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.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. It looks like an exciting project.

  3. fascinating, but way beyond my engineering capabilities or my photo ambitions! Good read, though, thanks

  4. Do young and females Otters spraint like male otters and if they do is their spraint smaller than a dog otters?

  5. Fantastic blog post Charlie, always good to read "How it's done".

    Appears to have paid off.

  6. I find your projects fascinating Charlie! The photos achieved so far look great and I look forward to hearing and seeing more!

  7. Enjoyed these shots! Any chance for colour shots at night?

  8. Terrific stuff yet again - glad the work you did building the holt has been worthwhile.