Kenji Yamaguchi’s shop could be mistaken for Sid’s workbench from Toy Story, a place where mangled lenses and broken shutters crowd out bare areas of his workspace. His office is tucked away in the basement of National Geographic, behind a grease-covered floor filled with drill presses and electric saws. Surrounded by robotic motors, modified macro lenses, and custom flashes, Kenji builds contraptions that can’t be bought. When a photographer needs to fasten a camera onto a thirty-foot pole to capture a bird in her nest, or build a wide-angle macro lense to identify pollen on a flower with mountains in the background, he’ll call Kenji.
He is particularly fond of his custom motion-detecting flashes, or what he calls “camera traps.” In the wild, cheetahs like to chew on the rubber-coated cable that connects the camera to its flash. Kenji solved this problem by incorporating a wireless flash. As a result, photographers are able to illuminate wildlife without distraction. The first time I meet Kenji, he was cranking out flash units—just like a one-man production line.
Kenji has been integral to projects worldwide. One of his favorite experiences occurred a few hours away from his native Tokyo when he helped underwater photographer David Doubilet with a month-long assignment in Suruga Bay, Japan. His main challenge was getting two scenes on one frame (a double exposure). Kenji’s role was to load the film and help capture the images in a single, seamless photo.
The photographic team used one piece of film to create two different images. First they exposed the lower half of the negative underwater, then expose the upper half above water several days later.
Over the course of this project I’ve developed a profound respect for the people who manage and maintain our photographic tools. During our interview, I asked Kenji about his motivation. He said that he continually asks himself, “What can I do to make this device better?”
See how National Geographic photographer Steve Winter uses camera traps built by Kenji to photograph big cats.
A native West Virginian, David Ehrenberg found his love for video storytelling in a high-school production class. After four months as National Geographic magazine’s multimedia apprentice, he is currently working as a video coordinator with the digital video team at National Geographic Studios. Outside of work, he enjoys backpacking, kayaking, and trout fishing. Follow David on Instagram.