National Geographic photographer Nick Nichols is working on a new project in Africa, photographing Serengeti lions. But this assignment is something new, even for a magazine known for pushing the boundaries of photography. Backed up by a team of National Geographic experts, Nichols is deploying a remotely operated miniature helicopter to dangle a camera above a pride of predator, and a toy car to drive a camera within a paw swat of the big cats. The results he hopes for: pictures of Africa’s wild lions such as no one has ever seen.
News Watch interviews Ken Geiger, National Geographic’s deputy director of photography, about the new technologies the Magazine is testing in Africa.
What’s so special about this assignment?
People may not realize what kind of technology goes into making some of the photographs for National Geographic magazine. We are all about dreaming up fantastic photographs that not only tell stories, but also bring unique visual imagery to articles in a way that no one else has seen before. Then we have to custom build the camera platforms to make the dreams a reality.
Lions sunning themselves on kopje looking over the Serengeti Plains; seeing a herd of wildebeest from a bird’s-eye view. Those aren’t things you can just walk up to and shoot. But with a micro-copter and lions habituated to the sound of the electric rotors, you’ll be able to hover 15 feet in the air and actually do that dream wide-angle shot of lions on top of the rocks with the plains in the background. At least that’s the hope and the whole idea of sinking an incredible amount of time and development into using the micro-copter camera in Africa—pushing the envelope of photo technology to make photographs in ways that have never been seen before.
What kind of camera is on the micro-copter?
It has a Canon Rebel T2i mounted underneath it. It’s a small, 18 megapixel digital SLR. It’s an entry-level DSLR, but it was picked because it’s lightweight and yet still has full functionality and the resolution we need for reproduction in NGM. (Watch a video of how the micro-copter works.)
And I guess with a big memory card?
We use 16 GB compact flash cards, which are plenty large enough, considering the average flight time is not much more than ten minutes, and CF cards are easily changed between flights.
Apart from the micro-copter, Nick is using a remotely operated vehicle, right?
We have two radio-controlled cars right now, clones of each other. Nick has been using these modified remote vehicles to photograph lions from the ground—basically trying to get a lion’s perspective at life in the pride.
Normally you’d have a photographer running around in a 4×4, and you’d get the same perspective as you’re relegated to in the safety of your vehicle. Nick is trying to push the envelope not only in the air, but also on the ground. So we have modified a small, off-the-shelf remote-controlled car—a kind of dune buggy that you can purchase in a hobby shop. But we’ve equipped it with a video camera, still camera, infrared lights, all sorts of things to try to shoot lions from their perspective.
How’s that working out?
Really well. Nick made some unique and interesting pictures of cubs and lionesses. He’s able to slowly creep the electric car up to them, allow the lions to get used to the presence of the car and camera rig, and then start making photographs. The car’s been modified: It’s got a fiberglass cover on it to protect the camera package, the wheels, and the electronics—to make it a little bit more lion proof. Lions are just big, inquisitive cats, and the remote car makes for a great toy for inquisitive cubs.
We’ve changed the gear ratio, so that instead of a fast, little electric cart that was meant to go around a race course at high speeds, it creeps and moves very slowly and cautiously into the lions’ area. Nick is able to see through the camera via a video feed to a laptop and use that live video feed to see what he is photographing. He can remotely focus, change exposure, and completely control the camera functions, as if he were holding the camera in his hands.
And the vehicle can traverse all kinds of terrain?
It does to a certain point. This is a little, four-wheel-drive hobbyist race car that has been modified by Walter Boggs in our photo engineering department. Off the shelf it probably cost about $600, but with six months’ worth of development and reengineering, it’s now a camera platform for Nick’s imagination. It’s been tricked out well beyond what went into the micro-copter, to the point of it not being recognizable as a little dune buggy. But the small platform has its own problems—ground clearance and power—because it’s just a modified little race car with a beefed-up suspension.
So when Nick returns to Africa in January, we’re building him something more robust that’s going to handle the terrain and the tall grass much better. It’s going to be a heavier unit, more in the 40-pound range, and it will have tank tracks on it, rather than four wheels. It’s a solid metal platform with all the electronics protected inside, and the camera mounted on top. So if a big, cranky male lion decides it’s going to eat it, maybe, just maybe, the vehicle will survive the attack.
A lot of the equipment used by National Geographic for photographers in the field is developed by engineers in a special workshop in Washington, D.C., who report to you. Could you tell a little about that process?
You’re also using camera traps for Nick’s lions story. Is there any new technology involved in those?
Camera traps are pretty standard fare on most NGM mammal stories. Nick is the master and uses them very effectively. Something new for us, however, is that we have incorporated live video feed off some of the camera traps.
Nick was trying to shoot the wildebeest crossings on the Mara River in the northern Serengeti. Instead of using passive camera traps, where the animal triggers the camera by crossing an invisible beam, essentially taking its own photograph, he needed and tried something different for temperamental wildebeest during their migration.
With wildebeest, you never know when they will actually cross the river. They keep walking up and down the riverbank, waiting for some invisible sign to trigger the mass river crossing. If you set up set passive camera traps in this type of scenario, the wildebeest would just burn through compact flash cards, regardless of how big a card you have. Kenji Yamaguchi and Dave Mathews, both with our photo engineering department, designed and built a new type of trap, so Nick and Nathan Williamson could set up camera traps with a view of the river crossing—equipped with live video feed. That allowed them to drive off a short distance, monitor the camera traps remotely, and actually see what the camera was seeing.
Then when the river crossings start, with the live video feed in the camera they were able to trigger the multiple still and video cameras they had set up to capture the wildebeest jumping off the cliffs into the river and swimming across—while actually viewing what was going on in the camera viewfinders. That’s the first time we’ve used camera traps like that.
Does Nick have Mission Control back in his vehicle, with a lot of monitors to track the various camera platforms and equipment?
Yes, he does. The 4×4 that Nick and his team use on the Serengeti is totally tricked out with dual alternators and extra batteries. It has plugs everywhere to power and recharge all the cameras and electrical devices—electricity is in very short supply while tent camping in the African bush. Thus the truck is the sole means to power all things digital.
It’s quite sophisticated. All the video displays for the remote cameras and the micro-copter are built into waterproof and dust-proof Pelican cases, which can be plugged directly into outlets in the truck. And one display can view multiple devices with the use of control switches built into the boxes. The different video feeds coming out of camera trap one, two, three, etc, can be switched on the fly. So they are ready to go, and depending on where the wildebeest cross, they’re ready to shoot with the flip of a switch. They just have to be within distance to pick up the video feed off the cameras.
What technologies are you using to shoot at night?
Lions are nocturnal predators; trying to photograph them without disturbing them and their prey is a challenge. If you turn on a big spotlight to create enough light to photograph, what happens? You may be able to see the lions, but the prey animals can also see the lions, thereby changing the behavior of all involved in the hunt. So you want to be able to photograph the lions without disrupting their natural behavior, and that means switching to thermal and infrared photography.
We’ve modified normal digital cameras to shoot infrared. If you remove the anti-aliasing and infrared filters that are standard on every digital camera sensor, you have a camera that’s capable of gathering a broader spectrum of light than is possible to see with the human eye. Camera manufacturers constrain sensors to capture only visible light. We modify and replace the daylight-bias filtering with an infrared filter so that the camera captures only the infrared spectrum. That camera, coupled with strobes or spotlights filtered for infrared, allows you to photograph in the dark without disturbing the natural behavior of the animals.
National Geographic has a long legacy. Hasn’t a lot of this know-how been developed over the years for many magazine stories? Do you build on that legacy of figuring out what off-the-shelf technology pieces and parts are available, and take all your experience over the years and build something new for a story?
Every time a photographer gets ready to go out into the field to solve a visual problem, capture an image that has never been captured before, we apply our collective years of experience, both successes and failures, with the newest technologies, to create the custom tools needed to make great photographs.
That’s what’s going on here: Nick’s experience in the field, his willingness to experiment and explore and use every tool possible to tell a story that our readers haven’t seen before. For Nick it’s not about the technology, it’s all about capturing a moment in a great photograph. That’s what makes him a National Geographic photographer, and one of the best ever.
David Braun is director of outreach with the digital and social media team illuminating the National Geographic Society’s explorer, science, and education programs.
He edits National Geographic Voices, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society’s mission and major initiatives. Contributors include grantees and Society partners, as well as universities, foundations, interest groups, and individuals dedicated to a sustainable world. More than 50,000 readers have participated in 10,000 conversations.
Braun also directs the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship.