One of the vital parts of gear on any photography trips are batteries. They can present a number of challenges. Oc course nobody wants to run out of juice and thus not beaing able to take more photographs. More often than not this situation occurs when we are about to capture "The shot" of the trip. Murphy's law, right? I know batteries are fairly cheap these days and nobody could leave for any trip (shorter or longer) without having at least two or three spare units. But if all the batteries run flat in the middle of the trip to greater outdoors, we are out of luck. From that point no other photographs will be taken. Full stop. What to do? Take more spare units? Shoot less? Here is what I do. It is by no means solution to all situations I can be faced with, but it certainly can help in some.
A portable solar panel has became a part of my photography travel gear. Of course I use this only on trips that I know I will be out of power range for number of days or without ability to easily recharge. Also it is obvious that it would not be very useful in destinations behind polar circle during polar night :). In few days I will be going to Nepal for peak climbing. That is an example of the trip this setup can be very useful. There is possibility to recharge batteries (at cost) in tea houses if they have solar panel facilities but it is not wise to rely on that 100%. I also know from previous experience that days, especially mornings can be bright and sunny and solar power can be used quite efficiently. Lastly, depending of your solar panes, some cam be still charging even during cloudy days however the power output will not be optimal. It is better than nothing though. The Nepal trip will be a good test of this setup.
There are number of products on the market that offer portable solar solutions for travelers. Some are better than others, each of them coming with set of strenghts and weaknesses. After some research I opted for Powermonkey Extreme 12V. Product comes with very light solar panel, battery and set of various adapters. Unit is able to charge various devices from phones, iPads to GPS units. I have already successfully tested the charger to charge my Suunto Ambit 2 GPS watch on recent trip to Indonesia. It worked very well.
Battery is powerful enough to be able to charge camera batteries as well. Problem is that most camera manufactures provide only AC battery charger and not many cameras on the market (at least ones I own) have option to be charged via USB. There is a solution for this. The key to it is a DC connector that is included in Powermonkey Extreme kit. After further research I have found a product that can charge camera batteries via DC connector and thus it can be chained to solar panel unit.
The product in question are Watson digital camera chargers. They can be used as AC chargers and they also come with 12VDC Car Adapter which I am using to hook it up with my solar panel solution. Another great feature is that this charger has a removable and replaceable charger plate. Do you own few cameras with different batteries? Is taking few chargers on the trip a pain in the neck? Hallelujah. This allows me to take single charger with few plates that weigh nothing and take little space. I finally got my universal charger. This is a God sent. Even without having the solar charger you can clearly see the advantage of this. And it is not expensive either if you opt for a single battery charger. They offer units to be able to charge two batteries at once if that is what you prefer. If you get a new camera with new set of battery types an extra plate sets you back less than $3. Awesome. As I said, big test of this setup comes in a few weeks. It is weather dependent but even if I left with only fully charged battery unit, I am still able to get 2-3 charges out of it. Reviews on the Internet say the battery unit holds enough power to fully recharge iPhone 3 times.
If you guys have any other solution to this or you use different setups, please share or comment on this article. I am on never ending journey to refine my setups :)