Southampton Campers specialise in providing VW Campervans for hire and we could see the benefits that a campervan with ample on-board energy capacity, and equipment space could bring to photographers. We contacted popular YouTuber’s Karen and Jon Deakin, the Travelling Togs, to bring you their opinion.
“As landscape photographers one of the most prized assets in our photographic armoury is our recently purchased VW California Ocean camper van.”
So says John and Karen Deakin, Scottish based landscape and wildlife photographers, both with a wealth of experience and accolades spanning many years. Travelling extensively in pursuit of their passion, within the UK and beyond, the couple took the somewhat bold step of investing heavily in one particular asset to complement their photography kit in June 2018, a VW California Ocean camper van, called Gilbert!
Like most other photographers, our preferred times for shooting are the golden hours of sunrise and sunset, when the light is far softer, giving less contrast and harsh shadows in an image. Being on location before the sun rises or sets is therefore critical to us, but not always easy, depending on the time of the year and where we are photographing.
We spend a lot of time in the Scottish Highlands, preferring remote and sparsely populated landscapes as our photographic targets. In Autumn / Winter the days become very short, the sun rising as late as 9am and setting at 3.30pm. Getting on location for a shoot is therefore relatively easy to achieve time-wise, but of course that assumes we can find accommodation close to where we want to photograph, not often easy. Spring / Summer heralds longer daylight hours, the sun rising as early as 4.10am and not setting until as late as 10.30pm.
Being on location therefore becomes significantly more challenging, shooting at such extreme ends of the day, made more so by any travel time involved in getting to our destination. In years gone by we have found we do far less photography in the Spring / Summer months, the thought of a 2am alarm call enough to keep our cameras gathering dust for a few months!
In early 2018 we considered how we might improve our abilities as photographers to be where we wanted to be, when and with the least effort possible. Having professional photographer friends who lived and travelled full time in a motorhome, we had already considered the benefits of owning such a vehicle, but quickly concluded that the sheer size of a motorhome would be unsuitable for us, necessitating storage when not in use and making driving much more difficult in many areas of the UK where single-track roads prevail, such as the Scottish Highlands.
What we hadn’t given due consideration to however was a camper van, where size restrictions are diminished and drivability is no different to that of a large SUV, allowing trouble free navigation on any road within the UK. The more we considered the concept of owning a camper van, the more we became convinced that doing so would offer tremendous advantages to us as photographers.
First and foremost, we would have the ability to be as near as possible to where we wanted to shoot, without needing to find and pay for the closest B&B or hotel. We are notorious last-minute planners, often seeing a favourable weather forecast and hastily deciding to go and photograph a location. Such impulsiveness is all very well if the location is close by, but not so much if more extensive travel is required to get there, where we have been previously restricted by the expense and availability of last-minute accommodation.
With a camper van we would have complete flexibility to react to conditions and set off with no prior planning, no hunting for accommodation etc. We would simply need to know where we were going and the closest parking location, giving ourselves the ability to almost roll out of bed and be ‘on site’. Further, if the temperamental UK weather conditions unexpectedly changed for the worse once on location, such that going out with the cameras was no longer appealing, we could simply roll over and go back to bed, or even enjoy a leisurely breakfast, before moving on to another destination with more promise. As a photographer, such ability to quickly react and adapt to conditions in the pursuit of great photography is priceless.
So, with the benefits of a camper van clear to see, we made the brave decision of selling our daily car, to be replaced with a camper van. Our search initially started with the less expensive camper van conversions, with a price tag of approximately £30k, but such vehicles had one clear shortcoming for us as photographers, that of storage space. On any given trip we carry a significant amount of photography equipment, as a minimum at least two camera bodies, 6 lenses, a range of filters and accessories, two tripods, an array of video equipment and lighting, laptops and extra storage drives. Think two large and two small backpacks with tripods on the side and you have a broad idea of exactly how much space our photographic equipment requires. Add to that our non-photography needs of food, clothing, personal effects and bedding and it became apparent from the camper van conversions we considered that we would simply not have enough space to enjoy our time in comfort.
Photographing the VW California Ocean
Queue a brand-new VW California Ocean camper van that became available to purchase locally. With a price tag of over £55k, we were curious as to what more this vehicle could offer us over a conversion van, the short wheel ‘base’ vehicle being exactly the same size. Comparing a VW California Ocean to a VW conversion however is like comparing a platinum ring to that of silver; on the face of it they may appear very similar, but closer inspection highlights them to be a class apart in terms of quality and sophistication. It did not take long for us to know we had finally arrived at our ideal vehicle, which has since surpassed all of our expectations and become an invaluable asset throughout the entire photographic year. So, what made the VW California so different?
Volkswagen has been building camper vans for some 60 years now and has combined those years of expertise together with high quality German finishing into the latest T6 version of the California. Let’s talk about the photographer’s nemesis first, that thorny issue of adequate living and storage space. Amazingly Volkswagen has taken a base vehicle that measures only 4.9 metres in length, 1.9 meters in width (excluding wing mirrors) and 1.99 meters in height and created a Tardis of comfort and style into a 4-berth camper van.
Every conceivable space has been put to good use, with some very clever engineering creating storage space in places you just wouldn’t think possible. Take the outdoor dining table for example, which is carefully stored within the sliding side door and the two accompanying folding chairs within the rear tail gate. Raise that tailgate and therein lies the answer to our dilemma as photographers, oodles and oodles of storage space, more than sufficient to hold all of our photography equipment and bedding. Jackpot!
Us photographers are known to be a demanding breed however! With the issue of storage space resolved, we moved further down our list of requirements to consider just how well the VW California was going to meet our other crucial needs. Photographing in often remote locations for three to four days at a time, it is imperative that we can both live and work ‘off grid’ for the duration, without needing the convenience of campsite amenities such as an electric hook up, fresh water and shower / toilet supplies etc. Like all other travellers, we desire a relaxing living area that is comfortable, warm and spacious.
As photographers, however we also spend significant amounts of time working on the road including processing our latest images, updating websites and social media, sending images to stock agents etc. The living and working space within the camper van has to lend itself well to doing this in comfort and once again the VW California meets these challenges head on.
The California’s driver and passenger seats swivel 180 degrees to face into the lounge area of the van and offers an incredibly spacious living / dining / working area that that can comfortably seat 4 and, in our opinion, compares favorably with any larger camper van / small motorhome. Elevate the roof of the vehicle and you are further afforded full standing space. With a built in wardrobe and large under seat drawer / overhead compartment for the storage of clothes and personal effects, the living space within the California is uncluttered and relaxing.
Integrated into the slick design of the California is a fully functioning kitchen, with 2 gas burners, a large 42 litre top loading fridge, ample kitchen cupboards and a fold out dining table. Ensuring we fill the 30 litre fresh water tank before we set off on a photographic trip and stocking up with food supplies, the California gives us everything we realistically need to enjoy tasty ‘home-cooked’ food on the road. When out photographing on location, we may spend many hours in often very cold or wet conditions. Being able to return to the comfort of the heated California and enjoy a warming mug of tea and some hot food is invaluable.
With a hot meal enjoyed, a chilled glass of wine in hand and the inbuilt diesel heater keeping the van at a comfortably warm temperature at all times, our photography days tend to conclude by downloading our images onto our laptops for review and processing, recharging camera batteries etc. whilst we do so, ready for the next day’s shoot. Bearing in mind we are ‘off-grid’ the California’s two inbuilt 72Ah leisure batteries come into their own here. All of our camera equipment, laptops etc. can easily be kept charged via the 150 watt 2-pin outlet using a simple 2-pin adapter.
Whilst initially we had some concern we may run down the leisure batteries by charging all of our gadgets off grid, our experience to date has contradicted this worry, and where we do want to ‘top up’ the battery levels, simply moving on a few miles to a new photographic location readily restores the batteries’ power levels to 100%.
Working online within the California is never simpler. Once settled for the night the California’s pull-down blinds offer complete privacy from the outside world and further reduces any external glare impacting upon our computer screens, giving us our own little digital darkroom! The fold out dining table of the California doubles up as a desk area for working, where one of us will work seated on the rear bench seat, the other sat opposite on the comfortable driver / passenger seat.
We travel with Apple MacBook Pro’s, loaded with our core photographic software of Adobe Photoshop and Lightroom, provided via Adobe Creative Cloud. In no less than 90% of locations we park up we will have 3G / 4G phone signal, so simply linking our laptops to our phone’s personal hotspot allows us to work online easily and effectively for as long as we need to.
Now what about the rather delicate subject of the toilet and shower facilities, which are lacking from the VW California? Well fear not, for after many months of travelling in our prized California we have come to realise that, even in the remotest of photography locations, we are never THAT far from a public convenience facility. Do your homework and you will discover that many also offer shower facilities, especially in harbour towns.
But of course, we must be prepared for all eventualities which is why we carry an emergency ‘Pop-a-Loo’ and Loo Tent, both of which can comfortably be stored in the rear of the California along with our photography equipment and bedding. Add a large pack of Baby Wipes for when shower facilities are not readily to hand, and once again we find we have all we need for decent length photography trips in the VW California.
So, having bought a VW California Ocean in June 2018, and already having clocked nearly ten thousand miles, would we recommend travelling and living in this van to others, and photographers in particular? Undoubtedly and without hesitation, absolutely yes! The adventures and opportunities the VW California Ocean has provided us with, both with our cameras and without, have to date been incredible. It has simply become one of the most prized assets in our photographic armoury.
To experience for yourself how the VW California Ocean can complement your photographic journeys, why not use our VW camper vans for hire service from Southampton Campers for a weekend break or longer. We can provide you everything you need for your photographic adventures.