Tag Archives: digital

Micro camper for digital media capture or ADCV

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

  1. Room to sleep 1 or 2 people
  2. Be completely self-contained i.e. not reliant on:
    mains electricity
    water supply
    sanitation
  3. Be cost effective
  4. 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.

Boot jump hidden behind back seats

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.

Work mode

Sleep mode

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.

Battery under the part extended bd

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.

Battery in anti-spill box and strapped down

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.

 Electrical requirements

  • Battery charging for all devices.
  • Mains power for camera battery charger and small fan heater
  • Laptop charger – 19V DC
  • Lighting
  • 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.

Inverter

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.

80W folding solar panels

12V System
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.

12V distribution board and batter monitor

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
100% 12.7
75% 12.4
50% 12.2
25% 12.0
Discharged 11.9

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.

 

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Getting the best from your pixels

When I started using a digital camera it was obvious that however many pixels you have, and however much you spend on super lenses, good results are not guaranteed. Having lots of pixels does not automatically mean better pics, there is still some photographic technique involved.

I work on long term project which usually result from having something to say. In terms of project planning I work backwards from having an idea of how I want to prints to look and where they will be shown. For the Quarried project I decided I wanted large prints mounted without glass so that there was as little as possible between the audience and the print. That eventually turned out to be matt colour prints mounted on Diabond.

Knowing what I wanted narrowed down the decision required to achieve the end result. Basically I could use 5×4 colour negative film or a high end digital system. Using 5×4 would have given the resolution but would have resulted in a different project.  I opted for a Nikon D800 which, at 36MP was the highest resolution DLSR at the time.

Learning to use the new camera took a while but it soon became obvious that it needed to be on a good tripod with the camera in mirror-up mode and triggered by a remote shutter release. The reason for that is that the mirror cause vibrations in the camera which can significantly degrade the image quality especially when using longer lenses. 5514_a4

This image was taken across a valley approximately 500m from the camera. It works well at A0 (1200mm x 800mm.)

Having taken care of the photographic technique the next stage was printing test images. I did this by using 4, A2 prints fixed together with masking tape. Other issues were now obvious. If I edited the image on my home computer I had to change colour balance, brightness, contrast and saturation on the PC connected to the printer. My PC monitor was not calibrated. This is absolutely crucial if you want to send image files to commercial printers. But it seemed like a lot of additional expense until one of the tutors on the MA course asked how much I had spent on the lens and how much I had spent on my monitor. The ratio was 20:1. She then asked what I expected from a cheap monitor. She was absolutely right – thank you Karen.

The choice of monitor was relatively easy – EIZO the industry standard. I got the cheapest model but even that is amazing. I check the calibration every 1-2 weeks and it does not move much at all. I can now edit my files and use them on other printers without any problems. Recently I prepared a file for printing on fabric, it was 1350mm x 2000mm. I was told to use 8 bit, RGB1998 and it worked perfectly. (It is a type of printer used in fashion and textiles to print directly onto rolls of fabric.)

And of course the usual disclaimer – these are my opinions based on my own experiences. I am not being paid to endorse products.

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Revisiting an old digital file

Neil_CP1_A4Just been playing with an old image. This time I used Capture One Pro 9 for the RAW conversion and all editing. It took 10 minutes max as opposed to several hours  when I did the original edit in CS6. No need to darken the white helmet to retain detail. No need to darken the black to remove the purple cast. No hours if fiddling to get the colour balance right. No special noise reduction. Output from CP1 was at 1200x800mm, this is an A4 version. It is interesting getting back to CP1 after a break, I am beginning to realise its full potential. Techy stuff: Nikon D800, effective ISO 24,600, taken in a mine using available light.

I have no connection with Phase One apart from being a customer.

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How photography has changed pt. 1

I have been a documentary photographer for around 35 years and have also worked as a freelance photojournalist. The difference between the two ways of working have become blurred over time and in recent years the terms have become conflated. For me documentary photography is about long form documentations of local communities. Photojournalism concerns working to a brief from an editor of a specific publication.

It is over 20 years since I completed a personal project. During that time I continued to freelance for specialist magazines shooting on 35mm colour transparency film. It was often difficult getting images to editors and one batch sent to Australia was lost for several weeks.

In early 2013 I decided it was time to switch to full fame digital for my new project “Another View“. There are many positives to using digital cameras but also some uncertainties. In photojournalism everything is now digital at both the production and consumption stage. Mobile devices allowing constant access to online content is killing printed media. Combined with the huge increase in camera phones, and ‘citizen journalism’, it is clear there are massive changes in how photographs are produced and circulated.

There are two ways to see the rise of digital photojournalism; either as a threat to the medium or as a challenge. If you really want to work for newspapers, magazines and online publications there really is no alternative to embracing digital technology.

In long form documentary there are still two camps; some stick rigidly to film and see that as proof of being a ‘real’ photographer (more of that in pt. 2.) Others use digital for the versatility of being able to produce output for different media.

I do not want to get into the arguments about which is best, it is a personal choice. What interests me more is how some documentary photographers have reacted to new opportunities for selling their work while others are using new digital media to reach a wider audience.

One of the biggest changes is the market for print sales. In some ways this confirms that photography has finally been accepted as art by becoming part of the art collectors market. Whether this is a compliment to the medium is debatable. It could be argued that photography has become more inward looking, serving its new market rather than looking out towards new audiences.

What is appalling is to see images of war and suffering being sold as ‘art’. To me that smacks of exploitation and cynicism. It also serves to erode the collective trust that subjects have in documentary photography, and photojournalism, which inevitably makes both more difficult to pursue.

It also raises another a more crucial question – who are we photographing for? Is it to feed the thirst of collectors? Is it to gain recognition from our peers? Or is it to serve the communities we photograph? And, who is the subject of interest, the photographer or the photographed?

Susan Meiselas puts this very succinctly in “Aperture 214”, Spring 2014, p.29 Aperture, New York, ISSN 003-6420.

“Photographers often start with a passionate engagement with their subjects, but an audience can easily get focussed on the narrator, at the expense of the narrative.”

If you are a committed documentary photographer who engages with the communities you photograph then you make photographs to highlight their issues and bring them to the attention of a widest possible audience. By selling to our peers and collectors we fail to do this.

It is also obvious that there has been a big rise in the publication of ‘photo books’ over recent years. From what I have seen they are usually small, or very small, prints runs aimed at collectors who are often other photographers. There is nothing wrong with that for ‘art photography’ but for any sort of committed campaigning, or opinion changing projects, then I would suggest it does little to further a cause and again shifts attention to the photographer rather than the subject.

I accept that there may be occasions when presenting in book form is helpful such as communicating with opinion formers. There are online publishing servers that make that easy now but I would suggest that a short run photobook is not an adequate output for a long form documentary project.

It seems we have two choices: to produce pictures that appeal mainly to other photographers and collectors; or to engage with digital modes to make work that can be seen by the widest possible audience. That does not mean ditching the traditional photographic exhibition but it does mean using every means possible to get work seen.

My choice is to produce both digital media and prints on the wall. I want to exhibit in conventional spaces but also use unconventional venues to take work to the audience instead of relying on them coming to exhibitions. That is not a new idea as the rash of laminated exhibitions of the 1980s did just that.

22ePanel 22/24 “The Birmingham Jewellery Quarter”, 1983. 24, A2 laminated panels of photographs and text. Ikon Gallery, Birmingham, touring exhibition.

The other way to reach new and younger audiences is to use digital modes like photofilm and online interactive galleries. If there are a large body of users viewing photographs on mobile devices every day then why not try to reach them. There is ample evidence that old and established print titles are doing just that. See http://www.nytimes.com/projects/2013/the-jockey/

For a good example of an interactive web site see http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2014/03/27/world/climate-rising-seas.html

One of the complexities of using new media is that it is very doubtful that a lone photographer has all the skills required to produce professional looking outputs. Collaboration and team work are required and the results can be spectacularly powerful and engaging. See Maisie Crow’s “The Last Clinic” http://maisiecrow.com/

In the end I am left feeling that documentary photographers have no choice but to use new ways of telling our stories. How can we engage with the communities that allow us to photograph and do our best for them in terms of seeking the widest possible audience? For me, not to try to get maximum exposure would feel like failure and a betrayal of trust.

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Reciprocity failure – not!

Been shooting in some old dark quarries today, no sunshine. Had to use slow shutter speeds, sometimes less than 1 second but the really great thing about digital cameras is there is no reciprocity failure. No need to make the calculations and then bracket exposure to be sure. Made life a lot easier but would still like to use 5×4 colour neg if I could afford the near £10 a shot for film and processing.

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