Managing Photo Tech On Location, Off The Grid

August 6, 2015

By David Walker

Communications, power, and data management are the lifeblood of any location shoot. Clients and family members expect photographers to stay connected while they’re in the field, no matter where they are. And almost everything—cameras, computers, speed lights, hard drives, cell phones—now depends upon reliable battery power. That poses a logistical challenge for photographers working far from communications networks and electric grids for long periods.

“I love going into remote parts of the world, but this is one of the hardest parts: I don’t think people realize the battery and media management challenge,” says photographer Peter McBride.

So how do photographers who work in far-flung places for extended periods of time manage those issues? We called several to find out. All of them emphasized that it’s not just a question of packing the right gear—but of careful planning, testing gear before you go, and conserving resources in the field. 

Phoning Home

Staying in touch with editors and family is increasingly easy, because cell phone networks cover most of the six populous continents. But there are still remote places—high in the Himalayas, for instance—where photographers have to find alternative ways to communicate.

Portable satellite phones, which used to be cost-prohibitive, have become increasingly affordable over the last decade. Paul Colangelo has taken several extended trips during the past three years to work on “Surviving Todagin,” a project about a remote, environmentally fragile area of northwestern British Columbia. There’s no cell phone service there, so his kit has always included a hand-held Iridium satellite phone that’s about the size of a two-way radio.

“It’s my connection to the outside world,” he says. “It’s easy enough to throw in backpack, and take with you. And it’s really, really reliable.”

Iridium satellite phones go for $1,000 to $1,400, although refurbished phones are about half the price. Calls cost about a dollar per minute. But Colangelo says he got Iridium to donate the phone—and the calling minutes—under a product sponsorship deal, in exchange for images, social media promotion, and a sponsor credit on the “Surviving Todagin” website.

Colangelo carries the phone in case he needs to call for emergency help. He’s also able to use it to send email messages by connecting it to his computer, although the messages are text-only because the phone lacks the bandwidth for transmitting anything larger than thumbnail images.

But the phone’s most important function, he says, is maintaining contact with his wife-to-be. “We call it the relationship saver,” he says. “The phone is my most important piece of gear. My camera is second.” 

National Geographic contributor Steve Winter, known for his dramatic camera-trap images of exotic, elusive cats all over the world, has relied on satellite phones in remote places since the late ’90s. “At first I got a refurbished satellite phone for around $1,800, which was cheap” at the time. (Previously, the few photographers who had sat phones got them through the big news organizations they worked for.)

“I was the first Geographic photographer to put satellite phone minutes in a story budget,” Winter asserts. He has used both Iridium and Thuraya satellite phones. “I bought two to cover different parts of the world,” he says. 

Like Colangelo, Winter carries a satellite phone to remote places in case of emergency, but mostly to stay in touch with his family. “The hardest part of being in the field is being away from my family,” he says. “How I keep those connections is vitally important. I call home twice a day. 

“You talk about problems at home, problems with the car, whatever. It’s things you maybe don’t want to deal with when you’re standing under the stars in Burma, but do you want to come home and find those connections have disappeared?”

Because satellite phones for voice communications are incapable of transmitting large image files, Winter has also used a portable BGAN (Broadband Global Area Network) terminal on some of his trips. The BGAN satellite network offers broadband Internet connections for phone calls and data transmission. The cost of the terminals starts at around $2,500.

Winter and others recommend satellite phones with some caveats. First, use of satellite phones has been prohibited in India since the Mumbai terrorist attacks of 2011. The Indian military monitors satellite frequencies for violators. “You don’t get around the law. You mess with it, you’re going to jail,” McBride warns.

Fortunately, Winter says, cell phone coverage in India is nearly complete, so you rarely need a satellite phone there anymore. But he still relies on local contacts to check phone coverage wherever he plans to go, to make sure he won’t be incommunicado. 

Winter warns others to beware of certain Chinese-made dongles that pull up cell phone signals when you plug them into the USB port of a laptop. The dongles can include software that blocks connections to satellite systems, and even after you remove the dongles and scrub the software, satellite connections may still be blocked—forcing you to buy another computer to regain satellite access. (The software blocks are built into the dongles because the Chinese government doesn’t want its citizens accessing the Internet through satellites.)

Charging Batteries

The best method for keeping batteries for cameras, computers, strobes and other gear charged up when you’re way off the grid depends on how much logistical support you have. When he was able to hire 86 porters to carry equipment for a story about snow leopards in northern India, Winter packed Honda and Yamaha gas-powered generators. Each weighed about 26 pounds, and cost about $1,000 each. “They fit right into Pelican cases,” he says. 

Colangelo says he’s also enjoyed the luxury of gas-powered generators when he’s been dropped into Todagin by helicopter. But photographers often have to rely on no more than they can carry on their backs. McBride says he’ll typically pack 75 pounds, including camping and camera gear. “If everything is on your back, you have to be very diligent,” he says. “I [allot] one camera battery for every two days. You have to be very careful with your battery life.”

To harness solar power, Colangelo usually relies on 12-volt foldable Solar Boards, made by Brunton. “It’s not possible to schlep a generator up on my back, but solar power is doable,” he says. Brunton is another product sponsor of the “Surviving Todagin” project, so Colangelo got the panels at no cost. For paying customers, though, they range from $500 to $1000 each, depending on size. Panel lengths range from 19–52 inches (all are about 15 inches wide), with output ranging from 7–27 watts. 

Colangelo says he drapes two of the long panels over his tent during the day, and the sunlight charges a series of battery packs. At night, he connects the panel batteries to battery chargers for his camera, computer and other gear. The power stored by the panels during the day charges his equipment overnight. “I use [the solar panels] to charge my laptop, my satellite phone, a bag of around 10 camera batteries, and rechargeable double-A batteries for camera traps, as well we flashlights and headlamps,” he says.

McBride likes Goal Zero solar panels, which are also fold-able, lightweight panels. “There are a bunch of different companies. I’ve used them all, and each has different benefits,” he says. “Find the one that suits you.”

How well solar panels work, McBride explains, “depends on what you’re doing. If you’re trying to run a laptop, they’re not very good. But if you’re trying to charge camera batteries,” they’re up to that task. And he adds that it all boils down to how much weight you can carry. If you’re traveling with the assistance of porters and boats, “you can bring more batteries and solar panels” to keep things charged.

Photographer Tim Hussin says he had a disappointing experience “with a small solar panel connected to a lithium battery” that he tried during a filmmaking trip by bicycle around the U.S. with his brother, Noah Hussin. “It didn’t work out,” he says. “At first we used it to power a laptop, in order to adjust video and photos. But that drained the battery really quickly, so it wasn’t effective.” 

A big part of the problem was that the Hussin brothers had overloaded bikes. They couldn’t carry enough solar panels and batteries to make the panels practical as their primary source of power. So they ended up charging batteries at diners and other places along the way. “We had to be conscious all the time about finding outlets,” he says. They occasionally used the solar panel to charge their cell phones, but nothing more.

Managing Image Files

McBride says he’s struggled with hard drives and image file management on some of his far-flung expeditions. Some hard drives, he says, don’t work very well above 18,000 feet. “You’d hear them skipping and scratching. I’ve had experience where you couldn’t pull [images] off discs.”

Solid state hard drives have alleviated much of the problem. But drives require a computer, and they suck power, so if McBride has to travel “super light” and leave his laptop behind, he also leaves the drives. “I depend on camera cards. I fill one up, go to the next, and treat them preciously,” he says. 

On a recent Grand Canyon trip, during which he shot stills and video, McBride says he carried at least 300GB worth of camera cards. “I use small cards—16- and 32GB—because you don’t want a lot of images on one big 64GB card if you drop your camera in the water,” he says. 

It’s an arrangement that lightens his load, but leaves him with no way to back up image files until he returns home. McBride says the solution he’d like to see “is a little hard drive that runs on its own battery, that lasts two weeks [on a single charge], that has a terabyte of storage space—or at least half a terabyte—and that has an attachment for downloading camera cards, so you could back up your files in the field without adding big charging needs” of a computer.

“Maybe I should make one of those for the five of us who need it,” he jokes.


The Technical Ingenuity of National Geographic’s Photo Engineering Department

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