Photograph by Mark Thiessen
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This Crittercam, which was custom-built at National Geographic headquarters, is designed to be attached to the fin of a shark to capture its movement through the water.
Photograph by Mark Thiessen

See the ingenious cameras used to photograph elusive animals

National Geographic engineers fasten Crittercams to animals to reveal their secret lives.

This story appears in the October 2020 issue of National Geographic magazine.

The July 1906 issue of National Geographic was devoted to candid photographs of animals—a snacking raccoon, a moose, a jumping white-tailed deer—that had triggered a device, setting off a flash and a camera shutter. This “camera trap,” made by nature photographer and U.S. congressman George Shiras, helped launch a new era of remote wildlife photography. (See more of Shiras’s photographs.)

More than a century later, National Geographic’s Exploration Technology Lab engineers are still inventing ways to capture animals in nature. Modern camera traps can run for months at a time; Crittercams are light enough to affix to fish. The devices gather footage of Earth’s most endangered and reclusive creatures, as well as data and insights on the animals’ behavior. (See Crittercam video from a gray reef shark's point of view.)

A dozen years ago, National Geographic engineers hoped to show a shark’s view as it cruised along the Mexican coast. They built what’s believed to be the first high-definition camera placed on a shark. One attempt to attach it ended with then engineer Mike Shepard falling off a boat as the shark prowled for more of the tuna bait that lured it there. “It’s not dangerous like a firefighter’s job,” says Shepard, who climbed back aboard unharmed. But “every once in a while you do something ridiculous like try to put a camera on a shark.”

Watch

A team of National Geographic remote imaging engineers attempts to deploy a Crittercam on a great white shark.