December 1, 2016

This Filmmaker Shot 14 Days Without Power in the Himalayas—Here's How

Filmmaker George Thengummoottil built an affordable, custom solar charger with only three parts.

Kerala, India-based filmmaker George Thengummoottil wanted to spend two weeks capturing one of the most remote treks in the Himalayas, where there would be no access to power for recharging his camera gear. To meet this challenge, he tested many of the existing systems like solar backpacks and power banks, but he found them lacking, since the combination of the thin mountain air and low temperatures made large battery systems ineffective, and most solar backpacks required too much time to do their jobs. However, he still needed power for his GoPro Hero4 and Canon T1i through his journey.

Custom wired solar set-up by the filmmaker.Credit: George Thengummoottil

To overcome that obstacle, Thengummoottil discovered a cost effective solution that worked despite the challenges of working in the highest mountains on earth. Rather than spending hundreds of dollars on a custom designed solar backpack, he instead went to a hobby shop and purchased a 12 volt 1 amp solar panel, of the type that are widely available from eBay in the United States for around $20. Solar panels are an especially good option for extreme temperatures like in the mountains, Thengummoottil pointed out, because they function even at temperatures below freezing.

Thengummoottil then custom wired the solar panel to the socket for a car cigarette lighter, using parts that any electronics or auto parts store keep in stock. Since most car battery systems are either 12V or 24V, he was able to use car chargers plugged into the cigarette outlet to keep his Canon and GoPro cameras charged throughout the project. (He noted that the 12 V solar panels may give a peak voltage of 24, but this is perfectly fine.) He provided us with the diagrams below to show exactly how the wiring was rigged:

Custom solar charger 1
Step 1
Custom solar charger
Step 2

Custom solar charger
Step 3
Custom solar charger
Step 4

Custom solar charger
Step 5

Even on snowy or icy days in the mountains, provided the sun was shining, he was able to keep working through his 14-day shoot with charged batteries. His 250Ma panel would take about 4 hours to charge a 1000MaH (milli amp hour) battery. If your particular camera didn't come with a car charger adapter, it most likely came with a USB charger, and car-to-USB adapters are available widely for less than $10, so this should be a cost effective solution for many filmmakers who are planning productions involving long periods of time off the grid.

Credit: George Thengummoottil

For this system to work, you need to be constantly charging one battery while working off another, and you need to be shooting in such a fashion that you don't run through one battery before the next is ready to go. With smart battery conservation choices, keeping the camera powered down when not in use, and turning off unnecessary features, great results are possible.

Credit: George Thengummoottil

You can see his final result, Singalila, here.      

Your Comment

13 Comments

At those high altitudes I bet the solar panels worked great.
I don't know how any of this would work in reality but here's some alternatives:

- They sell hand cranked generators that fit in your pocket. You'll get more current with something like that (maybe) but you'll have at crank it for an hour or two to charge the batteries and you won't be able to do much else during that time. (that's what you pay Sherpas for)

-Another possibility would be to use film and a spring operated 16mm camera like a Bolex H16. then you only need batteries for your light meter and sound recorder. I've been wanting to try this out. I've been trying to think of a way to capture sound without electricity but none of the options seem practical.

December 1, 2016 at 4:54PM

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Anton Doiron
Creator/Filmmaker
655

Dear Anton

These were the confusions, I had before making this... whether it will work at low temperature, rain, high altitude .. is it powerful enough etc...

I tested it at about 5000 meters above sea level, at temperature close to 0 degree C, and it worked. Solar panels work even at low temperature and high altitude and rain... When it rained, the amount of sunlight decreased and took longer to charge, but it worked. I kept the charging units inside my tent during the rain and only the panels were exposed to rain.

Kindly let me know if u need any help in doing this.

Thank you
George

December 1, 2016 at 9:12PM

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Sorry, it was tested, at temperature less than 0 Degree C... and it worked...Solar panels are more efficient in low temperature... most solar panels just needs visible light (Visible to human eye.. the spectrum between infrared and ultraviolet)..

Thank you
George

December 2, 2016 at 1:36AM, Edited December 2, 1:36AM

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A DIY video of the entire thing would be helpful for boneheads like me.

December 2, 2016 at 1:38AM

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Ayan Banerjee
Film Maker
55

Hi Ayan,
it is not that difficult at all. If you see the diagrams above you can easily figure it out. Or you can get all the parts and visit your local tv repair shop, they will put them together for you with a nominal fee. Just give it a shot.

December 2, 2016 at 4:25AM

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Dibyendu Joardar
Director of Photography
337

Its true, u just need the three parts, and 4 soldering... but if you need any technical info on specifications, u are always welcome to ask. George

December 2, 2016 at 7:06AM

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Yes yes.. will do it and share for sure.. Thank you.. This is a very simple procedure ..

December 2, 2016 at 7:05AM

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What a hike!

Thanks for posting "Singalila", I could not stop watching ; ) Overwhelming scenery, nice infographics. You must be in a good shape to be hiking at those altitudes.

What a life some people on this earth live, without the electronics disturbing your inner self. It's meditational all the way. Though not a suitable topic here.

December 2, 2016 at 4:30AM, Edited December 2, 4:55AM

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The scenery was just beautiful.. I sill think I did could not justify that the shots I have taken... Let me try next time again..

Thank you
George

December 2, 2016 at 7:08AM, Edited December 2, 7:08AM

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Hi George,
watched the vid, amazing. Entire thing is amazingly done - shooting and editing. Do we get to see more of your works done before and in future? Where?
Just a few things while I watched - why some shots are little distorted and of less resolution? I would also prefer the captions a little longer. By the time we read the name of the location the shot changes and the caption too. I really had to pause to read those infos. I loved the editing and handling of sound very much. Your narration is beautiful too. I loved the work. Keep it up.

December 5, 2016 at 7:09AM

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Dibyendu Joardar
Director of Photography
337

Thank you. I am planning to make a few more this year. You can see a few of my edits on my youtube channel..

The low res shots were shot on Canon 500D in 720p.. I should have actually kept the captions longer... Thank you.. Thanks a lot. George

December 6, 2016 at 2:22PM

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I can appreciate the simplicity of his system and its efficacy. I recall shootiing a lot of footage about 20 years ago in the rainforests of northern Madagascar where the nearest mains source was many kilometres away. In those days we used Sony Betacams which could go though NP1 batteries at quite a rate. So we also packed 12V burgler alarm sealed lead-acid batteries to be worn on a belt as a backup. A cheap solar panel (as described in the article), a patch of sunlight in the rainforest and intelligent battery rotation along with conservative camera use was all that it took to keep the shoot going for more than 14 days. It's surprising what one can do when faced with a problem. These days I use a tinier version of the 12V lead acid battery to charge my Black Magic Pocket Camera and a 6V baby lead acid battery to charge my Tascam DR 60 recorder. All are built into a special aluminium rig that I made up for extended remote location shooting. Here in Africa the sun shines most of the time and portable solar panels have become even cheaper.

December 5, 2016 at 1:38AM, Edited December 5, 1:38AM

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Andrew Newby
Documentary film maker
1

Dear Andrew

Thank you. Its interesting to know how film-making happened in those days. Solar panels have become much cheaper in the recent years and I think filmmakers should start using this opportunity to film the remote places.

Thank you
George

December 20, 2016 at 1:45PM

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