Travel photography often requires being far away from civilization. That’s actually one of the beauties of the job – being out there, often totally alone. But it comes with some challenges.
After several months of living in my car let me take you through my considerations and share some experiences.
For a photo project in Iceland I knew to be shooting deep in the highlands for months. Staying in nature round the clock gives you a unique understanding for the surrounding. Entering a hotel each night destroys that feel, takes you away from your subject emotionally.
Furthermore, I wanted to be close to my subjects when waiting for the right weather and light. Hence, I needed a solution for being independent from hotels and campgrounds.
My solution was getting a car and turning it into a mobile photo base, a place to live and work. But I like to keep things simple. It saves money and things you don’t have cannot break.
Since I don’t like to be limited by my car, I looked for a very robust off-roader. Not for driving offroad in fragile nature but for being able to take all the small bumpy tracks taking me deeper into nature and farther from the main traveller’s paths.
Another consideration was being able to sleep in the car comfortably. Being rested has a value in itself. Sounds simple – but with my size of nearly 2m (about 6.5ft) finding a car long enough was not that easy.
After considering budget and requirements I bought a Land Rover Defender. Capable for sure, long, and with enough space to live in it comfortably during rainy days (in Iceland: many of those).
For you a van or any other car might be the right solution. Just be aware that you might spend quite a bit of time in your car.
One of the main issues when shooting digital in remote areas is having enough battery life for operating the camera. Sure, we all have plenty of batteries. But at one point we need to charge.
Same with the laptop. From time to time you might want to check your work on the laptop. For a day or two you can work with the internal battery, but that will not last forever.
A third device in need for external power is the smartphone. Your battery can drain quickly when having a weak connection in remote areas. For sure you want to stay connected, especially during the long days of wait.
Therefore, a second battery in the car is kind of a must for keeping all your electronic devices running. Don’t dare to charge all of them with your main battery unless driving around. If your main battery drains you can get stuck somewhere far off without help!
Tip: Mount the second battery in a way that it charges automatically when your main car battery is full. You can also add a switch, so the second battery can assist the main battery if for any reason it got too weak to start the engine.
Since smoking is bad anyway, make better use of the cigarette lighter by charging some batteries during the drive. Always charge something while driving to have all your devices as charged as possible before switching off the engine.
But what do when staying at a place for longer? Don’t charge with the cigarette lighter 12V socket when the engine is off.
In my car, I mounted a box with some additional 12V sockets, which are powered by the second battery. Just make sure to have a fitting cable for charging all your devices with a 12V cable and plug.
Another solution would be buying a car power inverter. But still you will need one 12V socket connected to the second battery (otherwise you’ll quickly empty the main one).
Surviving the Cold
Depending on where you shoot it might be cold. Not just in night time but also when you wait hours in the car for the conditions to turn in your favor.
Theoretically you could have the engine running for the heater. But there are several issues with this approach. First: It’s definitely not the best solution for the environment! Second when not driving, the heater might not heat up much. Third: fuel consumption can be a topic when far off gas stations. And finally: What to do in the night?
The only real investment in my car was a diesel heater (like Webasto) that takes from the car’s fuel tank. It is way more efficient than heating with your engine running. Actually, even with freezing temperatures outside my car can be turned into a sauna.
Still this heater uses fuel, but much less. Be aware that the fan of the heater also needs to be powered, taken from the battery (another argument for a second battery).
Keeping Everything Powered
Using a heater, charging your camera batteries, operating the laptop – all these tasks together can drain a second battery pretty quickly.
Therefore, make sure to drive a few kilometers every couple of days. If not heading for a photo spot with the car anyway, I usually drive in a low gear for an hour at latest every third day. Never ran out of power.
As said, I prefer things to be simple. There are many (expensive) solutions of how to convert camper vans and cars as a mobile home. Unless you seek for comfort there is no need for a professional conversion.
I opted for mounting a wooden board with a mattress into the back of the car as a bed. Cheap and simple, saving lots of money better spent on photography.
Another advantage of the “bed in the car solution” is having a comfortable place for reading or having a quick nap when waiting for weather changes. Heater on, and it’s as cozy as at home. Well, nearly.
Eating and working
The bed I equipped with a folding mattress. When working or cooking, the mattress can be folded and the wooden board of the bed turns into a table.
For cooking a simple camping cooker will do the job. The simpler the better. Just make sure it stands stable and cannot tip over while cooking. Outdoors this is less of a problem, but you don’t want the car start burning. Also, always have at least one fire blanket next to you when cooking!
On my trips, I’ve seen people go crazy with organizing fixed storage room like shelves and drawers in their cars for camera equipment and food and all kind of things they have on board.
First, the less you carry with you the less storage room you need. In my case I had exactly….none.
My camera equipment with all chargers, batteries, and so on fits a simple backpack and sits in the passenger seat, with the seat reducing the shocks to the equipment when driving rough dirt tracks.
In the back, one hiking backpack takes the sleeping bag and pillow, another hiking backpack is filled with the clothes.
One box with food, another takes a cup, a plate, cutlery, and a pot for cooking. A third box is filled with equipment for the car like recovery ropes and oil. That’s it, no more you need.
In my opinion, it is much more important to have everything in reach without having to dig deep. Everything should be reached from within the car with a flick of the wrist. Don’t complicate things – ease your life.
One critical issue, kind of a natural must, I did not have to solve. During my shooting, I was always close enough to reach a toilet if really necessary in an acceptable amount of time. Anyway sometimes I needed to charge the two batteries of the car with a little drive.
What would I change in my setup?
First, I’d love to extend the fuel tank. Driving off-road and heating with a standard Land Rover tank doesn’t last long. Some spare fuel in canisters on the roof is not a problem but refilling is dirty and smelly. In an environment where you might have to save each drop of water cleaning your hands is not the first best use.
Second, I’d go for the largest second battery found. Calculating the power left for charging, worrying not to drain the battery too much (and harming it), takes focus and attention that should fully be on shooting.