Gear To Go

Empowering Photography Off The Grid • Smarter Than A Smartphone

Bristlecone Pine in Snow. This image of one specimen in an ancient grove was captured in a remote area of California’s White Mountains, where Lepp was camping. In field locations such as this, auxiliary power is mandatory in the digital age. Canon EOS 5D, Canon EF 15mm ƒ/2.8 Fisheye lens, 1/125 sec. at ƒ/16, 100 ISO

A Shameless Plug for Plugless Power

Back when we all had SLR cameras that ate film, only the meter required battery power, and one lasted many months. If you had a motor drive, you carried a few AA batteries to power it; they also lasted a long time and were easily changed out. It almost seems too simple!

Now we live and die by the battery. Our DSLRs have rechargeable batteries, as do all the other technical necessities of our lives and our craft: smartphones, tablets, GPS units and laptops. If we head out to a location without a recharge source, we have a limited time before we’re powerless to continue photography and communication. But, fortunately, there are even more techno-gadgets that can charge you up again and extend your time in the field.

The question of how to recharge digital tools off the grid has been posed to me many times over the last 12 to 15 years, but the answer, like our technology, continues to evolve. The camera manufacturers offer AC adapter kits that power the camera directly from a wall outlet, but when you’re in the field, you can connect it to an inverter attached to a 12-volt battery. The inverter converts the battery’s DC power to the 110-volt AC needed to support camera battery chargers, cell phones and similar tools. I’ve typically used a deep-charge motorcycle battery as my DC source, but they aren’t that portable; they’re mostly of a lead-acid type that’s very heavy. But there are other options.

Quantum Instruments (qtm.com) makes portable battery systems designed to power flashes. I’ve used the Quantum Turbo 2X2 for that purpose, but it didn’t make a significant difference for the camera’s run time. The latest version from Quantum Instruments is the Turbo 3, which will run a DSLR for a considerable time, and even extend video capture to five hours. The Turbo 3 weighs two pounds and costs over $600 without the cable to the camera.

If I’m working close to my vehicle, I plug the inverter into the vehicle’s accessory plug (formerly known as the cigarette lighter). As long as I can run an extension cord from the inverter to where my camera is, I have plenty of power. Obviously, it’s important not to run the vehicle battery so low that you can’t start the vehicle later. If fuel, noise and emissions aren’t an issue, start the engine to use the power being generated off the alternator. This technique has been useful for doing long time-lapses on cold nights in locations that allow me to park near where I want to photograph, but it doesn’t earn me any points in the outdoorsman department, especially when I turn on the heated seats.

What about being really in the field? Say it’s a trek through the jungle, or a hiking expedition on the Pacific Crest Trail, or climbing a peak in the Andes, with no wall plugs, no vehicles and more important things to carry than a heavy 12-volt battery. Here’s where solar power has finally come of age for the nature photographer. In the past, I tried several versions of solar panels, but they mostly were intended for cell phones and useless for higher-voltage batteries in cameras and laptops. What we’ve needed is a small, efficient battery that holds a charge from the solar panels and a small inverter that converts that power to a system that accommodates plugs from battery chargers or accessories.

Say it’s a trek through the jungle, or a hiking expedition on the Pacific Crest Trail, or climbing a peak in the Andes, with no wall plugs, no vehicles and more important things to carry than a heavy 12-volt battery. Here’s where solar power has finally come of age for the nature photographer.

It’s here. I recently came across the company Goal Zero (goalzero.com). They have a number of light systems made for photographers that use a solar panel to charge a small, highly efficient storage battery and inverter so that a regular 110 AC plug can be used for recharging. The company’s Sherpa 50 and Sherpa 100 Solar Kits are ideal for recharging camera batteries, as well as cell phones, tablets and laptops. The price for the Sherpa 50 is $429.95 (weighs 3.15 pounds), and the more powerful Sherpa 100 is priced at $599.95 (weighs 5 pounds). You can clip the lightweight solar panels to the outside of your backpack to continuously recharge the storage battery tucked inside. Later, when you make camp, you have a completely recharged battery system. The price sounds pretty steep until you consider that if you’re serious about photography in remote locations, you need reliable power.

One other company that I came across while researching this column on solar for photographers was Voltaic (voltaicsystems.com). Their products are similar to Goal Zero, and their prices lower, but the design isn’t based around having a 110 AC plug to use for charging, which I think is very important.

When a Smartphone Isn’t Smart
So you’re going to a place that’s great for photography, but it just isn’t feasible to take along the backpack with the DSLR, the tripod and the lenses that you’d love to have. It could mean that the family is the focus and not the photographs. It might be that the locations will be tight, crowded or restricted, as in a butterfly aviary, or an architectural treasure, or a small tour boat.

Another all-too-familiar scenario involves the non-photographer partner/spouse of the pro or enthusiast, together on a once-in-a-lifetime African safari or similar adventure. The partner wants no part of a backpack full of cameras and lenses, although often is drafted to carry part of the enthusiast’s gear as part of his or her weight allowance or carry-on. (We speak from experience.) Still, everyone on such a memorable trip wants the opportunity to document it from his or her own perspective, and needs a camera that will reach out and capture wildlife from a distance. Or perhaps you’re traveling with a young person just beginning to enjoy photography, and you want to encourage that pursuit without making a huge investment in money and gear.

Some would say, “Just use your smartphone; it gives good images and even video.” But the readers of this magazine want more than a single-focal-length lens around 28mm and minimal quality. Don’t you? And if you’re the photo-maniac partner of that patient and helpful person who’s helping you carry your gear, you’re well advised to read on, as we’re offering you a great idea for the next birthday/anniversary event.

There are a number of small, lightweight cameras out there that have a built-in zoom with ample focal-length range, a sensor larger than the phone camera’s, and the capability to capture video and even time-lapse. With a few cards and batteries, they travel light, take up very little room, and are always ready to work with no fuss or drama. They’ll produce a good 11x14-inch blowup, and have a range of focal lengths similar to what’s in our serious camera bags, and that includes a telephoto that will capture wildlife up close and personal.

Here are some general specifications: The camera’s weight, with memory card and battery installed, shouldn’t be much over 1.5 pounds, and it should fit, along with extra batteries, memory cards and battery charger, in a small bag. Cost needs to be less than $1,000. The lens must be a part of the camera (no lens-changing necessary) and offer a focal-range equivalent at least to a DSLR’s 24-600mm. Many of these cameras actually have a much longer range; one reaches an equivalent of 2000mm! The camera must capture HD video. In order to produce good-quality images, the camera’s sensor should be from 16 to 20 megapixels and the size of the sensor larger than a cell phone’s 4.54x3.42mm. A one-inch sensor (which would be ideal) measures 13.2x8.8mm. A point-and-shoot camera sensor measures 6.16x4.62mm, with, typically, 16 to 20 megapixels.

Here are a few examples that fit the bill for that next trip where you can’t take the backpack. Canon has the PowerShot G3X (1” sensor and 24-600mm equivalent lens, HD video), PowerShot SX60 HS (smaller 1/2.3” sensor, but 21-1365mm equivalent lens, HD video) and PowerShot SX50 HS (1/2.3” sensor, 24-1200mm equivalent zoom, HD video). Panasonic Lumix offers the DMC-FZ330 (1/2.3” sensor, 25-600mm equivalent zoom, 4K video) and DMC-FZ200 (1/2.3” sensor, 25-600mm zoom, HD video). Nikon has the CoolPix P610 (1/2.3” sensor, 24-1440mm equivalent zoom, HD video), CoolPix L840 (1/2.3” sensor, 22.5-855mm equivalent zoom, HD video) and CoolPix P900 (1/2.3” sensor, 24-2000mm equivalent zoom, HD video). Sony’s offerings are the HX300 (24-1200mm equivalent zoom), HX400V (24-1200mm equivalent zoom), H400 (24.5-1550mm equivalent zoom) and H300 (25-875mm equivalent zoom); all have 1/2.3” sensors and HD video. Go to the manufacturers’ respective websites for more details.

Oh, yes. If you buy this camera as a gift, you may be tempted to borrow it back. From experience, I don’t advise you to do that.

To learn about George Lepp’s upcoming workshops and seminar opportunities, visit his website at GeorgeLepp.com.

One of North America’s best-known contemporary outdoor and nature photographers and a leader in the field of digital imaging and photographic education, Lepp is the author of many books and the field editor of Outdoor Photographer magazine. One of Canon’s original Explorers of Light, Lepp finds inspiration in advancing technology that fuels creative innovation and expression of his life-long fascination with the natural world.

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