Monthly Archives: December 2018

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…