• December 4, 2014

The Magic Starts Here: Kenji’s Workshop of Camera Wizardry

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.

VIDEO: Visit Kenji’s workshop and meet the man behind the gear

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.

Picture of a ship on top the water and an underwater robot diving below the surface, with Mount Fuji in the background
A bifocal view captures the robot Searover in the little explored waters of Suruga Bay off of Honshu Island in Japan.
Photograph by David Doubilet

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.

There are 46 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Clipping Crowd
    May 14, 2016

    Sounds and Great, and proud of you Kenji, thanks.

  2. jose chavez
    April 8, 2015

    amor i dedicacion base d el exito maestro este sr

  3. Nancy Pakarlah
    February 14, 2015

    I love this.

  4. david doubilet
    January 22, 2015

    Kenji is truly a secret weapon. My favorite Kenji collaboration was on Artificial Reef story where we had to photograph the “controlled” sinking of Hoyt S Vandenberg using explosives. We used 2 remote camera systems triggered two different ways. One involved a toilet bowl float. Both designs produced time lapse images of the sinking. Those images and many others would not exist without Kenji. And last Kenji is as humble as he is talented……and he is very talented. THAN YOU KENJI YAMAGUCHI ITS BEEN AN HONOR TO WORK WITH YOU.

  5. R.P.M. by name
    January 8, 2015

    Awesome article and even more awawesome use of this man’s talent and passion. The photos are breathtaking and many to most would be impossible without Mr. Kenji’s vision and desire to always ask, “How can I make this better”? Continue to thrive and show the world, there are no limits, only opportunities to explore, expand and, excite!

  6. Catherine Bolton
    December 31, 2014

    This is a wonderful story. Who knew he or his occupation existed. I sincerely hope he has an apprentice as it would be a shame for his knowledge to be lost even though his imagination cannot be thus captured. Also it would be cool to do a book about his story and include photographs from each of the photographers stories. Thanks for this post.

  7. marlon
    December 22, 2014

    Talented, skillfully talented lad. What a hero!

  8. James Barnett
    December 18, 2014

    A true master craftsman shows the heart of what man can do with humble love of creation

  9. James P Beck
    December 18, 2014

    I restore cars and my workbench looks about the same.

  10. Dick Todd
    December 16, 2014

    What an amazing talent, without his skills many shots would be missed.

  11. soh yk
    December 15, 2014

    what a humble man with fantastic job…

  12. Becky Hale
    December 15, 2014

    You are a gift to all of the photographers lucky enough to work with you Kenji!

  13. Heath Holden
    December 15, 2014

    Good work, Kemji! Ah, I’d like to order some wireless camera trap flashes! I built my own cable versions and they work perfect, wireless would be ideal though!

  14. Bearded Mountain Man
    December 15, 2014

    Amazing work, really interesting to find out about this Kenji and his work. Will be keeping an eye for more of his handy work.

  15. AppleFan
    December 14, 2014

    This man should be clonated because this particularly type of men born once in a thousand years

  16. Jonny
    December 14, 2014

    I’m bummed that the video isn’t captioned. :/

  17. Vishesh
    December 12, 2014

    This is really awesome!!

  18. Jonathan McCaffrey
    December 12, 2014

    How can I send my glass in to get minimal focusing customised? Because that’d be great

  19. Rainer Freynhagen
    December 11, 2014
  20. Rupert Aris B. Balajadia
    December 10, 2014

    great story… I always wanted to do things like he does… iwas inspired by this… I wish to know more of his works… thanks..

  21. Peg Achterman
    December 10, 2014

    thank you – I will show this to my students for sure!

  22. Rafael
    December 10, 2014

    Such a fantastic and magic job! Congratulations!

  23. Felix Marquez
    December 10, 2014

    A man of few words but out of this world skills… Cheers

  24. José Ramos
    December 10, 2014

    I am humbled by Mr. Kenji’s work. It is very rare to see the work of the persons who make other people’s work possible. In this digital era the minds and hands of master craftsmen still create the tools that make extraordinary things happen.

  25. Hideki Hayashi
    December 9, 2014

    Thanks for great job! Yes, the magic on the magazine starts from Kenji’s workplace.

  26. Thomas Lynch
    December 9, 2014

    Behind the scene Masters help all of us see the future…

  27. Bob Krist
    December 9, 2014

    A wonderful piece about a great guy…congrats all around!

  28. Kenneth T Nyabela
    December 9, 2014

    Its always a beautiful thing when a matter is motivated by energy because the space is created. Love you Mr Kenji!

  29. Emilio Lizardo
    December 9, 2014

    Pete: Give it a rest. Don’t take this great piece about Kenji & try to turn it into your soapbox to right a minor literary social injustice.

  30. David
    December 9, 2014

    This is fascinating. Would love to see more about this man and his shop. What other kinds of things has he made?

  31. Kenji
    December 9, 2014

    great job Kenji! Nice name too 🙂

  32. Pete
    December 8, 2014

    “he’ll call Kenji” are there no female Natgeo photographers?

  33. M. Christopher McFann
    December 8, 2014

    This brought me to tears. There is always someone behind the scenes that doesn’t get the accolades, but is the very reason all of the magic happens. God bless this engineer and machinist. Every great photo I see from NG will remind me of this talented wizard. Kenji, you ARE NG, and they are cheating the game everytime they post an image, because you are a secret weapon. +1000

  34. Lance Snider
    December 7, 2014

    I love seeing behind the scenes like this! I feel like there could be an entire documentary about Kenji!

  35. Silas
    December 6, 2014

    A week ago, I was thinking about David Doubilet. His underwater shots were always very captivating. I thought he was always shooting digitally. The thought about double exposure proves the fact that older cameras needn’t be tossed away. Something must be done to make the cameras as special as the Leicas without the cost factor. Also, this article clearly explains what NG incorporates to remain competitive as a meaningfully illustrated photographic magazine containing well-researched features with an international perspective. From a reader’s perspective, I understand that it’s just not easy all the time!

  36. guillermo villegas
    December 6, 2014

    Un gran aporte, en especial aquellos que aman su trabajo

  37. Robert Madden
    December 6, 2014

    You’re going to outlast us all Kenji!

  38. Michael T Sutherland
    December 5, 2014

    a quiet giant here on campus glad to know him thank you Kenji..

  39. Tamara
    December 5, 2014

    What an amazing and inspiring man! And what an excellent filmmaker…the camera’s viewpoint truly encapsulates Kenji’s world.

  40. Kent Kobersteen
    December 5, 2014

    Kenji is one of the great unsung heroes of Photo Engineering. Photography at the National Geographic wouldn’t be what it is without Kenji and his colleagues.

  41. Uwe Werling
    December 5, 2014

    A great story about a very sympathetic and inventive people. Thanks for the show!

  42. Cinde Reichard
    December 5, 2014

    What a wonderful tribute to one of the great guys behind the scenes. Nice job!

  43. Kim
    December 4, 2014

    Wow….this guy embodies everything that I’d love to be

  44. Steve Winter
    December 4, 2014

    Thank you Kenji! I can not do what I do in the field without you.
    Throughout my career you have helped me get the images that have not been seen before. Images in my mind that become reality with ideas, time and your expertise and the incredible equipment that you create. Thank you from the bottom of my heart for your kindness and putting up with me always asking for stuff! You are the best and we as photographers at National Geographic Magazine are so lucky that we have you. Thank you Kenji!!!!!!!! This post about you is so great to see and long overdue – Go Kenji!! Thank you!

    December 4, 2014

    Nice David!!!

  46. Mark Thiessen
    December 4, 2014

    Kenji is the secret weapon they we photographers have here at National Geographic. He is brilliant, fast, and most of all humble. A pleasure to work with him everyday.

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