In the old days of extended documentary shoots in faroff places like the rain forests of northern Madagascar or the deserts of Namibia, a Betacam with a pile of NP1 batteries posed serious power problems. So we used 12V lead acid burglar alarm 'brick' batteries worn on the belt, and charged them with the first solar panels coming on to the market at that time. We learned to be frugal and economical in our shooting, use manual zoom and turn the camera off more often than we normally would, and we always came home with enough footage.
Whenmore recently I acquired a Blackmagic Design Pocket Camera, I was initially quite despondant about how quickly the little beast tore through those Nikon EN-EL20 batteries. In the beginning I thought that there was something wrong with my camera. When I started searching for solutions, I realised that it could be powered externally by a 12V source. And remembering the NP1 days, I re-visited the lead acid/12V solution. I built a custom cage from inexpensive square section aluminium tubing with hard plastic corner right-angles to hold it together. I fitted the Pocket camera on an ersatz Manfrotto base plate within the cage and I fitted a neat aluminum switch box (obtained from an electronics equipment wholesaler) under the cage. My tripod baseplate fits on the bottom of the box. Inside the aluminium box is a 12V 1.3AH sealed lead acid battery (dimensions: 100mmx50mmx40mm), secured by industrial strength velcro.
Since using it, I've never run out of power. I charge the battery without removing it from its box by hooking up a small gel battery charger. On the road I boost it with an attachment I cobbled together through the car's cigarette lighter. And if I'm out in the bush, a cheap Chinese-made solar panel does the trick.
In some situations I need to manage audio because I'm shooting solo. So I've attached a Tascam DR-60 to the top of the rig. In this way i can record sound either independently or through the camera, which as most people are aware, is a non-starter on its own in the audio department.The DR 60-D is also quite a battery chewer, so I found a tiny 6V sealed lead acid battery and velcro-attached it to where the aluminium tube from the cage and the box containing the bigger battery join. My battery charger has 12V and 6V options, so I don't have to carry two charger. The other day my car battery went flat and I experienced the unexpected bonus of charging that up too (although it took a bit longer).
These were simple homemade solutions to a problem that I'm sure many people encounter. My rig might not look like the most professional example from a high-end manufacturer, but it's neat and extremely functional. In fact anyone who's ever seen it has always remarked on how good it looks. Here in South Africa imported gear is extremely expensive but I reckon my rig didn't cost me more that R600 (which is about $40-$45) and that included both batteries and the charger.
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.
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