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Stealing African sunshine

A project this past summer took me to one of the most challenging environments we’ve shot to date.  Rural Africa can offer some of the most breathtaking scenes you can hope to point your camera at, but those images come with challenges.  Aside from the various health and safety concerns associated with extended travel in rural Africa, approaching a trip here for the purpose of filming a documentary brings along a whole host of technical complications.  

Among those challenges are the potential for equipment failure, backup of memory cards, simplicity of gear, and most importantly, power.  We would be off the grid in a small village in rural Kenya for the better part of a month.  We were told that a neighboring town 2 miles away had power on occasion though not reliably.

The next likely candidate for recharging equipment was use of a generator, though this route had its own complications including finding a generator, repairing it if it broke down, and the availability of fuel.

One thing we could count on, though, was 12 solid hours of sunlight per day.  I honestly didn’t even expect solar power to be viable option at first.  The battery hungry gear consisted of two DSLRs, one digital audio recorder, several cell phones, and two small laptops.  We started down the path of estimating our daily power consumption and attempting to find a reasonable panel/holding cell combination that may even possibly sustain us.

The best bet ended up being the GoalZero Sherpa 120 battery along with their universal inverter and Nomad 27 watt fold-out panel.  The entire system is surprisingly compact considering it was going to meet our power needs for several weeks.   Basically the daily routine was to fold out the panel and place it on a roof that had direct sunlight throughout the day.  Granted we were very near the equator so the angle of sunlight was ideal.  Most dwelling roofs that did not have tree obstructions seemed to fit the bill.

A compound in the village of Lela, Kenya - solar rig on the roof of a building

On the conservative side we were able to recharge about three Canon LP-E6 batteries a day.  Additionally we did bring along a battery grip that allowed us to work off of AA batteries in a pinch.  Setup of the system is really straightforward.  The panel plugs into the battery and when you have enough sun the battery display indicates that it is receiving a charge.  At night we hooked the battery up to the power inverter and simply plugged our chargers in and charged.

GoalZero informed me that they are in the process of upgrading this kit which integrates the inverter and the battery, reducing the physical components.  All in all, it is incredibly feasible to work off the grid on a moderate shooting schedule with DSLRs.  You’d be hard pressed to keep your RED running all day on this setup though most smaller setups should be fine with about 10+ hours of sunlight.  Best of all the power is free!  You almost feel like you’re stealing.  Just beaming down from the sun right into your batteries.

The documentary is due out in late winter. Check out the trailer.

– Justin

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