The Lazy Photographer v2
By George Brits
A PHOTOGRAPHER’S TRUCK
It is always fun to read about other people’s setups. It’s one of the main sources of inspiration when you start building your own truck. But one thing that has become clear to us over the years is that a good setup is specific to what you use it for. If, for example, you are a camper who wants to be on the move all the time, you will be well served by a rig that can be deployed in no time at all. If, on the other hand, you spend all your time rooted to one spot, a rooftop tent that has to be collapsed every time you want to go for a short drive will be a major irritation.
When we travel, we stay in farm cottages, or parks board huts for the vast majority of the time. It is only when we don’t have a choice, like on the coastal section of the Namaqualand National Park, that we pull out the tent. And more often than not, it’s an ugly business. We were active hikers in our younger days and spent many a day traversing the escarpment of the Drakensberg. Our camping setup still reflects this: small, lightweight tents, limited shading, a basic kitchen, a single table, and until recently sleeping on wafer-thin inflatable mattresses on the ground. It’s primitive and takes ages to set up.
As enthusiastic amateur photographers, our first requirement is easy access to cameras and lenses, and all that it entails. This includes lens changes, charging of batteries and downloading of images. Because we tend to stay in out-of-the-way places, a week or two’s supply of fresh produce is key, as is the ability to put together impromptu meals over lunch breaks.
We posted a blog about our setup in 2012 . After 5 years of tinkering, this is what it looks like now:
The central feature of the passenger cabin is the camera cabinet. It takes up a huge amount of space in the back section of the cabin. It is not practical if you travel with a family. But with our kids all grown now, it’s always just the two of us in the truck.
The bottom drawer is quite long, comfortably holding a camera with a very long telephoto lens - hood attached. Alternatively, it takes two cameras with shorter lenses (100-400 and 24-70 in the image below). When pulled out it extends all the way up to the dashboard. So, it’s just a case of reaching out and picking up the camera. The cabinet is made of superwood. We were unsure how durable it would be and feared that it might start shaking apart over time. But we wanted the flexibility of wood because it is easy to rework. After about 60 000km on dirt roads, 15 000km of which was on off-road tracks, it is surprisingly still as sturdy as new. The cabinet is attached to the floor of the truck with three bolts, which have proved more than enough. In fact, we removed some if its bolt-down points over time because it tends to squeak when you over-tighten it.
The biggest change that we’ve made to the drawers was to cut down their side walls. These were about 10cm tall initially to prevent the cameras from bouncing around too much on bad roads. But the cameras turned out to be quite stable, and the high side walls just made it awkward to pick them up. They are now only 2.5cm tall. To prevent the occasional rolling around, we lined the inside of the cabinet with a thin strip of high-density foam instead. When things get really bouncy, we wedge pieces of foam on top of the cameras to keep them from flying around, but this does not happen often.
The second modification was to wire two double USB charging plugs into the front of the cabinet. These are meant for charging phones and iPods. After years of fighting over the truck’s built in charging station, peace finally reigns in the front of the truck.
The chargers for the laptop and the camera batteries have been hard-wired just behind the top camera drawer. It also has hooks from which we permanently hang the variety of USB cables we need for downloading the cameras and connecting to external hard drives. The chargers are fed off a 600W inverter in the back of the truck. We initially installed a regular ‘camping’ inverter that we bought from one of the 4x4 shops. But each time we charged the batteries off an Eskom mains, the charger wanted to recondition the batteries. On closer inspection it turned out that the waveform of the inverter wasn’t good enough, so we replaced it with a Cotek pure sine wave inverter, which solved the problem. If you plan to connect any sensitive electronics to an inverter, we highly recommend that you go this route, instead of using a cheaper modified sine wave inverter.
BINOCULARS IN THE UTILITY BIN
Because cabin space is at a premium when you are wielding two cameras around, we had to make a plan with the binoculars. The only suitable place was the utility bin in the central console. This we have padded and the two binos now fit in snugly. The bits and bobs that usually get dumped in the bin have been moved to a small drawer in the passenger area behind the driver – see below.
SHELF FOR THE LAPTOP
We have used the camera cabinet wall to mount a shelf in the space behind the driver. This is where we download the cameras in the evening. We simply toss the micro-USB cable over the driver’s seat and connect it to the cameras in their drawers. This saves us the hassle of carrying the cameras into the cottage, and back out again the next morning.
DRAWER FOR MISCELLANEOUS ITEMS
One of the more recent additions is a drawer below this shelf. It is used for all the miscellaneous items that we used to keep in the utility bin, which had to make space for the binoculars. It is amazing how much stuff we have accumulated in this drawer in a short space of time. For example, we keep a full set of tools in the back of the truck. But there are only a few items that we use all the time – mostly duct tape and cable ties. So instead of hauling out the tool bag, we keep these in the drawer, with a Leatherman. Makes life a lot easier.
BOX FOR STANLEY FLASKS & LENSES
The box on top of the drawer was intended just to keep the Stanley flasks. But the first time we swapped lenses, the spare lens was dropped in the box to get it out of the way – and it stayed there for the rest of the trip. The box, which is lined with about an inch of high density foam, is now permanently used to keep out spare lenses as well. It’s a lot easier than having to pull them out the Storm box each time you want to swap a lens.
PIPES FOR TRIPODS, FLY RODS, HIKING STICKS &MORE
The final item in the cabin of the truck that is worth mentioning is the set of 110mm drainpipes that we have installed next to the shelf. This is where we store items like tripods, monopods, hiking sticks and fly rods. Easy to reach, and hence much more likely to use.
As an aside, when shooting with long lenses out of the truck window, we wedge a pool noodle that has been slit along its length over the top of the windowpane. It makes a great lens rest. It’s less cumbersome than a bean bag, and more flexible (and a whole lot cheaper) than a gimbal. When not in use, we stick the pool noodles to the ceiling with strips of Velcro. You can just make out the two noodles at the very top of the image below.
The red strip on top of the camera cabinet is an old camping mattress that we use for lying on the ground when doing macro work.
BATTERY PACK & TOOL BOX
The energy source of the truck is a set of four 105Ah deep cycle batteries that have been placed in the cargo bay, directly behind the passenger cabin. (The batteries are directly underneath the box which is visible at the bottom of the image below). They are placed two-aside and take up about two-thirds of the width of the truck. The remainder is used to store our tools and recovery gear.
We used to have six batteries in the pack. But that was a bit of an overkill. Four batteries are sufficient to run two Engel fridge/freezers for the first night, the next day and the next night in relatively warm weather (30C daytime temperatures). By the second morning, the pack is usually down to about to 60%. If you’re on the move again on day two, the pack will usually be back up to full charge by the time you get to your next stop-over. If you stay immobile for longer, your limitation is not the size of the battery pack, but how much charge you can put back into it with your solar panels each day. If it is less than 100Ah (20Ah for the fridge @ 2.5A for ca. 8 hours, 35Ah for the freezer @2.5A for ca.14 hours, and another 20-50Ah for the electronics and the lighting), which is our approximate daily consumption, more batteries will be of no use.
CHARGING & CONSUMPTION
We use a CTEK D250S charger and Smartpass combo to charge the batteries off the alternator when the vehicle is running. When we are parked for longer periods of time, we use a 240W Flexopower (12.3A @ 19.2V) roll-up solar panel combined with a Steca Solarix PRS 3030 controller to keep the battery pack going. It’s probably a little under-spec’ed if the weather does not play along. We could presumably run the solar panels through the CTEK, but like the dual redundancy of having two independent systems. Before leaving home, we top up the battery pack from the mains with a CTEK Multi XS 25000 charger. We occasionally also use this to top up the battery pack if we have access to mains power when travelling.
We have two Cotek pure sine wave inverters in the truck. The 600W unit is used most of the time. Its stand-by current draw is 0.25A, meaning it will consume 6Ah a day. Although it’s not bad, it’s still an unnecessary drain. We only turn it on when needed, unless we are constantly on the move. The second unit is a hefty 3kW inverter. It’s only there as backup. We used to run a kettle off it, but the current draw is a solid 50A+ per battery on a 4-battery setup, probably exceeding what the batteries can deliver comfortably by a wide margin. We now use gas to make our morning brew.
The electronics have been covered by two superwood panels to protect them from accidental bumps.
BATTERY BOX LID: COMPRESSOR, GAS & CHAIRS
The have mounted two ARB compressors on the cover box that sits on top of the battery pack. It may sound like overkill. But we always travel alone, and the last thing you want is a compressor failure when you want to reflate your tyres. Both air hoses are fitted with a quick-release coupling. The handset is mounted on a tool clip to keep it from bouncing around.
Next to the compressors is a small Cadac cylinder. Its hose is long enough to reach the load bay lid of the truck where we keep our Cadac camping stove. Cooking is usually done on the boot lid of the truck.
Finally, our two camping chairs conveniently fit into the remaining space. This makes it so much easier to use the chairs, even for short stops. If they were less accessible, I am sure we would not have used them nearly as much as we do.
The two Engel fridges are mounted on a shelf right behind the battery box and are accessed through the side panels of the canopy. The space above them feels like a bit of a waste, but we use it to pack ‘soft’ items like pillows and sleeping bags. I am sure we could have used the space better, but it works well enough.
SHELF & DRAWERS
We fitted a sturdy shelf across what remained of the truck’s load bay. The top half is separated from the fridges by a trellis to keep things from flying into the fridges or the electronics if we ever have to come to an abrupt stop. It’s a regular trellis that we bought from a gardening shop.
We thought long and hard about fitting drawers to the bottom section but are still undecided. Our main concern is that it feels as if there is a lot of wasted space with rigid drawers. We also don’t like the fact that once the drawers are in, you are committed to that particular configuration. While we wait to make up our minds, we use a set of Big Jim crates as a temporary solution, although we suspect this may become a permanent arrangement. Three of these fit into the space almost perfectly. And you can put in one, two or all three depending on what you are transporting in the back. On long trips, we use one crate for tinned food, rusks, cereal, long life milk, and other boxed items. We use a second crate for fresh vegetables and fruit. We still have to use all three crates on a trip.
ON THE ROOF
We carry a Front Runner water tank on the roof rack. It has been plumbed with flexible food-grade hoses to deliver water at the rear of the canopy. It has a shut off valve on the roof rack as well as one inside the canopy. Although we mostly stay in places where water is not an issue, it is still very useful to have a decent supply of water on hand for washing off after a long hike, for rinsing dishes, or even to fill the kettle for a fresh pot of coffee when the two Stanley flasks run out.
Also on the roof is a 25cm PVC pipe. We use this to store our beach umbrella, spade, and occasionally two paddles for out ARK inflatable. I’m sure an aluminium box would look better, but, as with the drawers, we will only go that route once we are clearer on what it is that we want.
So, in the final analysis, although the truck works really well for us, I’m sure we will keep fiddling with it. After all, that’s half the fun of touring, isn’t it!