Sunday, 26 September 2010

Is there anything you don't take apart?

A couple of weeks ago Canon's man in the UK (well one of them) David Fidler came over to take some pictures of kingfishers. As I was running around getting all the stuff together for the hide - taking things apart to make other things, he asked me 'is there anything you don't take apart?' I explained that I hadn't taken apart the EOS 1D Mk4 that Canon had leant me, but it was simply a matter of time before I did. It got me thinking though; I am constantly taking kit apart to make new bits of kit and fix other bits, always in the pursuit of a shot of some animal that someone hasn't built the kit for photographing yet - and maybe, just maybe there are people out there who might be some how interested how I do it. So this is blog is for you - you the intrepid who aren't afraid to blow up the odd strobe, rewire the odd infra-red system or create a camera kit made predominantly of insulating tape.
me in infrared with flash
I have two current still shots that I'm working on. One is a shot of a wild otter in its holt (den) the other is an underwater camera trap shot of an otter underwater. As I haven't actually got either shot yet you may think that reading a blog about how to get the shot is a little premature. However this isn't about the shot it's about the kit I make and break. As my underwater camera trap is still a very sneaky and new invention I'm not going to reveal it for the moment. However I will explain the otter holt system.

Otters are incredibly shy and to get shots in the holt you need not only have a system that is silent but also invisible. I have two otter holts in my garden and one of them is very accessible - it's an old willow tree with a big crack in it, big enough to get and arm and camera in. I've filmed otters in this holt using infrared cameras for years but never managed to photograph them - hopefully this is about to change.

First thing to do was find a silent camera. SLRs are useless as they have a mirror that needs to flip up and down and a fairly hefty shutter - both of which make too much noise. I had to find a compact - a camera with no mirror and a very quiet shutter. There are plenty around but I also needed full manual control. I opted for a Canon G11. I am a massive fan of the G10 and G11, they are stunning little cameras that anyone can shoot high quality pics on. I spoke to Advanced Camera Services in Norfolk, who'd just converted a Canon 5D MK2 to infrared for me. They though that it would be possible to convert a G10/11 too. A few months later however I found that Canon had got one converted and they were happy to lend it to me.

The camera is stunning and the results very interesting - all pink and purple but lovely. The first thing I needed to do was shut down all automatic features. I was planning to leave the camera out for a long period of time and didn't want it retracting the lens or doing anything else. What I wanted was for the camera to stay in a standby mode and have a PIR (passive infrared sensor) wake it up when the otter entered the holt. After fiddling with the camera I discovered this wasn't possible - the pulse from the PIR would only get it to take a photo and if it shut down the PIR wouldn't wake it back up again. The only thing to do was stop it shutting down. To achieve this I bought a mains power supply for it. This would mean the camera was permanently on but ready for action.

Next step was to make it weatherproof. To do this I bought a small Pelicase. It was just the right size for the camera. Me and my mate Dave Evans (an ex-BBC film engineer) cut a hole in the front for the lens and another in the side for the wires. I took it home and bodged it all together - The camera lens wasn't wide enough so I put on a cheapo wide angle adapter that I found on Amazon. It sort of fitted through the hole Dave had drilled but needed a little help from my Leatherman. In the side I fitted a cable gland and managed to get three wires through it - USB, power and trigger.

Canon G11 housing with slave in front
When the main unit was finished I needed to get it working with the flash. I wanted a system that I could leave on for days. Most flash units on AA batteries will only last 12-24 hours. Which wasn't long enough so I had to make a system that was. I am a massive fan of Vivitar 283 flashguns - they're old school and cheap. I looked for a way of powering them from a larger battery and asked around people in the know. Almost everyone said don't - you'll blow them up. Undetered however I thought I'd give it a go. I bought  a cable from Robert White Photographic, designed to power a 283 from a Quantum battery pack. It was perfect as it fitted the battery compartment. The other end of the cable had a male phono on it. I figured out that the flash needed 6v and around 3amps to work fast and effectively. I found some 6V 3 Amp batteries from RS Online and wired them up with a female phono head - plugged it into the Quantum lead and flash and hey presto - it worked! It's bloody great. The battery lasts for about four to five days!
my home made 6v power supply

The flash then needed to be infrareded. I have a box of old infrared filming lights that don't work. Some have infrared LEDs others have dark IR filters. I found one like this and managed to rip the filter out with a pair of pliers. I then put it on the vice and cut it in half with a stanley knife - which was a bit like cutting a sheet of glass in half. It worked though and when I taped it onto the front of the flash it made the perfect IR flash. To diffuse I stuck and Omnibounce on the front.

Obviously I needed to fire the flash and was having trouble trying to wire the G11 to the Vivitar - the flash just wouldn't fire. The only thing to do was use the small flash on the G11 to fire the Vivitar via a slave unit. This was pretty simply. I stuck a slither of red gel across the G11 flash (otters cant see red well) and velcroed my slave onto the housing next to the small flash - then wired to slave to the flash on a 1 m PC cord.
All the kit that was going into the holt.

It took me hours to get the system into the holt - these things always do. I rewired several bits several times and bits stopped working and all the usual shite.
me sticking the camera in the holt

The PIR system I used is a new brand new system called Traxwatch which is by far the simplest and best camera trap system I have ever used (I have helped develop it a little). Luckily the Traxwatch is wireless so not much went wrong with it. I had trouble with camera mains supply so I scrapped it and found a battery charger that put out 7.5 volts and plugged into a cigarette lighter - after a bit of snipping and wiring I managed to get it powering the camera via the mains and another adapter. Having the USB plugged in meant that I could check the shots on the camera from my laptop - it's a shame that I couldn't 'live view' to the laptop but I guess you can't have it all.

The system has been in place now for nearly two weeks and has shot nothing but a squirrel. It is still working well though - so fingers crossed.

For the record - although I take kit apart and make other bits I am not suggesting you do. I am not qualified to do anything electrical. If people wish to replicate any of the projects they see on this blog they do so entirely at their own risk.

9th October - here's the latest results. The otters have knocked over my beam transmitter! Grrrrr

Still it shows we have two otters on the river - Probably mum and large cub.

Here's the latest Nov 2010 and it's starting to look good!

Second visit on 19th November

And another visitor! 24th November 6:08 a.m.