Honda Element “Photo Mobile” Camper Conversion

The “Photo Mobile” on an overnight test trip

MONDAY, December 3, 2018 – Our “Photo Mobile” conversion is now complete! Although we didn’t spend a lot of money on materials, the time spent on design, and in the woodworking shop, was considerable. We have completed two local test trips, both during full winter conditions, and we are now confident we can make extended photography trips to remote destinations in relative comfort.

One of the challenges we faced was our need for easily installed and removed modular components, so we could use the vehicle in its standard configuration when not on a road trip. The design we settled on allows us to go from “around town” mode to “road trip” mode in about 30 minutes, making this easily the most versatile vehicle we have ever owned.

Even though Honda no longer makes this vehicle, because of its easily removed seats, pillar-free doors, good gas mileage, unusually generous headroom, flat floor and boxy shape, the Element remains a popular vehicle for conversions. Ours also includes 4WD and plenty of clearance for rough roads and snow, which we have appreciated for quite a few years already. Although there are many examples of designs for Element conversions posted online we chose a unique approach we have not seen elsewhere, in part because it utilizes space very efficiently (which is important in a small vehicle like this), and in part because we used a similar design for a pickup truck conversion that served us very well for many years. Trailers and self-contained, purpose-built campers and RV’s, although spacious and more comfortable, sacrifice the mobility and flexibility we find essential for our photography road trips. We avoid campgrounds whenever possible, preferring undeveloped locations without amenities, so a small van is a much better solution for us.

Design & Building Process

Because we intend to travel in our “photo mobile” on extended trips we paid a lot of attention to details. Our conversion design was meticulously thought-through. The platform and upper cabinet were carefully constructed from high quality materials including maple and cherry plywoods, birds-eye and tiger maple, quality brass hardware and other finish details. For durability, we finished most surfaces with three coats of polyurethane varnish and others were rubbed with oils. We have no plans to give up our home and embrace a permanent mobile lifestyle but, on a long trip little details matter.

Most designs, including ours, include some sort of platform for sleeping, with storage beneath. Our platform is divided for cooking and food storage to the rear (accessible with the tailgate down) and photography equipment to the front (each side accessible from its respective rear side door). There are no “trap doors” or inaccessible compartments to contend with. The entire platform unit can be slid into place from the rear and is wedged snugly so as to avoid any need for attaching it to the vehicle. The platform is just long enough to touch the back of the driver and passenger seats when they are moderately reclined with maximum legroom so driving and riding are not impacted by the platform. In this configuration the front of the mattress is folded up to allow room for the seats to slide back. The platform’s width permits 1/4″ side clearance when sliding into place. Shims on the sides and front of the platform unit lock everything into position. Using standard 12″nominal 2×12’s and 1×12’s provides 11-1/4″ clearance under the platform’s top. This height allows us just enough headroom to sit up atop the mattress while on the sleeping platform, and it is tall enough to accommodate all the items we store underneath.

For sleeping we slide, and tilt, each seat all the way forward. This creates a space behind each seat that is filled with a rigid Coleman cooler on each side. The coolers match the platform height, thus extending the platform to a full 70″ from the tailgate and providing a comfortable sleeping space only slightly smaller than a double bed. The coolers contain food and ride beneath the upper cabinet during travel. They are accessible from the kitchen as well. For less remote sleeping spots we have a privacy curtain that attaches easily. 

Our photography equipment is stored, out of view and easily accessible from each side door, beneath the front section of the platform. We each use a modular system of camera backpacks supplemented by additional bags for specific uses. We can carry an extensive collection of bodies, lenses, nodal brackets, flashes and plenty of accessories, along with a tripod in each compartment. We each carry a large tripod as well, which fits adjacent to the upper cabinet.  

Our “upper cabinet” includes storage for kitchen items on the rear and clothing, along with a charging station and slide-out desk, on the front. The upper cabinet mounts  via 2 bolts attached to an L-bracket on each side of the sleeping platform. This arrangement, with a transverse cabinet, allows us to utilize the interior space far more efficiently than typical designs with a cabinet running along the side of the platform, taking up valuable bed space. When sleeping (or at the desk) our feet rest comfortably beneath the cabinet.

Although it is possible to configure a tiny space for cooking inside an Element, it is not possible to do so without consuming a huge percentage of possible storage space. We chose to configure a “kitchen”, accessible from the rear of the vehicle for all cooking. Cooking equipment and food slide out from compartments beneath the platform and a rack above provides easy access to cooking items we use frequently. In bad weather we cover the lift-gate with a fitted tarp, completely enclosing the kitchen, and with a couple of collapsible chairs we can cook and eat in weatherproof comfort. For night use we installed a powerful LED light which provides excellent illumination for cooking and eating.

The upper cabinet provides ample storage for our clothing, accessible from the interior of the vehicle, as well as a slide out desk for photo editing on the laptop or other office functions. We can also charge all of our electronic devices, using the 9-outlet power strip above the cabinet. Spaces above and beside the cabinet provide easy access and organization for assorted additional items. We have a bright LED lantern hanging on each side of the van, and each can be positioned toward the front or rear as need dictates.

Recent advances in Li-Ion battery technology, charging systems, and pure sine wave inverters have made mobile digital photography a lot more practical. Our Chafon 200 watt-hour Li-Ion battery power station allows us to utilize all our electronic technology reliably with no need for AC power. While driving, the unit charges from the vehicle’s rear 12 VDC, 120 watt power outlet. Despite cold temperatures and liberal usage, we have yet to draw the battery down to less than a 50% charge and a couple hours of driving will bring it back to 100%. Although the unit can be charged via AC power, or a solar collector, and we carry adaptors to do so, we have had no need for either. The unit provides four 12 VDC outlets, four USB outlets plus three 120V AC outlets and it can deliver a total of 300 watts at one time. We originally planned to use 12 VDC for lighting but the inverter works so well we decided to just use 120 VAC instead. That allows us to plug in a regular household, 9 outlet power strip for charging batteries and our computer, whenever we like. We also plug in a very bright under-cabinet LED light in the kitchen, plus a 3 outlet extension cord we can use in the kitchen. Although we won’t be using hair dryers or toasters, we can pretty much use anything else we might want. Our smaller USB devices stay charged by using the vehicle’s front 12 VDC, 120 watt power outlet and a 4 port splitter while we drive so we hardly need the Chafon unit’s USB outlets. The car’s alternator generates charging current only when the engine is running and when it is off there is no way for the car’s battery to discharge, so we don’t have any concerns about drawing down the car battery and getting stranded. Our original charging plan called for a much bigger battery and custom wiring at a vastly greater cost. The Chafon unit cost $165, weighs under 5 lbs., and tucks conveniently into a space adjacent to the upper cabinet. What’s not to like?

Having travelled extensively, around the world, by foot and by every conveyance from ox cart to jumbo jet, we learned long ago to carry only what we need. For road trips in our “photo mobile”, that includes basic cooking/eating supplies and sleeping paraphernalia, plus clothing and equipment systems suitable for any situation we might encounter, plus a suitable selection of photography equipment and electronics.

For trips up to a couple of weeks long, in temperate conditions, our “photo mobile” is ideal as described. For longer trips, more challenging conditions (winter, remote deserts, etc), trips involving adventure photography (climbing, canyoneering, etc) and all the specialized equipment it requires, we can add a rooftop cargo box for lots of extra space. Access is not very convenient but our box holds four very large duffle bags plus our photo booms and a bunch of other items that we will not need every day. It can safely carry more than 150 lbs. of cargo and, fully loaded, it is not noticeable while driving, or at the gas pump! The greatest danger is forgetting it’s up there and attempting to drive into our garage – really bad idea!

Photo mobile in the real world…

We have decided to remain in complete denial regarding the advisability of travel with our dog, Terra. Clearly, it is, BY FAR, the least well thought out aspect of the photo mobile. She has already commandeered a central sleeping position in the bed, demonstrated little interest in staying on her exceedingly comfortable bed while driving and made it clear that she is not a photographer and is thus unfairly inconvenienced. We expect much fodder for stories of travel with our four-footed friend. To be continued…

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Travels in the Element(s)

MONDAY, October 29, 2018 – A Honda Element will be our home for photography road trips starting this fall and early winter. We have “car camped”, using an assortment of modified vehicles, for nearly four decades so we have a pretty good idea of what we need and why. Modifications we are making to our Element are designed to provide a reasonably comfortable mobile living space adapted specifically to photography trips.

Over a lifetime of traveling for climbing and photography, we have learned when you arrive at your destination is as important as where you are situated. Being at the right place, in time for the best light conditions, frequently means camping close to our chosen photographic location. Car camping, for its convenience, is our preferred option when possible – especially when challenging weather is likely.

The Honda Element is a popular vehicle for this type of camping because its high clearance and 4WD allow it to go places larger RV’s can’t, and it gets far better mileage to boot. We are customizing sleeping, cooking and storage spaces for camera gear and other essentials. Easy access to photo gear, clothing, cooking facilities and electronic accessories is possible with comprehensive planning and a good bit of woodworking. Equipped with auxiliary power for lights, and for charging batteries and electronic devices, we will be able to work with the photographs we make and stay in touch with the world.

Our dog, Terra, is only lukewarm about the whole idea. She’d be fine staying home and curling up someplace warm. Although the van will never feel quite like home, we hope the new and interesting smells we encounter will win her over.

We will be posting more about our vehicle conversion,  upcoming trips, and our dog’s demeanor, over the next few weeks.

Successful Alpenhaus Gallery Opening Weekend

Fall Reflections - East Branch Ausable River

Fall Reflections

MONDAY, October 22, 2018 – Our opening weekend was a great success and we were pleased to welcome many visitors to our new gallery. Thanks to all who attended!

We received numerous excellent suggestions during our opening and we will be implementing many of them over the next few months. To expand its functionality, major upgrades to the Vertical Perspectives Photography website are also in the works. We will be reaching out to you with details of our progress later in the fall.

Travels & Explorations
During the fall and early winter we look forward to exploring new destinations on a series of photography trips. After several months preparing to open our gallery, with little time for anything else, we are eager to get back into the field with our cameras. This time of year, although sometimes cold, offers unique light because the sun tracks closer to the horizon.

While on the road, we will continue to post to here and on our Facebook page so, if you have not done so already, please “Follow” this blog, and “Like” our Facebook  page.

The Alpenhaus Gallery will be open during October on Saturday & Sunday afternoons, from 1pm to 5pm. We are happy to open the gallery whenever we are here so please feel free to drop by at other times, or contact us to arrange a specific time to visit.

More Media Coverage of the Alpenhaus Gallery
Thanks to the Adirondack Daily Enterprise Weekender magazine for its coverage of the Gallery’s opening weekend.

 

Alpenhaus Gallery Opening Reception A Success

SATURDAY, October 6, 2018 – We had a steady stream of visitors during our Opening Reception on Friday evening. Many thanks to all who attended!

The Alpenhaus Gallery is open Saturday, Sunday and Monday, October 6, 7, & 8, 2018 from noon to 7pm.

And thanks also for the media coverage of our opening weekend.

Lake Champlain Weekly: Lake Champlain Weekly Cover

https://en.calameo.com/read/0002577328ed49e49bcd2

 

Adirondack Almanac:

Adirondack Almanack Gallery Opening

https://www.adirondackalmanack.com/2018/09/new-keene-art-gallery-opening-columbus-day-weekend.html

 

Limited Edition Print – Available Columbus Day Weekend Only

Forest, Reflected & Inverted

Forest, Reflected & Inverted

THURSDAY, October 4, 2018 – At our Alpenhaus Gallery opening on Columbus Day Weekend, we will be featuring this photograph entitled: Forest, Reflected & Inverted. It was created by R.L. on a backpacking trip to Flowed Lands, in the Adirondack High Peaks, in July, 2018 as part of a collaboration with Janet Grice and the Vento Trio. We created a visual presentation to accompany Janet’s new classical music composition, Lake Tear of the Clouds. Both the music and media presentation, featuring 48 of our photographs, premiered on August 2, 2018 at Keene Arts.

The Story Behind the Image
Most of our fine art prints include a “story” giving a bit of background about the photograph from the point of view of the photographer.

Forest, Reflected & Inverted
Reflected images are an amalgam of what they reflect and what reflects them. In this case, the chiaroscuro of the partly shaded trees in evening light is abstracted by the surface of the water. The ripples on the water render the image as an impression, forcing the viewer to consider it as such. Outside the confines of literal interpretation, the image can sing in a very different key. Although the image is a reflection, and thus “should” be upside-down, I chose to present it in a more familiar orientation by inverting it.

Limited Availability
This photograph will only be available as a specially priced, matted, 16″ x 20″, Limited Edition print during the Alpenhaus Gallery opening weekend; Friday, October 5 through Monday, October 8, 2018. The size of this limited edition will be determined by the number of prints sold within that time period.

Alpenhaus Gallery Opening on Columbus Day Weekend

Alpenhaus Gallery 960On Columbus Day weekend, October 5-8, 2018, a new art gallery will open in the village of Keene, NY. Lifelong photographers and career mountain guides, R.L. & Karen Stolz, established Vertical Perspectives Photography to share their artistic vision and the new Alpenhaus Gallery showcases their work in a unique viewing space.

Originally constructed in 1987 as a climbing gym for their mountain guiding service, Alpine Adventures, the new gallery space is twenty feet tall yet retains a very intimate feel. “The height of the gallery enhances the verticality of our rock and ice climbing photographs while providing unusual perspectives for our landscapes and abstract work. Looking up at the photos of cliffs and climbers gives the viewer the feeling of airiness typically experienced by climbers,” said R.L. Stolz.

For nearly four decades, the Stolzes have traveled extensively throughout the world as mountain guides and photographers. Their photographic subject matter is diverse, both geographically and in terms of the images themselves. Photos of steep-walled, desert canyons from the southwestern United States are placed alongside striking landscapes of lakes, rivers and mountains of the Adirondack Park. A selection of 45 framed and float-mounted fine art prints, ranging in size from 16”x20” to a panorama 12 feet in length, are displayed. Matted prints in smaller sizes, along with two Collector’s Edition coffee-table books of their photographs, are also available. These images represent a small sample of their body of work and future exhibits, emphasizing a variety of themes, are planned.

“In addition to making the photographs, we do all of our own printing, matting, mounting and framing to ensure our work remains as true to our intention as possible. We maintain large format giclée printers in our printing studio, and a separate studio dedicated to framing,” said Karen Stolz. Besides sharing their own images, the Stolzes share their knowledge and experience through workshops, tours, trips, presentations, and other photographic services.

The Alpenhaus Gallery is easily located on Routes 73 and 9N at Vertical Perspectives Photography, 10873 NYS Route 9N, Keene, NY 12942

518-576-9881
The Alpenhaus Gallery will be open from noon to 7pm on Saturday, Sunday and Monday, October 6, 7 & 8, 2018.
An Opening Reception will be held from 5-7pm on Friday, October 5, 2018.
Special events during the weekend include:
Meet the photographers – ongoing, throughout the weekend
Photography equipment demonstrations (1pm each day)
Climbing photography rigging demonstrations (3pm each day)
Multimedia presentations – ongoing throughout the weekend
A matted and signed, 16”x20” fine art print will be offered as a Special Limited Edition, available only during the opening weekend.

CAC Featured in Magazines

SUNDAY, November 26, 2017 – The Classic Adirondack Climbs – Collector’s Edition is featured in the Nov-Dec 2017 issue of the Adirondack Explorer magazine. The magazine cover is a photograph from the book entitled “Winter Ascent of Colden Slide.”

In the centerfold of the magazine is a photographic essay entitled “High Art” by editor Phil Brown, where he recounts his experience being on photo shoots with us. He also describes how our undiminished passion for climbing shines through in “high-quality photographs of climbers at play on vertiginous cliffs and humongous icicles,” and “the results are stunning.”

https://www.adirondackexplorer.org/in-this-magazine

Winter Ascent of Colden Slide by Karen Stolz

Winter Ascent of Colden Slide by Karen Stolz

Adirondac magazine, the magazine of the Adirondack Mountain Club, also recently reviewed our Collector’s Edition calling it “an inspiration and an appreciation.” The reviewer, editor Neal Burdick, goes on to say, “It consists almost exclusively of dramatic images, some from unique and breathtaking perspectives…”

Thanks to Phil and Neal for their appreciation of our photography and Classic Adirondack Climbs – Collector’s Edition.