The Inventions That Changed Wildlife Photography

From the earliest photo traps to shark-mounted cameras, we've made some wild advances in capturing animals on film.

In July 1906, the National Geographic Society dedicated an entire magazine issue to a series of candid wildlife photographs: a snacking raccoon, a blurred grizzly bear, a bolting white-tailed deer. The startled animals had walked in front of an inventive new method of photography pioneered by former Congressman George Shiras. His “flashlight trapping” set off a bright flash and triggered the camera shutter.

Not everyone was pleased by the innovation. “Wandering off into nature is not geography,” one National Geographic board member fumed. But the reader response was unambiguous: Within two years, photo essays helped the magazine grow nearly seven-fold, reaching 20,000 subscribers.

And over the decades, the Society's innovation in wildlife photography persisted. By the late 1980s, engineers in the Remote Imaging Lab at National Geographic’s D.C. headquarters were putting eight-millimeter camcorders in waterproof cases and attaching them to the backs of seals and turtles. Some of the smallest models of what the Society eventually trademarked as "Crittercams" were deployed for the 2005 film March of the Penguins. Another version was made to withstand 3,000 pounds of pressure per square inch and attached to sperm whales to document their deep-sea hunting.

Today, some Crittercams are so light they can be attached to fish, and camera traps can be set up for months at a time, capturing tens or hundreds of thousands of photos. Along with footage of some of the world’s most endangered, rare, and remote creatures, Crittercams return with scientific data and unique insight into animal behavior.

In the basement of National Geographic, engineers tinker with new ingenious ways to capture animals in their natural habitat. In the lab, a 3D printer pumps out camera parts and underwater devices are tested in a pressurized tank.

"Without the people here,” says photo engineer Tom O’Brien, “photography wouldn't be the same."

These cameras are often the first of their kind, and when paired with animals in the wild, the results can surprise even the most experienced photographer and force creative solutions. For instance, slathering hot sauce on a buggy mounted with a 360-degree camera didn’t dissuade a pride of lions in Zambia from using it like a chew toy—but an oil drum welded over it did.

Sometimes, it's the method of delivery that brings unexpected surprises. Nearly a decade ago National Geographic engineers Mike Shepard and Eric Berkenpas built what they believe is the first high-definition camera to be attached to a shark. They hoped to get a video of the shark cruising through the water from its vantage point for an episode of the TV show Great Migrations.

Off the coast of Mexico’s Guadalupe island, one attempt to clamp the camera to a shark’s fin ended in Shepard tumbling overboard as the hungry shark prowled for the tuna that had been dangled as bait. “It’s not dangerous like a firefighter’s job—they do it every single day,” says Shepard, who climbed back aboard unharmed. “Our job is occasionally quite dangerous—every once and a while you do something ridiculous like try to put a camera on a shark from a tiny dinghy.”

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