By Nicholas Karlin
We sat down with National Geographic’s photo engineer Tom O’Brien during the installation of FotoWeekDC. Photography aficionados take note. We spoke about what it takes to get cameras and equipment around the world at a moments notice and some of the inventions that have been developed from the legacy of their vaunted photo department.
O’Brien recently took over for Kenji Yamaguchi. A legend in his field, Yamaguchi was a soft spoken, well loved, humble person who spent decades working with all of the incredible photographers for National Geographic, assisting photographic visions using innovative engineering and imagination.
Tell me a little bit about yourself and your past.
I was born and raised in Silver Spring, MD. For anyone out there that is from MoCo (Montgomery County), proud alumni of Albert Einstein High School and went to Lehigh University. I really enjoyed it there and it’s a great engineering school with a great football team. I went (to Lehigh) for Mechanical Engineering because I knew what the word engineering meant even as a small child.
School wasn’t always a favorite part of my life. A lot of engineers or parents of engineers say that you should go into engineering because you’re good at math and science. I’m decent enough in both but I do engineering because I love it. I don’t like poorly designed things. Even bad ergonomics on a household spray bottle. When I do get something that is designed well, I kinda cling onto it.
I came out of Lehigh when the DOD had a lot of shut downs and freezes on hirings. So a lot of offers I had coming out of college were no longer there. I got a job as a plumber’s assistant for five months. Landed a job doing some energy auditing work up near Baltimore for Howard County, Maryland. After that, I moved to a company doing project management and design engineering for what window washers tie to. So I’ve been on top of the tallest buildings in Baltimore, D.C., Northern Virginia, World Bank, and Nat Geo. That was a lot of fun work and it was really exciting. I was 23-years-old managing a crew of six people, sometimes telling people 15 or 20 years your senior was not always fun though. After that, I worked for a DOD agency for about a year and when that contract ended, I started looking again this past summer. When everyone was on vacation, I was given four offers in seven days and three of them were outstanding, and those were here at Nat Geo. I had to pass up some amazing and fun jobs but when it came down to it, I told myself “Those are amazing, they might be hard to get back into, but they are not once in a lifetime opportunities.” Working here at Nat Geo in this position, in this role… if I don’t take this job, I will never have a chance to do this ever again. So I took it.
How did photography fall into your life?
I don’t remember how I fell into photography. I know I somehow came across this thing called ‘Lomography’ which is a trend of photography. Everyone knows Instagram and everyone knows filters. Well, filters came from things like lomography. You could take a “bad” cameras, ones that aren’t very sharp, or fast or excellent in any way and use their weird, quirky attributes to make interesting and artistic images and also do things like cross process the film. So your blues might become hot pink and everything just flips around. I did that in high school which was when I was teaching myself photography. I then bought my first SLR film camera which was a Minolta XD-5. When I got to college, I wanted to keep using film but it became so expensive and my parents told me that they were not going to help with paying for that. So I convinced them to help split a cost for a Nikon D90 for Christmas and that was my first foray into digital photography. That’s when photography really took off for me. I worked for a multi-cultural magazine at Lehigh called “The Brown and Black” and also shot random events and portraits on campus.
How did you get involved with National Geographic?
I’ll be blunt about it, when you’re on the job market looking for jobs, you look everywhere. This job wasn’t posted well and I was running a risk because they were asking for an associates degree, and all these tech skills and it was called ‘Photo Engineer’…I wasn’t too sure. Then I remembered I had heard about this job a couple years prior there was this video Nat Geo produced internally of my predecessor, Kenjia Yamaguchi. It was a short biopic called “The Magic Starts Here: Kenji’s Workshop of Camera Wizardry” and I remember thinking to myself, ‘This is awesome!’ So I eventually got an interview and it was probably the most fun interview I’ve ever had. My now supervisor Mark Thiessen took me out to lunch and we walked around the campus while he introduced me to everyone. I think he wanted to get a feel for everyone’s responses of me and see if I was a good fit here. No one comes to Nat Geo because they’re mediocre. We don’t do ‘OK’. We strive for excellence in every aspect of the company.
Who were some of your favorite photographers from Nat Geo?
I was always a fan of street photography and portraiture style. One of my favorites, and who we actually haven’t done work with yet, is David Hobby. He’s a really close friend of Joe Mcnally who we have done work with. David Hobby runs this website called The Strobist that teaches people how to use off camera flash and I learned a lot from him. He’s also a local guy and great person. As for Nat Geo photographers, I think Paul Nicklen’s work is something that has always captured my eye and imagination. Also, another favorite photographer and who I talk with frequently online is Jim Richardson. He’s an outstanding landscape photographer and I really dig his seascape photography. It’s really relaxing to look at his work. I can’t really pick one favorite. I look at their work everyday and I’m always amazed.
What does your basic day entail?
Every day is different, especially in this job because I support photographers of all different types such as portraiture or photojournalistic types, for war environments, underwater photographers, adventure photographers, wildlife photographers, the list goes on. As for how I support getting gear to a photographer, they or their editor or coordinator will hit me up on the phone or an email and tell me “x photographer is going to x place and they need this gear or something that can do a specific job. Can you send that or make something like that?” and that’s where it starts. Sometimes it may be as simple as “I need a Canon 1DX Mark 2 with a 24mm-70mm lens, 2 memory cards, 3 batteries and I need it all on a Pelican case in Slovenia in three days. GO!” Then the clock starts running.
Are there any “out of the ordinary” requests for gear that you get when prepping a kit for a photographer?
So actually recently, one of our photographers asked for a lens that we don’t even have and almost no one has. It’s a cinema lens from Canon that is a 50mm – 1000mm zoom lens that costs roughly $70,000. Only a few rental shops and even Canon actually have them because they are mind bending expensive.
Was it a natural decision to combine both of your passions (engineering and photography)? Or, did you find yourself in the right place at the right time?
I had a relative that worked at Nat Geo previously who knew Mark Thiessen and passed my info to Mark. We talked on the phone and then I came in. But I have done some of this photo engineering on my own and I think a lot photographers have as well. This stuff is expensive, so if you’re just starting out, you kind of just cobble things together. You might build a softbox or find used gear off of some website. I once 3D printed a tool to hold a piece of welding glass to my lens to do long exposure photography during the day because at the time, I didn’t have the money to buy the actual gear.
Before meeting up with Mark, it was the hardest decision I’ve ever had to make. It was deciding to go to a “traditional” job for engineering where it was very regimented and structured, to exploring this once in a lifetime crazy world. And it has completely worth it.
Tell us about your experience meeting Kenji Yamaguchi.
I actually met him my first day here. He’s this really humble and modest person. Anyone that’s been here for over a year knows that name. He’s the man. He helps people out with all sorts of things. He would just fix anything for people. I occasionally get introduced as “The New Kenji”, and that’s because that name has so much power behind it. And so I have those shoes to fill. It’s daunting sometimes because of the huge expectations and photographers really count on him.
Were you able to work with Kenji on some projects before he retired?
It was actually a lot of training at first. For instance, he would give me a wire set and tell me to figure out what was wrong with it, then solder it back together so it worked. Another time, he gave me the task of retiring some old Nikon N90s cameras. We trained on cleaning camera sensors and that was probably the most stressful part of my job. It’s like cleaning glass, but you can’t press on it because it will break. You also can’t leave any streaks behind. The sensor is also in this tiny, little hole with no space to work. But he was an excellent teacher and I believe that came from his heritage as a respected Nikon repairman and training technician. Speaking of that, when we were working on another project I noticed that this certain screwdriver I was using was really nice. Kenji told me it was a Nikon factory issued screwdriver and that he was going to take that back with him when he leaves. I completely understand that since I’m an engineer and I get excited about tools. On the last week we were working together though, he told me to keep this certain screwdriver. It was like, in all honesty, the master passing his fledgling apprentice the torch. That meant a lot to me. You can’t just buy that screwdriver since it’s only Nikon factory issued. Also, he’s been using this same screwdriver for decades, and after that it made me feel really good about what I’m doing here.
Can you enlighten us on some of the inventions that he’s created that gave Nat Geo photographers the ability to make images that wouldn’t be possible otherwise?
Kenji has worked on a lot of amazing designs over the years. One was a remote controlled blimp that had a gimbal with a film camera attached to it that flew over Machu Picchu to take photos looking straight down it. Mind you, this was before drones that we have today. Another invention were these remote lighting rigs that were flash lights that could be triggered with a button that lit up Stonehenge for a certain shot years ago. They hid all this little flash lights at the base of the stones connected with this cable rig system that Kenji built and modified. The photographers could hold this button down to light the subject while taking a long exposure, and then release the button to complete the exposure.
His biggest contribution to photographic world were his camera traps. In a nutshell, camera trap is a camera in box that is triggered with some sort of sensor when it see movement and it takes a picture. These are simple things that you can buy now. What Nat Geo has now are very complex that hold a professional DSLR and are connected to a remote strobe system and are weather sealed. These are like “Set it and forget it!” and it would placed on a known animal trail to capture images of wildlife using the trail. For instance, we have a great exhibit here in our front lobby about Yellowstone where they used a ton of camera traps there. You can do so much amazing work with these things. If it weren’t for Kenji, camera traps wouldn’t be like this today. He worked with manufacturers to get the sensors to trigger the cameras. He’s so modest, Kenji hadn’t really told anyone this information.
Did he give you any advice?
Slow down and think about the big picture. He also told me to keep things simple. No matter how well you engineer something, it will break in the field and the photographer needs to be able to fix it. This relates to what my father would tell me when I was growing up was “Don’t build a Saturn 5 rocket when a bottle rocket will do.” A lot of engineers suffer from “over-engineering syndrome” where we have to have our projects be the best! You have to just slow down, keep it simple, and think about the big picture.
How do you plan to keep Nat Geo at the top of creative image content production and how will you push the brand farther?
One example of what I want to do is bring some DOD hardware experience into designing these new camera traps so they are these rugged, plug and play pieces of gear. The goal is to put four or five in a big backpack and just drop them all over the place for future projects. They will be taken to level where they a polished and final product. Hopefully this will be something I will get to work on soon with people on the National Geographic Society side and in cooperation with the photographers that will be working with these traps.
Also, as far as we know, there is no other news media organization that has a department that has this custom photographic engineering support, and that’s what keeps us moving forward and in front.
More importantly, at Nat Geo our photographers are amazing and they continue to push us farther by themselves. Nat Geo picked me as a decent mechanical engineer with project management experience in a variety of fields and I just happen to like cameras.
What are some interesting events and projects that Nat Geo is working on right now?
Our photographers are always working on interesting projects, but some of these stories don’t come out for a couple of years. However, you can see some of the photographers posting shots on Instagram during their travels. For example, Ronan Donovan is Instagramming from Rwanda right now and posting photos of large primates and gorillas that he’s been studying. He just posted a photo this morning of a portrait that gave me chills.
View this post on Instagram
Rwanda // A silverback mountain gorilla is charged with projecting his family group at all costs. This aggressive behavior initially gave gorillas a ferocious reputation. But after 50 years of research these gentle giants are revered around the world. In the end, what could be more admirable than an animal that fights to the death to protect its own? Thankfully, the world agrees that these great apes are worth protecting. #onassignment #natgeo #rwanda #africa #mountaingorilla #gorilla
Another little teaser is we’ve started doing more VR stuff. We’re trying to implement that into the workflow to give our digital content consumers a more immersive environment. So I sent Ronan with one of our new Nikon Keymission cameras to capture the wet season of the environment while he’s there. I was thinking wouldn’t it be cool if I could put on headphones and look around while I’m underneath this canopy as this rain is coming down? So he’s trying some of that now. David Doubilet has one these cameras as well. So maybe we might be able to look around and have an incredible 3D view of fish underwater.
Also, Mars! Nat Geo is creating a lot of exciting content focused on Mars right now. I love space a lot! I’m a member of The Planetary Society which is lead by the intrepid Bill Nye. I’m also a huge fan of Neil Degrasse Tyson who does stuff with Nat Geo all the time. We’re creating a lot of interactive things for the readers on the internet, the magazine has a lot of exciting content, and so does the National Geographic Channel. There is also a six part series premiering November 14 all on Mars!
Do you have any words of advice for aspiring Nat Geo photographers?
Focus on the journey and your experiences mentally and physically. Who cares if it’s the latest and greatest professional DSLR or just the phone in your pocket? Mark Thiessen once told me, “Cameras are just expensive paperweights until they are used properly.”