Solar Charging A Camera… A Little Advice

Solar charging a camera is not tough, but most websites & stores selling solar chargers don’t know the difference between the statements: ‘can charge a camera’ vs ‘will properly charge a camera’. I thought it might be handy to provide a quick reference to the essential info you need to know in order to solar charge a camera. Any camera. From simple point & shoot models to top-end dSLRs. I promise not to go into great detail… just the essential info.

First things first… a couple of important FAQs…

“Can I use the charger that came with my camera?”
No. These chargers operate from AC wall outlets, so to do so requires additional equipment you won’t want to carry, & you will waste a lot of solar power in the process too. For simplicity & efficiency, use a DC charger instead (see info below).

“I already have a solar panel… can I use it?”
Yes. Follow through this article as if you don’t already have a panel, and then see my “What If” notes at the end.

“I have some other devices to charge, like my phone & GPS. What do I do?”
No problem. Read through this article assuming just your camera, then see the “What If” notes at the end.

Now, properly solar charging a camera…
What kind of battery does your camera use?

A : If it uses a little 3.6V or 3.7V battery pack, see the USB Charging sections below
B : If it uses a little 7.2V or 7.4V battery pack, see the 12V Charging sections below
C : If it uses AA batteries, see the NiMh AA Charging sections below

Next, we choose a DC charger to use instead of the AC model that came with your camera…

A : USB Charging
You’ll be happy to know that this is the simplest, and least expensive of all the solar charging options.
Here is the charger you will want…
Ansmann PL Vario Universal Charger
Why? It adapts to virtually any small 3.6/3.7V battery, any 7.2/7.4V battery, and is powered by any USB port. Including the ones on USB solar panels. Simple is beautiful.
Is it safe? Yes… all the charge cycle monitoring & controls to complement the smarts in your battery pack.
Got a camera that can charge directly in the camera via the sync cable? Great, give it a try to make sure it works from solar… the camera might consume some power itself to do the job, but it might save you the cost of buying an additional charger.
USB chargers for dedicated models…
There are USB chargers available for most camera models now. These chargers take the incoming USB 5V power and adapt it to the voltage your specific camera battery needs.
Here are a few of the many we have available…
Canon LP-E6 USB Charger
Canon BP511 USB Charger
Canon NB10L USB Charger

Nikon EN-EL3 USB Charger
Nikon EN-EL9 USB Charger
Nikon EN-EL12 USB Charger
Nikon EN-EL14 USB Charger
Nikon EN-EL15 USB Charger
Nikon EN-EL19 USB Charger
Nikon EN-EL24 USB Charger

GoPro Hero 3/3+ USB Charger (dual)
GoPro Hero 4 USB Charger (dual)

B : 12V Charging
You have a larger battery pack for a dSLR, camcorder, or premium point-&-shoot. No problem. Here’s are the chargers I most commonly recommend…
Ansmann Vario
Ansmann Vario Pro
Why one of these? They adapt to your battery, and any other camera battery you might ever own, & can power from wall socket, car, or solar panel.

C : NiMh AA Charging
Definitely the cheapest type of camera battery around, but you probably find that you need to charge more frequently. Use the following charger…
Maha PowerEx MH-C401FS
Why? Your camera might use 2 AA batteries, it might use 3, it might use 4. Regardless, you will want to charge each battery individually, so you will want a charger that has single channels (ie not just 2 or 4 batteries at a time). Also, this charger doesn’t use much power for itself, and it is happy with a low-power source (ie it won’t complain if it can’t get lots of power from your solar panel when the sun goes behind a cloud).

Next, we choose a solar panel to meet your needs…

A : USB Charging
Check the printed specs on your battery pack. Most of these small 3.6/3.7V battery packs are in the 1,000mAH range (a measure of the capacity of the battery).
If you plan to drain a full battery every 1-3 days…
Voltaic Ultralight 6 Kit
Stellar USB
Goal Zero Nomad 7 Plus

If you plan to drain a full battery once or twice a day…
Voltaic Arc 10W
Goal Zero Nomad 14 Plus

Why these? Because you are mobile, you need a panel that works well in a variety of sunlight conditions, is lightweight, & easy to pack. The heavy crystalline panels, and gimmicky pocket chargers are simply not your best fit.

B : 12V Charging
Check the printed specs on your battery. Most of the 7.2/7.4V batteries are in the 1200mAH range (a measure of capacity), with camcorders often upwards of 2,000mAH.
If you plan to drain a full camera battery every 2-3 days…
Powerfilm 5 -or- Powerfilm R-7
If you plan to drain a full battery once or twice each day…
Powerfilm 10 -or- Powerfilm R-7
If you plan to drain a full camcorder battery each day…
Powerfilm R-14 -or- Voltaic Arc 20W
Why these? Sensitive solar cell technology gives you power in a wide range of sunlight conditions, plus they are the lightest available for packing. The Powerfilm “R” panels are made for boats, kayaks & wet places, so are ideal if you expect to get wet.

C : NiMh AA Charging
I’ll go on the assumption that you have good quality AA’s with capacity of at least 2,000mAH.
If you plan to drain a pair of AA’s every day…
Powerfilm 5 -or- Powerfilm R-7
If you plan to drain 4 AA’s each day…
Powerfilm 10 -or- Powerfilm R-7
Why these? Sensitive solar cell technology gives you power in a wide range of sunlight conditions, plus they are the lightest available for packing. The Powerfilm “R” panels are made for boats, kayaks & wet places.

Putting It Together…

That’s about it for solar-direct charging of your camera. Put the battery in the charger, plug the charger into the solar panel, and expose to as much sunlight as possible.

Considerations & “What If’s”…

“What if I want to charge at night when it is more convenient?”
Simply use a solar storage battery to store your solar panel’s power during the day. Then you can plug in your charger anytime, day or night, to charge your camera battery at full speed (ie not dependent on the sunlight conditions from moment to moment).
Which solar storage battery you choose depends on your solar panel type (USB or 12V), and how much storage you want for the locations you travel to, and of course your budget.

“I already have a solar panel… can I use it?”
Absolutely. The same recommendations outlined above apply, but you will need to compare the output of your panel against my recommendations in order to properly budget your power. For example, if you have a little 0.5W pocket USB charger, then it will take 4x as long to get the same power as the Goal Zero Nomad 7 Plus solar panel recommended above. Consider this against your desired camera usage.
If you have a 12V solar panel, but the above discussion led you to a USB solution, then you may need to use a USB car outlet adaptor. Plug one of these into your solar panel’s CLA output socket like you would your car dashboard. There are significant losses, as these adaptors simply cut the voltage down from 12V to 5V, leaving the amperage as-is (meaning that you will lose over 50% of your power)

“What if I have other things to charge?”
Once you have access to your own power everywhere you go, you soon find the need to charge more than what you originally intended. Plus, you will probably want to sell power to the other people in your group & recoup some of your investment!
Anyway, if you want to add something small like a phone or iPod, the above systems will handle the small additional demand. Use your USB Sync cable in the case of USB solar panels, and use your device’s car adaptor if you have a 12V solar panel. Plug & play.
Smart Phones & Tablets Alert!
These things are fussy, and demand a minimum amount of power (500mA in the case of an iPhone, 1500mA in the case of an iPad). So, these will not charge solar-direct easily… use a solar storage battery to provide the necessary power.

“What if I have a lot of extra things to charge?”
We will need to talk about it to make sure you get the equipment that will cover your needs properly. Send me an email, and we’ll review your equipment list, destination, time of year, and mobility to create a system & power budget.

Thanks for reading! I hope you found it useful.
Be sure to tell your friends, colleagues, & travel mates!
Let me know if you have any questions or comments, I am always happy to help.

Out here, things have to be a little tougher,
a little smarter,
and a little more responsible.
Welcome to the Modern Outpost.

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