When capturing that perfect picture, it’s not just the camera equipment you need to worry about but also the vehicle in tow.
Hugh Brown is a documentary photographer based in Australia. he writes:
“I have made it my life's work to document aspects of our world that are rapidly changing. People. Towns. Occupations. Landscapes. It is my life's goal to take important photographs: not "pretty photographs". When I hang up the camera I want to feel that I have made a meaningful contribution to the life and conscience of our planet.”
His work often requires going out to treacherous places and remote locations. For this, he needs a vehicle set-up he can rely on, a home-away-from-home that he can station himself whilst he waits for that perfect photograph that calls to him.
With a lot of trial and error, he’s nailed down a photojournalist’s dream rig. Read on to find out more.
I’ve been working in the North of Australia for nearly 20 years. Most of the time I’m up there in summer. But sometimes in winter. The winters are generally pretty easy and so there are fewer things that can go wrong. Summer, however, is a different story. 45-degree temperatures are regular. Often higher. I’ve seen stretches of 11 consecutive days where on 10 of those days the mercury climbed to or above 45 degrees.
I get into some very very remote country. Mainly in Western Australia. This is a fairly typical camp of mine and it’s why I love the bush so much. The evenings and early mornings are just awesome and it doesn’t matter what time of the year it is.
And here’s a typical track. What track might you ask? Well, that’s what I said. No-one had been along this track for about five years.
I’m lucky I’ve trained in survival so that gives me the confidence I can cope in most situations even if things with the vehicle go pear-shaped. Everyone travelling in outback Australia should have some survival training under their belt.
It’s taken me many years to get my vehicle set-up to where it is now. Previously I fumbled my way around. Things would go wrong. I would throw money at it. Things would still go wrong. I’d throw more money at it. And it was a never-ending cycle of things going wrong and money spent. Add to that the fact that many of the auto-sparkies and mechanics up north don’t know what they are doing, it’s a recipe for disaster at best. But sometimes worse.
This was my old rig. Serviceable. But the vehicle wasn’t big enough for my needs and that was always a problem. The auto-electrical side of things was a major problem. Batteries always running down. The solar never seemed to do what I was told that it would. A never-ending battle.
I no longer muck around with sub-optimal equipment or auto-electrical gear. The money saved is a false economy. You end up spending more going back and forth to sub-standard auto-sparkies in outback Western Australia who charge A$160 an hour and don’t sort the problems.
Water and mud are killers as well in summer. Corroding electrical gear. Creating shorts that are impossible to find.
I chose a Toyota Landcruiser Dual Cab VDJ79 Series for my latest rig. The main reason being that it is bigger than most of the other vehicles out there. I wanted the dual cab so that I could carry my cameras in the back part of the cab for two reasons. First, for more temperature control in the summer. And second, for speed in accessing the cameras can often be critical. So I also ripped out the seats and put in a false floor so that the cameras could sit on top and things such as tripods and some tools could sit underneath the floor. The fridge, of course, being on the other side of the cab.
This is the new rig. My camp being about 120 kilometres north of Meekatharra after a major survival walk in the Kimberley during summer. It works brilliantly. Everything is easy to access and I chose a simple design that offered maximum options for reconfiguration if necessary.
And this is the false floor. Not great lighting but you get the drift. It works brilliantly also and was made by Pete Hodgson at Steel Stuff in Northam. You can’t go past the quality of their work. The fridge sits on top, my camera gear and some camping and recovery gear underneath. Plus the sat phone pelican case.
Inside the Cabin
Inside the cab, I also incorporated a 350-watt REDARC Pure Sine Waver Inverter. Next to the inverter, we fixed a power board which powers my laptop, charges camera batteries and things such as mini-jump-starters and sat phones for readiness in an absolute last resort situation. Although the mini-jump-starter batteries are also used in my photographic work. Trade secret. Won’t go too far into that one!
REDARC's 350 watt Pure Sine Wave Inverter. One of two inverters in the vehicle.
The Rear Canopy
I then had a canopy built by Pete Hodgson of Steel Stuff out at Northam here in WA. He did a brilliant job. The canopy was made from a combination of alloy and steel. The steel being used in the structurally important areas. For the frame, I wanted to keep that canopy inside as simple as possible. So I put in two sets of two drawers: one set on each side.
Pete’s work at Steel Stuff was first class. It’s rare to come across tradesmen these days that pay such attention to detail. I met Pete in the Pilbara a few years ago as he likes photography also. The mesh you can see attached to the rear and roof is for lighter stuff such as fishing rods, occy straps, umbrellas and whatever else. Works very very well and helps to optimise the use of space in the pod.
Weight was now becoming important and this is one of the weaknesses of the dual cab model. You’ve only got very limited canopy room in front of the rear axle. So here I had to choose what weight would go at the front and what weight I would have to put at the back. Having only limited canopy room at the front, I made the judgment call to put my two 40 kilo deep cycle batteries there, and then put my two heavy 285/75/R16 tyres on the outside back of the canopy.
Save for a stretching of the length of the vehicle, the tyres at the back are a necessary evil. It’s not ideal because it creates somewhat of a cantilever effect but such is life. I worked to get around this problem by installing Firestone airbags which help keep everything in balance and minimises any cantilever effect.
The drawers on the left side of the canopy store my food and cooking utensils. The drawers on the other side hold my tools and recovery gear.
A false floor was built over the tops of the drawers and this left some space at the rear where I carry an 88 key piano to keep the fingers working when I’m out bush. Don’t laugh. I get ribbed about that often.
One of the special needs I have out bush is that I need my batteries to stay topped up even when I’m not moving. And one of the challenges unique to my circumstances is that I can stay put in the one spot for some period of time. Long enough to drain batteries if everything is not working right.
This had been a problem I’d had for some years. I went to a shop in Broome. They sold me a 120-watt portable solar panel and said that would drive my 60-litre fridge in my last Cruiser. It didn’t! And then I put a second 160-watt panel and that didn’t drive it either. My batteries kept running down.
I put a lot of research into this vehicle. How could I keep the batteries charged when parked for a long period of time?
In Northern Australia in summer, solar panels don’t work overly efficiently. Panel efficiency is impacted significantly by heat. And this was what most of the “problem solvers” had failed to realise over the years when I would take my vehicle in to see them.
I can’t remember the exact numbers, but the optimum temperature for solar panel efficiency is an ambient temperature of 25 degrees. As the panel heats up above 25 degrees the performance of that panel drops off significantly. So imagine when the ambient temperature outside hits 45 degrees……
Two 40 kilo 125aH AGM batteries went into the front of the canopy as stated above. Just above those AGMs, I put another powerboard and then an 800-watt Pure Sine Wave Inverter. The inverter will drive laptops, sat phone and battery charging as well as the piano! When it’s hot out bush and not much happening I get under my canvas awning and practice the piano! Usually, by this stage, the laptop packs up as the fan inside can’t handle the heat.
The inverter is the blue object seen in frame. Display panel for the REDARC Battery Monitoring System, The Manager 30, seen in the top of frame.
I also set up a REDARC battery management system inside the canopy, The Manager30. This enables the charging of my auxiliary batteries from a combination of 240-volt power (where relevant), solar, the car’s alternator and the car’s other batteries. It’s a brilliant set-up and very easy to use.
The REDARC Battery Management System, The Manager30 is the black object just before it’s about to be installed. A heavy backing plate was made by Richard at Vehikool to make sure it stayed where it needed to stay. Corrugations can be brutal in the bush.
Things have also been set-up so that If I were to have an alternator failure under the bonnet, then power from the two AGMs in the canopy could be redirected to the ECU up front. I’m not sure how many hours we would get doing this, but the auto-sparky who did the work indicated that I could get up to 12 hours of power to keep the car moving.
I also fixed some LED strip lights inside the canopy so I can see at night easily.
Under the Bonnet
Under the bonnet, we replaced the starting battery and added a deep cycle auxiliary battery. A REDARC BCDC1225 In-vehicle Battery Charger was incorporated to optimise the rate of charge going into the batteries when the car is running and a battery isolator switch a REDARC SBI212 - was added to protect the starting battery when I am parked up and running auxiliary appliances (eg, piano!).
What about the Rest of the Vehicle?
Getting the vehicle set-up was a much bigger mission and far more expensive than I could have ever envisaged. But once started you’ve gotta finish right?
The first thing I had to do was get the GVM upgraded from what was 3300 kilograms to its current GVM of 3700 kilos. I could have gotten more if I’d stayed with the standard wheel tracks that come with this vehicle. But I couldn’t get my head around running through sand or washouts where the rear wheel track was narrower than the front. I’m guessing things were done that way to save Toyota some money. But it is a stupid characteristic of the vehicle. So here I got a Tru-Tracker kit from Geelong which has been working well. This avoids the problems associated with wheel spacers, offset rims and the potential for illegality that attaches to some of these issues.
So the track widening kit went in….
I then got the strongest suspension I could find. Not cheap. Plus Koni 90 shocks and Dobinson 11 leaf springs. I used Malaga Suspension and their service was top-shelf. I also had some Firestone airbags put in the back to help manage the cantilever effect from the heavy tyres sitting at the rear.
In summer the vehicle gets belted as I thrash the car on rough bush tracks in search of storms.
A large fuel tank was added in place of the factory standard 130-litre tank. Here I would urge caution on anyone wanting to do the same. This tank has been a nightmare and the manufacturer has been a nightmare to deal with. The tank does not hold the volume stated and the manufacturer does not want to know about it. Be very careful when buying fuel tanks. Check that the capacity they are marketing is the useable capacity and not the actual capacity. If it doesn’t, you can run into issues where the aftermarket tank sits behind the rear axle and increases the cantilever effect. But stand by on this one. The manufacturer is not yet off the hook.
I also added an 110-litre auxiliary tank which has been brilliant. It was made by Brown David and holds exactly what they said it would, and the manufacturer has been great to deal with.
An 80-litre Boab water tank was added. I’m not yet sold on this idea because if the tank ruptures and you’re out in the desert then it could lead to big big problems. I like the idea of storing my water in multiple tanks as cover against catastrophic events.
Rear e-lockers, a scrub bar and side steps were also added. And also a 3/4 roof rack for carrying miscellaneous items such as firewood.
For my driving lights, I went with Lightforce HTXs. Without question the best driving lights I have ever had. They are brilliant. They are a combination LED/ HID light. The LEDs work incredibly at dusk when the roos are out and about and then the HID comes into its own when things are dark. Absolutely brilliant lights.
The Lightforce HTX spotlights in action.
I added an ARB awning down the side. A bit of useful advice for those doing the same. Remove the velcro straps that wrap around the poles coming out from the vehicle and get some clips to wrap around. It makes the awning much much better in windy conditions.
I also added a permanent mobile antenna base to the roof rack so that I can switch between by 9dba and by 6dba gain antennas depending on whether I’m driving in flat or hilly country. I also have an omnidirectional antenna in the canopy for wheeling out when I’m stationary for a period and want to try and hook into remote towers.
For the best AM/FM reception, I also made sure that I got antennas as tightly wound with copper as possible.
The set-up has been working brilliantly, save for the aftermarket replacement fuel tank which has been a nightmare.
Re the auto-electrical stuff, I chose REDARC for its quality and reliability. I know that’s a cliché and you’d expect to read that here on REDARC's blog, but the reality is that I’ve been using REDARC gear for nearly 20 years and it’s never failed me. And I can’t afford it to fail, given the areas I go into and the times of year that I do that.
Where reliability is super-critical and the gear is pivotal, I’ve always gone for the best. I spoke to a lot of people before and during this fit-out and they all told me to stick with REDARC. And then there was the added access to parts back-up - they’ve got a wide distribution network throughout some of the more remote parts of Australia - so if something were to go wrong I would be able to access replacement gear relatively easy.
Richard Schmidt did all the auto-electrical work for me in Adelaide and he was brilliant. His attention to detail and getting things right was amazing.
To find out more about Hugh and his work click here.
All images used in this piece were taken from the express permission from Hugh Brown and are property from Hugh Brown. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the individual and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of REDARC electronics.