I was in Norfolk photographing an area near the Wash when I came across a field full of Skylarks. Not seen or heard them for many years and their beautiful, endlessly varied song is just magical. Need to go back with a decent mic and blimp as it is always windy!
For my next project, I need to be able to travel in the UK to remote locations and stay for several days without access to the usual services. There is a need for somewhere to sleep, cook meals, relax and of course do the work required for safe digital capture including images, sound files and video. The ideal solution would be small camper van with provision for charging batteries and internet access for uploading to a cloud server and social media.
Basic specification for the autonomous digital capture vehicle – ADCV
- Room to sleep 1 or 2 people
- Be completely self-contained i.e. not reliant on:
- Be cost effective
- Have the minimum environmental impact possible
With a very limited budget, even a small camper van was out of reach. The answer was an Amdro Boot Jump which is a basically a slide in unit with compartments for a spirit stove on one side and storage boxes on the other. It can be configured in either day mode which provides a small table and bench seating or extended into a bed. I chose the version with the Vaude awning which gives more room on longer trips.
The Boot Jump is lifted into the boot area of my Peugeot Partner and clamped in place. There are no modifications to the vehicle and it can be removed in a few minutes. With the rear parcel shelf in place it is impossible to see that there is anything in the car – or ‘the van’ as it is now called.
Next came the requirements for the electrics for the charging batteries in capture equipment, laptop, phone, and other electronics. I decided to use a separate leisure battery to avoid accidental flattening the vehicle battery. The overall design criteria for the project was that there should be no modifications to the vehicle and that everything could be easily removed.
As I need a lot of storage space for extended trips I decided to remove the rear seats when travelling which takes a couple of minutes as they use the Isofix system. I could then use the bed partially unfolded. This gives space under the bed for everything that I need. There is also more storage space behind the front seats.
For the power supply, I chose a single 75AH battery for summer use and plan to use two for spring and autumn. This gives more flexibility than a single large battery and reduces the weight when the dual battery is not used. The battery can only be installed in the van when the rear seats are removed.
It is important to use sealed batteries inside the car to limit spillage of acid. Although not totally spill proof they are better than the old-style version with top up caps. For extra safety, I chose to use standard battery boxes as they are cheap and will keep any minor spillages contained. They also protect the top of the battery from possible short circuits which can easly cause fires. I made a shaped base plate that fitted with the end of the Boot Jump. This helps to keep the battery in place. When I need to add the second battery I plan on making a new base plate that covers the full width of the vehicle and is screwed into the attachment points for the cargo D rings on either side.
- Battery charging for all devices.
- Mains power for camera battery charger and small fan heater
- Laptop charger – 19V DC
- Mobile WiFi hotspot and internet connection
Most portable electronics use USB chargers and there are several small 12V to 5V USB converters on the market often with multiple outlets. I chose one with twin outlets and fixed it to the side of the 12V distribution board.
The charger for camera batteries is a mains only switch mode power supply which needed a 300W pure sine wave inverter. The Inverter is now fixed the rear of the Boot Jump below where the small fan heater on the rear parcel shelf. The inverter is controlled by a relay and switched from the small black box.
The solution to getting 19V DC at 3.5A for charging the laptop was a Buck Converter which takes 12V input and converts it to 19V. This is a more efficient system that avoids the use of 12V to 240V inverter.
I have installed two LED strip lights on the roof lining towards the rear of the van. There are independently switched and fed from the distribution box.
Heating is a major energy supply issue. There are several gas powered and some spirit powered heaters around but I did not want an open flame in the van because of the fire risk, carbon monoxide and condensation. That leaves electrical heaters using a ceramic element. The 12V versions have bad reviews in terms of effectiveness. For emergency use I decided on a small 150W/300W, 240V fan heater which can be run off the inverter for short periods. It was more than adequate during tests on a cold spring night.
Charging is via an 80W foldup solar panel. This gives around 4.3A in full sun. It was made in Germany and sourced from a UK supplier. It came with a solar charge controller which is essential.
The feed from the battery goes through a cheap (ebay) battery monitor which shows voltage and current. If the solar panels are attached the ‘charging’ light on the charge controller comes on and the current readout shows total charge if there is nothing else connected. (The battery monitor has now been changed to slightly better version which shows energy used as well as battery voltage.)
The distribution board, a PowerPole®, Fused DC Connector Box, came from Sotabeams. Each outlet is separately fused which is essential. The two outlet USB charger module is mounted on the side of the distribution board below.
The feed from the battery to the distribution board has a 30A inline fuse as does the separate feed to the inverter. This is crucial as a short on the battery could easily cause a fire. The potential short circuit current could be above 1000A which is enough to cause the cable to glow red hot and melt.
Precautions need to be taken when charging lead acid batteries. DO NOT OVERCHARGE. Modern chargers switch themselves off when the battery if fully charged. Do not use old chargers without such protection. And remember that charging from any source produces hydrogen gas so vent the space to avoid a build up. See this page for battery safety advice
The feed from the battery uses 43A twin cable and 80A connectors. If the wires feel warm in normal use it is too thin and you will be getting a voltage drop between the battery and the appliance. Do not use 30A mains wiring as it is not thick enough. Use the correct automotive wire.
The mobile WiFi and internet connection are provided by a TP-Link 4GLite which uses a data only SIM card and connects to the 3G network. With a good connection speeds are higher than a BT fibre broadband. Similar units are available for different networks.
I did make a very small modification to the vehicle by installing a button to open the hatch back from the inside. See this video for instructions
Camping sanitation is not an issue these days, there are a variety of portable flush toilets on the market. I also carry a folding spade just in case!
Overall the van works well and is flexible enough for what I want. I do plan some changes during the summer but they will be minor tweaks.
Modifications – May 2017
The night and early mornings are still very cold which means some form of heating is essential.
- Make a plywood base plate that covers the whole width of the van and can contain a second battery.
- Wire second battery in parallel with #1 using 60A, 2 pole connectors to allow running on either one or two batteries.
- Install a new charge/discharge meter that uses a single 60A shunt. This will show total current drawn by everything from either 1 or 2 batteries and give a more accurate indication of remaining charge.
A useful way of assessing battery charge.
Update Auguest – 2017
The inverter was moved to the back of the Boot Jump to save space on the floor under the bed.
A new battery monitor was installed that shows total current drawn from either a single battery or two wired in parallel.
New lighting consisting of two LED units which are independently switched.
Next, a micro wind turbine!
After a heavy drain on the battery wait 20-30 minutes before checking the voltage. The battery needs time to recover.
|State of Charge||Voltage|
Update June 2018
When I got the Amdro Bootjump last year I opted to include a Vaude Drivaway awning. After initial problems trying to follow the totally inadequate and minute instruction book I worked out how to erect it. A pole was broken in the process but survived the stay on the site. Trying to get a replacement was not easy as the UK agent said it had to be sent back for examination in the UK, then forwarded to Germany and then a replacement would be sent and it would take at least 3 weeks!
This long-winded procedure seemed a bit daft as poles will be damaged and after spending £600 on the awning I expected better service. In the end Amdro came to the rescue and sent a complete new set of poles and I returned the old set to them.
In May 2018 I was camping at a club site near the top of a hill and caught the end of a storm. The little alloy pegs supplied with the awning were easily pulled out of the ground and the rear of the awning was literally taking off. It was finally anchored down by some longer, steel pegs and extra guy ropes. There was damage to two poles and a tag was ripped out of the side of the awning. Now I am faced with same problem, trying to get new poles under guarantee. It will no doubt take weeks and we will not be able to camp in the peak of the season.
In retrospect I would not recommend the Vaude Driveaway awning unless there is a much quicker and easier solution when poles get damaged, as they will. I hope that they will also supply better pegs and more guys. If not, then do not put it up in anything other than a light to medium breeze. If I had known all this I would have gone for a standard commercial awning at a much lower price and one using standard poles that are easily replaceable.
This is my first print in an exhibition. I do not remember much of the details but it was in Coventry probably around 1976, could have been a Coventry Photographic Society annual show. I was out one Sunday morning on an old WW2 bomb site in the Hillfields area when these kids came along with their dog. A few quick shots and they continued on their way.
Camera was a Pentax Spotmatic F with 50mm F1.8 lens Not sure which film but probably Tri-X or FP4 developed in ID11 at 1:1
One thing I learned when doing a photography MA a few years back was just how useful a reflective journal can be. I tried to keep it going when the course ended but it was not easy. For some reason, I started a new journal on 1 April this year using a hard-back notebook which seemed a bit more substantial than the usual cheap pads I used previously.
I have made regular entries about processes I am trying or revisiting and it helps to get a better perspective on what works or fails. This morning just writing about something that was just not right helped to find a better option. And being critical about what I did a few weeks back has raised questions about the process. I recommend giving it a try.
One thing about photography I cannot understand is the need to fly half-way around the world to make pics. For many landscape photographers, there is an all-encompassing need to get the best shot to win the next prize and for that you need to travel to certain ‘approved’ destinations. Top of the list are Iceland, Greenland and the Arctic.
The photographs are often accompanied by lyrical titles and comments about the magnificence of the landscape. What is not mentioned are the dire effects of climate change on the very areas being photographed. Of no concern is the contribution to greenhouse gases made by long haul flights. There appears to be no connection made between travel and the effects on the very landscape being photographed.
I have long argued that good photographers find subjects close to them eliminating the need for long distance travel. Stephen Shore summed this up perfectly when he said:
“To see something spectacular and recognise it as a photographic possibility is not making a very big leap. But to see something ordinary, you’d see every day, and recognise it as a photographic possibility – that is what interests me.”
As photographers, we should have some awareness of the effects of our actions. To jet across the world to take pics because we want to shows no respect for the landscape or subjects being photographed. All our actions have an impact on the world in which we live and long haul flights contribute to climate change and ultimately the destruction of the very subject we want capture.
If you need convincing that climate change is happening now and ice is melting at an ever-increasing rate which will have profound effects on sea levels, see “Glacier Exit” https://vimeo.com/198306286 and the work of the Extreme Ice Survey http://extremeicesurvey.org
For many years I have been interested in both landscape photography and portraiture. The portraits I take are often of people who work on the land and sometimes in it. I do not see this as a difficulty or contradiction because I have come to believe that we are of the land. It is where we come from, what sustains us and is where we return after death. It cannot be anything else because this is the planet on which we live, there is no other source of life.
The only problem with all this is being a photographer. Some photographers I have met cannot cope with the combination of landscapes and portraits; evidently you have to specialise in one OR the other. There seems to be a set of rules somewhere which says you are either/or but not both. If you do landscapes you need a certain type of equipment e.g. an 18mm – 24mm f2.8 zoom is a must have. When I admitted to one landscape enthusiast that I did not have one he questioned my sanity, competence and commitment. And for portraits I am told I need an 85mm f1.4 portrait lens for ‘natural’ perspective and the best bokeh. Nobody has told me what catastrophe would occur if I used an 85mm for landscapes or a 24mm for portraits. I have done both. I admit that you have to take care when using anything over a 35mm lens for close up portraits but the sky did not come crashing down.
What I am saying is do not let yourself be labelled as a particular kind of photographer and do not be pushed onto the ‘right equipment’ treadmill. Photography is about making photographs with what you have and not about endless striving for the ‘right’ gear. Do not feel pressured to conform, do your own thing. Most of all I am saying that the rigid distinction between landscape and people is artificial much like the unwritten rules of the best lens for the job.
Last week I discovered the Mead Gallery, at the University of Warwick, are showing an exhibition – “The Human Document, the photography of persuasion from 1930s America to present day”. As it includes around 100 prints from the FSA (Farm security Administration) I just had to see it. And what an absolute thrill it was. Having studied the FSA photography 37 years ago as an undergraduate I just could believe that I was finally standing in front of prints by Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Ben Shahn, Arthur Rothstein, John Vachon, Marion Post Wolcott and others. To see the prints and examine close up – as all photographers do – was overwhelming; the quality of the images is superb and you can see detail that is not possible in even the best reproduction.
The biggest surprise is that Mead have not been shouting about this exhibition from the roof tops. The other surprise, or maybe not, was that very few people were there, maybe 5 in the hour and a half it took get round. I would have thought there would be queues of college courses bringing students. Maybe they do not teach about the FSA now? Is documentary – photographing the real – not considered as art? That was certainly one comment I heard in the gallery, “…can’t understand why the exhibition is here because it’s not art”.
That is the second time the ‘art’ and ‘documentary’ thing has come up. For some documentary is not art because it deals with real life or is ‘too real’ for modern photography students. Has the conceptual overtaken photography so that documentary has become just too passé? I sincerely hope not because in these times of rapid political change we need photographers to document and question what is happening.
The modern photography included works by Paul Graham, Chris Killip and others. I thought that theses two fitted in the overall theme but the other photographers seemed out of place. They seemed to be trying to produce something more than a document and as such lost impact. I heard a visitor say that they looked staged, false, not authentic which was an interesting comment.
What is evident is the enduring power of the FSA images, the stark fact that they are equally applicable today as they were 60 years ago. There have been similar photos from migrant camps in Calais and other places and I am sure there are images of poverty and desperation everywhere if you take the time to look. History repeats itself,