When I first started my career as a photographer, many of my assignments required weeks in the field. And when I say "field," think remote tropical beaches or high Arctic wilderness in Alaska. Since I was using film cameras, all I needed was a big bag of AA batteries, and I was good for a month without power.
Now my long assignments are a little different. I may only be in the field for one week, but my camera gear requires volumes more power. I can’t remember the last time I needed AA batteries for a camera. Instead, I need to recharge my sat phone, laptop, camera batteries and maybe a few rechargeable AAs for my speedlight.
How can one power up all this gear when no AC power is available? Today, photographers can use the sun and solar power to recharge all their devices.
Solar power has been tapped for years to supply power for homes and big industry, but only recently have smaller, light-weight options become available. These new solar-charging units can easily be carried in your pack, and have enough power to recharge iPhones and laptops multiple times on one charge. The next time you’re camping or traveling in some remote place without reliable access to power, try one of these chargers to power up your devices.
The Powertraveller Powermonkey Extreme (www.powertraveller.com) is a great solar charger for your cell phone, GPS and iPad. This compact unit comes with a small solar panel, a battery and a variety of cords and adapters. The 9,000 mAh lithium polymer battery can be charged by solar, AC power or via a USB cable to another source. The battery has two output settings for powering different devices, with an LCD screen on the side letting you know how much power is left.
In sunny conditions, it takes about 15 hours to fully charge the battery, enough juice to charge your iPhone six times. One advantage of this unit is its durability and waterproof rating. The battery can withstand full emersion in shallow water for up to 30 seconds. If you’re floating down the Grand Canyon on a 12-day trip, just attach the solar panel to your boat and let it soak up the Arizona sunshine. Don’t worry about a little water splash when you run Lava Falls.
Brunton (www.brunton.com) has long been known for producing outdoor gear, and they have a nice lineup of solar panels and batteries to provide power in the field. Brunton offers an extensive line of solar panels, including foldable Solaris versions and their popular lightweight Solar Rolls. These panels are waterproof, and many can charge one of Brunton’s batteries such as the Impel or Sustain. Better yet, these solar panels can be daisy- chained together to speed up recharging times. The Solar Rolls also come with a car battery cable. Arrive back to your car after a weeklong camping trip and the battery is dead? Hook up a Solar Roll and start charging the battery. Brunton produces two batteries that can be charged by their solar panels: the Sustain 2, a 6,000 mAh lithium polymer battery, and the Impel 2, a 13,000 mAh battery. Both batteries can be charged via AC power and your car battery via cigarette car adapter. The batteries offer output settings of USB, 12V, 16V and 19V output depending on the device you’re charging. The batteries come with a variety of cable connectors, and are water-resistant. The durable rubber coating helps protect the battery for rugged field use.
Charging many devices only takes plugging the appropriate cable into the battery. To charge my Nikon D300S batteries, I bought a generic 12V cigarette car charger for the Nikon EN-EL3 battery. I plug this into the cigarette adapter of my Sustain battery, and my battery starts charging.
When I’m going on a longer expedition or want more power options, I turn to Goal Zero (www.goalzero.com) for their extensive line of power packs, solar panels and flashlights to meet the needs of any photography assignment. They offer larger power packs like the Yeti 400, with 300 watts of continuous power. When used with the AC inverter, you can plug your 110V AC charger directly into the power pack. Goal Zero has a wide selection of solar panels that have simple cord diagrams to show you how to tether them together or plug them into your battery.
My favorite device from Goal Zero is the Sherpa 50 Recharger Kit with inverter. This kit comes with the Sherpa 50 battery, the Nomad 13 solar panel and a 110V inverter. I just plug in the Nomad 13 solar panel to the Sherpa 50 battery, and after six to eight hours of good sun, the battery is fully charged. But, here’s the best part for photographers. Unlike many other solar systems, Goal Zero supplies a 110V inverter that attaches to the battery. I attach the inverter to my Sherpa 50 battery, and plug my Nikon D4 battery charger right into the unit. No fussing with special adapters—just plug it in like an AC wall outlet.
But the Goal Zero system doesn’t stop there. When I’m headed to a remote backcountry area, I take the Scout 150 power pack and Nomad 27 solar panel with me. The Nomad 27 will charge the Scout 150 in about six hours with good sun. With the Scout 150 fully charged, I can run my laptop, sat phone and tablet for hours and hours. I use the Goal Zero Light-A-Life to illuminate my workspace. It’s just like being at home.
(Editor’s Note: Tom is working with older Goal Zero gear, some of which have been updated by Goal Zero. The Scout 150 is now the Escape 150, for example. See the Goal Zero website for the latest models.)
Think about how many devices you want to charge in the field: camera batteries, laptop, cell phone, tablet, GPS; the list may be long. And unless you’re an electrician, the varying voltage and power requirements can get confusing.
Here’s the good news: Many solar chargers have built-in circuitry to avoid damaging your product. One good rule of thumb to follow is recharge from a battery, not directly from your solar panel (check your specific panel for directions). Recharging from a battery is safer and has a constant output, and batteries often have different output options to match your device. I do recharge my small devices directly from my solar panels using a 12V cigarette car adapter, since the panels are designed for this use, but if I was charging my higher voltage laptop, I would use a battery that was charged by my solar panel. I’d rather not worry about fluctuating current as the sun goes in and out of clouds.
Another plus for batteries is that they store power. If you get one day of sunshine and four days of rain, you’ll be able to power your devices using your battery until the sun comes back out.
I’m already thinking of my next adventure. I’ll fly into Alaska’s vast Wrangell-St. Elias Range, set up a nice basecamp near a turquoise glacial lake, and photograph ice climbers and stunning landscapes. Two weeks without power! I’ll rely on my solar panels and batteries to keep me juiced up.