day to day? Do you anticipate any changes with the upcoming Disney purchase?

nationalgeographic23 karma

I (Tom of NGP) cannot comment on the upcoming potential purchase/merger.

I came on board post the 21CF acquisition and I don't have any issues with it!

nationalgeographic19 karma

Well WOW!

Thank you EVERYONE!

It's been a blast!

-T

gekogekogeko17 karma

How do you attach a camera to a shark?

nationalgeographic33 karma

We use a clamp that grips onto their dorsal fin (the big fin on their back).

_BindersFullOfWomen_17 karma

If I wanted to attach a camera to my cat, how feasible is that? He's tiny, so I'd need something lighter than a GoPro Hero

nationalgeographic34 karma

Get a gopro session or a drone FPV camera

-T

BlakersGirl16 karma

How did you get where you are? I’m a incoming freshman in college and I hope to do something like you to do.

nationalgeographic30 karma

Do the standard things, take relevant classes, find internships or volunteer opportunities that get you hands-on experience. Then keep your eyes open for opportunity! Most of the most significant direction changes that happened in my career were things that came up unexpectedly and I chose to take a leap. KJA

ROIDBOT14 karma

ELI5, how do you keep the lenses clear from debris and animal slobber?

nationalgeographic42 karma

In the ocean it's a bit easier - the lens is always getting 'washed'. We have brainstormed lots of lens cleaning ideas but none have been truly practical. Mostly we cross our fingers! While there have been some problems with lenses getting covered it's actually less often than we feared. In some cases the animals have actually cleaned the lenses for us as they groomed themselves! KJA

mastakillem13 karma

What type of cameras do you use? What’s the resolution? Pixels?

nationalgeographic22 karma

Tom here: for NGM we use all sorts of pixel counts. Typically for Print we need at least 12MP but we regularly these days use cameras (in 35MM size) as high as 40MP.

We use all brands of cameras really, Canon, Nikon, Sony, Olympus, DXO, etc etc etc

nationalgeographic19 karma

We've used many different cameras over the years. Currently we have options to set resolution in the camera anywhere from 640x480 'standard def', up to 1920x1080, also with variable frame rates. We decide what resolution is appropriate for a particular projects needs, and the trade-offs on power consumption and memory. KJA

photoengineer11 karma

With technology continuing to advance, what are some types of cameras you hope to do in the next 5 years that have been technologically infeasible up to now?

nationalgeographic30 karma

The biggest hurdle for Crittercams these days is power. The biggest, heaviest part of most of our systems are the batteries. And being limited by how big/heavy a system we can put on an animal limits how much we can record and how long the systems can be carried. Better power management helps but we really need a breakthrough in battery technology so we can study long-term things like migrations and/or do more with smaller animals. KJA

lloveliet11 karma

Is there a specific picture taken by a crittercam that surprised you?

nationalgeographic30 karma

My very first Crittercam project was with leatherback sea turtles in Costa Rica. We saw mating behaviors that were assumed to take place at a different time and maybe thousands of miles away. The whole team was surprised! That's the cool thing about this work. We often really know so little about these animals' lives that the Crittercams can overturn what we think we know or show us things that we hadn't even considered. KJA

itspeterj11 karma

Have you ever had a camera get eaten by a bigger predator while it was attached to an animal?

nationalgeographic43 karma

A frequently asked question! My main answer is 'Not that we know of', but there have been Crittercams we never got back, so we don't know what happened to them. One great white shark did circle back around after the Crittercam fell off and bit at it. The cam was still running and we have footage looking down the throat of a white shark! KJA

divijk10 karma

How (and where) do you attach Crittercams on fish and other underwater animals?

nationalgeographic21 karma

Different ways, depending on the animal. Fin clamps on sharks and some fish, suction cups on whales, some turtles and mantas, glue for most seals and some turtles. We even made some 'spanx' to put Crittercams on squid! KJA

those_pesky_kids8 karma

As you consider designing cameras for new species of animals, how much of existing designs are you able to start with? Do you take the same basic camera design for birds, for example, and alter the mount based on the specific bird? Or do you need to start at a more basic level each time?

nationalgeographic13 karma

We have a few core model Crittercams that we can use with a variety of animals by modifying the attachment. Sometimes a project comes up that forces us to start a whole new design, but we're always trying to make the units multi-purpose. There are a lot of cool animals and we've only got a small team so we go for biggest 'bang' for effort. KJA

theymadethat8 karma

Wow I didn't realize that NatGeo used custom cameras!

Anyways I'm working on an IMDB for everything. It's called TheyMadeThat (https://theymadethat.com)

I was wondering if I can get permission to use pictures of the cameras you guys made to make entries on TheyMadeThat? That way people can see the technical side of NatGeo as well as the people behind the work and which shows and articles used your cameras.

EDIT: here's a sample entry https://theymadethat.com/people/wz5b9z/edwin-h-land

nationalgeographic3 karma

Heck yes we do!

Tom here:

Cool concept for a site!

Reach out to me on my IG so we can chat maybe. @mechanicalphoto

Cheers,

-T

_yinzer6 karma

Are there any projects you really want to work on, but are limited by camera technology or haven't engineered a way to do it yet?

BTW: I follow Tom's Instagram (@mechanicalphoto). It's fascinating. You should definitely plug your IGs in the OP.

nationalgeographic16 karma

Tom here:

Thanks!

Hmmmmm...*scratches chin*...I'd love to work on a project with sea turtles (may actually be doing this soon) or work on a project that places cameras in more extreme environments (i.e. space, near lava, industrial areas).......in terms of limited by technology.....I haven't been stopped yet! Normally if I am being honest the real world budgets get in the way more than technology!

Best,

-T

Public_Fucking_Media4 karma

Are there any animals that have proven to be "unconquerable" by you? What is the most recent technical innovation that allowed you to capture something you could not before?

nationalgeographic13 karma

Birds are really challenging since they are very limited in the extra weight we can ask them to carry. A small, lightweight system is more limited in what it can do and we then have to decide if there is really something significant to be learned with those limitations - is it worth it to put them on a wild bird? Birds complicate recovery too as they can travel so far, so fast.

infraninja4 karma

  • Do you have to watch all the excruciatingly long footage to extract the important parts? Or is there a way to automatically extract that 1min clip out of the 72 hours footage?
  • How closely do you work with companies like Kodak, Canon to let them know what you need in your next lens/body?

nationalgeographic11 karma

We do end up watching a LOT of footage, and quite a lot of it is pretty boring! But knowing that AT ANY MINUTE something really cool could happen, keeps you going. There are some programs that can do limited types of automated detection but I haven't seen anything yet I would trust to find all the good bits. KJA

Bonkerton_54 karma

are the animals tame?

nationalgeographic12 karma

We sometimes test equipment on tame or trained animals but our program is aimed at working with wild animals, in cooperation with expert researchers, to learn more about them.

Snowblxnd4 karma

What is the demand like for virtual reality cameras? If you do work on those, what particular challenges have you faced? I've been doing work with a statuonary 360° VR camera with six lenses, and once in a while I try to imagine the work put in to generate a stereoscopic panorama.

Thanks for taking the time to answer some questions on here!

nationalgeographic11 karma

Tom here:

Lower than one might imagine actually! I have built a system that can trigger a twin lens 360 camera at about a half mile for use with migratory birds last year!

-T

Anonnymoose734 karma

Is there any work being done to try to build critter cams that would be able to film at depths with low/no natural light (to capture sperm whale hunts, for example) or would every workable solution interfere too much with natural behavior?

nationalgeographic12 karma

We have done work with sperm whales. Some of our systems have built-in lights. We usually use red light as we think it's less disturbing than white light. Red light doesn't go far in water though, so with the sperm whales we included an image-intensifier in the system. It amps up incoming light by a factor of thousands. It's also a power pig, so not very practical except in the case of a large animal like a sperm whale. Lights probably do affect the animals to some degree, but in some cases there just isn't any way to get the images without adding it. KJA

SeafoodNoodles3 karma

What kind of materials did you discover you could use in these cameras that might be suprising?

Whats the design process for a camera that can go deep under water? Is the housing just super strong and sealed, or do you design any flex, pressure release(like a pelican case), or elastic deformation in?

nationalgeographic7 karma

Tom here:

I know about most materials I use. For ease of fabrication we use a lot of Aluminum alloys and then when stuff gets tough we work with 316L SS. Typically we don't design in flex for work underwater.

-T

coldize3 karma

How do you see wildlife photography contributing to the advancement of science?

nationalgeographic10 karma

Tom here: Replying for both.

Imagery is information and data! Images from scientific cameras on animals and even ones shot by photographers have information about animal behavior and health that is useful to scientists and conservationists! Also photography is a wonderful tool to convey the importance of science to the masses!

-T

RTMAL113 karma

What is the most unique request you have received from a photographer in the field?

nationalgeographic6 karma

Tom here....oh boy....what a loaded question hahaha

I get MANY weird and wacky requests all the time but here are a few....

  • wolf proof camera traps
  • robotic Sage Grouse camera train platform (I really built this haha) (EDIT: this is the most unique thing ever)
  • robotic gimbal platform for shooting pictures of endangered birds

-T

reelbigcasey3 karma

Do you always get your cameras back? It seems like jungles and harsh environments can be pretty unpredictable. Also, how much can these cameras and lenses cost to create?

nationalgeographic13 karma

Tom here:

Oh yeah.....so not always but usually I get them back.....HOWEVER (haha) they don't always come back in one piece or are impregnated with mud or saltwater. Our photogs go to some pretty nutty places!

-T

suaveitguy2 karma

What is the best Macguyvering in the field you have seen when there's a technical problem or limit?

nationalgeographic3 karma

Tom here;

Hmmmmmm honestly I don't know but I can tell you that some of the best things to have are .....

  • stainless steel hose clamps
  • a leatherman multitool
  • ZIPTIES ALL THE ZIPTIES
  • Gaff tape (Man's greatest gift haha)
  • Underwater repair epoxy from Loctite (this stuff is amazing)
  • a Multimeter
  • electrical tape
  • razor blades

*Hums the Macgyver theme song*

HristiHomeboy2 karma

Is it possible that some sort of AI operated cameras would be created and if so would you see a practical use to use them or would you prefer to film everything the way you do it now?

nationalgeographic3 karma

Tom here:

Could be used for advanced camera traps if the PC running the AI could be made to use very very little power...power is really one of our hardest constraints to work with for both Kyler and myself.

-T

Thousands_of_Spiders2 karma

Do you guys have any suggestions for the best way to film a stone skipping on water? I'm planning to some day make an attempt at the world record and I'll have to figure this out before I can make that happen. Thank you.

Here's a link to the current record: https://youtu.be/S1KfuErAcj0

nationalgeographic5 karma

Tom here:

I'd say a high speed camera perpendicular to the direction the stone is going. Chronos is a nice more open source one that won't break the bank. Do it in a well lit pool room or outside as highspeed cameras need tons of light!

-T

MrDickPickles2 karma

How many woods could a wood chuck chuck ? If he could chuck or would chuck wood ?

nationalgeographic6 karma

I'd reckon if he was a fusion powered wood chuck then I reckon roughly all of the wood on Earth. :P

Bertozoid2 karma

What was your journey like to going into such a specific engineering role? Do both of you have engineering degrees?

nationalgeographic7 karma

I'm actually formally educated and trained as a biologist but got interested in using technology as a way to learn more about animal behavior. Fortunately I hooked up with a program focused on developing tech for research - with professional engineers. I've learned a lot about technology in the course of this job and particularly about putting it to use in really odd and difficult situations. KJA

rdrivel2 karma

What’s the most useful toy... I mean tool in your shop?

nationalgeographic5 karma

Tom here:

I'd say I use my MIND the most haha

For real though I use the Birdgeport mills the most probably. Our 3D printer is also great to use when you are tight on time.

-T

N8teface2 karma

Hey Kyler & Tom! Do you have any tips for setting up wildlife camera traps?

nationalgeographic3 karma

Tom here:

Well first go build some traps, then find where animals are, then set them up....then fail....then try again and again.

Camera trapping is very much a time and luck based pursuit. I don't have any direct tips I can share but there are some resources on the web if you do some digging!

Best of luck!

-T

gnafkcin2 karma

Were you the guys that worked on the polar bear cam that had a a snowball camera that could be dropped as a decoy?

nationalgeographic2 karma

No, I believe that was maybe a subcontractor for the BBC...in the states I saw it was broadcast on PBS....not sure?

egoistisch2 karma

What was the most dangerous attatchment you guys have done?

nationalgeographic3 karma

Honestly, I don't find the animals to be the big danger. We're respectful and careful because these are wild animals but most of the scariest situations just involve a bad decision I've made. 'I probably shouldn't have climbed up this cliff to try to get better range on the radio tracking gear . . . " We often work in really remote places and have to remember that there is no 911 and a nearby hospital that can save you from your own bad decisions. KJA

newmug2 karma

Would you guys consider making a camera to mount on a submarine, or the underside of a ship? It would be really cool to see the man-made effects on the sea-scape!

nationalgeographic4 karma

There are companies that make special gear for that kind of use, though one research team did mount one of our Crittercams on the bottom of a ferry in Scandinavia to document what was causing problems with a deep scanning sonar device they were using that kept having problems. KJA

dusty-af1 karma

Leave animals alone perhaps?

nationalgeographic2 karma

How do we protect them if we don't know anything about them? KJA

suckingalemon1 karma

Could you get into this sort of career with out a mechanical engineering degree?

I'm a science student (chemistry) and feel like I want to make something.

nationalgeographic2 karma

Tom here:

Just GO MAKE THINGS! Get good with tools and work with your hands. Creating with my hands and mind is one of the most fulfilling parts of my life! Anyone can do it!

-T

dharmaville1 karma

How did you get your jobs and what did you study in school?

nationalgeographic2 karma

Tom here: I studied Mechanical Engineering at Lehigh University. I responded to the how in a previous question.

mpassadore131 karma

Price aside, what consumer camera brand do you trust most?

nationalgeographic2 karma

Tom here:

NG picks NO favorites but PERSONALLY I prefer Nikon for the amazing durability.

We use a TON of Canon in house and also Nikon and Sony for pro bodies/glass.

-T

Tamespotting1 karma

What are your hobbies away from work? I only ask because I'm interested in what someone with such cool and specialized careers do in their private time.

nationalgeographic3 karma

Private time? Does sleeping count? KJA

nationalgeographic2 karma

Tom here:

I enjoy photography, live music, playing ice hockey and exploring the world...also love a good pint of beer !

-T

Sloshake0 karma

I’m looking for an adventurous 1-2 week vacation this year. Where do you recommend I go and what activities should I do?

nationalgeographic1 karma

Check out Nat Geo Travel online or our expeditions that we run! Give it a google

-T

Uoop0 karma

Have you ever considered attaching a camera to the deadliest creature of all time; Man?

nationalgeographic1 karma

ITS CALLED A GOPRO.....or spy cam haha