20 amp Buss fuses are surprisingly close in size to AA
batteries. They fit quite snugly into a Vivitar battery
holder. No holder? Fill the rest of the space in the battery
cavity with heavy weather stripping foam.
Of all the articles that
I have written for Shutterbug, there is one topic that continually generates
mail from readers. Whenever I have mentioned my "homemade battery
packs" for Vivitar 283 and 285 flash units, the mail pours in.
Sick of poky alkalines, short-lived NiCds? Well Vivitar owners, here
To build one for your own flash you'll only need a handful of
· 6v gel cell or lead acid battery 1.2-4amps
· 2 conductor connectors--male and female (2 each)
· 6v 500-900 mAh power supply (wall wart)
· 18-14 gauge speaker wire
· 20amp Buss fuses (2)
· Heat shrink tubing (assorted)
First A Disclaimer: You can hurt yourself or your equipment
if you proceed carelessly. While we're dealing with low voltages
here, wiring the battery pack up incorrectly can cause your flash to
grenade very quickly, which can be quite dangerous. Also, if you depend
upon your gear for your living or are just plain serious about your
photography, think hard about purchasing a commercially available battery
pack. I have been building my own battery packs for the past 15 years
with terrific results.
are your parts, less a readily available 6v power supply
for use as a charger (check your attic). My total cost at
the hardware store was around $15.
I first built my own battery
pack for a flash that had no external battery options. My Osram BCS-44
flash units packed a punch, but had no support from the external battery
manufacturers. Since I was stuck with a great flash unit that drained
NiCds in about 50 flashes, I took matters into my own hands. I unscrewed
every screw I could find on the flash, gently cracked the case, and found
the + and - terminals for the battery compartment. Adding a short pigtail
and a Radio Shack Molex connector, I now had a way to patch in an external
battery. I quickly learned the maximum limits for battery power. While
1.2, 2.3, 3.5, and 4amp 6v batteries worked great, a small motorcycle
battery produced such a strong jolt that I overheated the flash caps and
actually melted the plastic case. (I went back to a smaller battery and
still use the unit today--15 years later.)
I have since used this method to build high capacity battery packs for
my passel of Vivitar 283 and 285 flash units. I use these mostly on light
stands or super clamps when doing location interiors--always on manual.
With fresh NiCds the flashes will be dragging seriously by the time I'm
done Polaroiding and ready to shoot film. These ubiquitous Vivitar 283
and 285 flash units have been favorites of photographers for years. If
you hunt through the pages of Shutterbug you can find them used for pretty
short money and they're nearly indestructible. Obviously you can
use this technique on virtually any flash unit, but I would start on an
inexpensive and relatively beat up one. A very small unit will need smaller
power supplies, so it really pays to use an older flash that you can kill
if you mess up and not be too upset.
not pretty, but it works. The cable comes off the battery
holder and sticks through the battery door. To really make
for a neat installation you can cut a notch in the battery
A correctly functioning Vivitar
283 or 285 will recycle with alkaline batteries in about 8 sec; about
6 sec with 500 mAh NiCds; and around 5 sec with high capacity 1100 mAh
NiCds. While other high capacity AA batteries like 1300 mAh NiMH batteries
will give you slightly better battery life and virtually no battery "memory,"
they still won't do much better than 5 sec and give you about 50
flashes or so before the recycle time begins to drag. (Ever ask a lot
of people all dressed up at a wedding or other family function to wait
until your orange light came back on? Even 12 sec can feel like an eternity.)
If your work includes any kind of fast action location work like weddings,
photojournalism, or fast paced people or fashion, then 5 sec won't
cut it, let alone the 10-12 sec that depleted batteries will deliver.
By experimenting with a few different batteries, I found that I could
buy 2-4amp gel cell batteries that would deliver 2 sec recycling for hundreds
of flashes. For years I had been paying around $22 for a 3.2amp gel cell
at specialty electronic stores. I recharged them with a simple 6v 500
mAh "wall wart" and built my own connecting cables. The other
day I was shopping for a few pieces for my studio security system at the
local hardware store and ran into these excellent Panasonic LC-RB064P
sealed lead acid cells for around $8.91. While lead acid batteries don't
have quite the life span of gel cells, they're very cheap and can
be recharged quickly using a standard motorcycle 6v battery charger available
at any auto parts store. I still prefer to slow charge my batteries, so
I just rummaged around in my junk box in the corner of the studio and
pulled out a beefy 6v 700 mAh wall wart and fashioned a plug. If you don't
have a junk box with the remnants of all of your dustbusters, cordless
phones, and desktop adding machines, you can buy the cheapest adapter
at your local electronics store. If you're fancier, most electronics
stores will carry a decent "smart" charger for 6v gel cells
that will give you LED confirmation of charging status and auto shutoff
for around $30.
is the completed cable assembly--use plenty of heat shrink
tubing or good electrical tape to ensure that the cable
will be durable.
Once you have a battery and
a charger, you'll need to figure out how to get your power into
the flash unit. The external connections on most shoe mount flash units
are for high voltage battery packs like the Lumedyne Mincycler or the
Dyna-Lite Jackrabbit. We're only using 6v, so we'll need to
get the power into the low voltage taps. The easiest and most reversible
method is to simply sacrifice a battery holder and fashion a cable. For
cable I have used everything from heavy-duty monster cable to regular
old 18 gauge zip cord. The heavy cable will pass more current and give
you slightly faster recycle times, but it can be a pain to use.
On a 283/285, the easiest way to get the power from your cable into the
unit is to pass it through the battery compartment. Since the removable
battery holders that sit in the battery compartment can still be ordered
from Vivitar, it's easy to get a couple of spares. How to get the
juice to the metal terminals at the bottom of the battery cavity? Simple,
find yourself a couple of 20amp Buss fuses. (I use Cooper Bussman BP/FRN-R-20
20amp fuses.) These are almost exactly the same size as standard AA batteries,
and they have a neat recess at one end, which is a perfect place to solder
on the cable. First I figure out where the fuses must go. On a 283 they
must sit in the two slots on the battery holder which sit nearest to the
back of the flash unit. Once I have my polarity figured out, I slip the
+ and - side of the cable through the battery holder so when complete
the cable will sit toward the front of the flash unit. A hot screwdriver
tip will melt enough plastic away from the side of the battery holder
to allow the wire to sit flush when the holder is reinserted into the
battery cavity. (Remember we're getting spares for these holders.)
found this Radio Shack charger in a box full of wall wart
adapters; 6v at 700 mAh gives me a decent overnight recharger.
Check your drawers and I'm sure you'll have
With the fuses inserted into
the holder and a recess melted in the plastic, it's time to carefully
slip the holder into the battery cavity. Once it is pushed down all the
way just slide the battery door as far as you can go. I stick a couple
of pieces of gaffer tape over the door and leave it at that. If you're
looking for a slicker installation you can drill or melt the appropriate
cutout to allow the cable to stick out of the battery compartment through
the closed door. If you're neat and clean about it, you'll
be able to switch back and forth from NiCds to the lead acid supply with
no problem. If your flash doesn't have a battery holder, then you
can place the fuses over the terminals which deliver + and - to the flash,
then stuff the rest of the cavity with black weather stripping foam. When
it seems very tight, close the battery compartment as far as you can and
rubber band or tape it shut. It's not the most elegant solution,
but it works.
Since you'll want to carry the battery in your pocket or on your
belt, fashion yourself a decent 4' long cord. If it's too
long you'll slow down recycling time and your shooting style, so
figure out your ideal length and give yourself a little bit of excess.
I hard wire the cable into the battery holder and put a connector at the
end of the cable. I put the same gender connector at the end of the battery
charger, then put a very short pigtail on the battery itself with the
opposite gender connector. For decent cheap connectors get yourself a
few packages of the Radio Shack 2 conductor Molex connector, part No.
274-222, a bargain at 99 cents a package. I like to heat shrink the ends
of the cables and then heat shrink the cable to the connector. If you
are really careful about your crimping and heat shrinking, your rig should
is the finished setup. I added a cordura bag that holds
the battery on my belt, and the 4' speaker wire works
out just fine. Recycle time is less than 2 sec for about
500 full power flashes, 1000 on auto.
Once you have everything together,
get a voltmeter and very carefully check your polarity. The battery comes
from the store with a little bit of juice in it, certainly enough to test.
I always set the + side of the Molex connector as the "pointy"
side, the - side as flat. Hook up your cable and place the ends of the
voltmeter on the ends of the fuses. The fuse end that is located in the
+ side of the holder should be touching the red wire of the voltmeter.
With an uncharged battery you should see positive 4-6v. If you see any
negative voltage--stop. Rewire your cable to get it right. Hooking up
this kind of power backward will blow your flash to bits in a fraction
of a second.
Assuming that your connectors on the cable, battery, and charger have
the correct polarity, it's time to charge your battery up. First
charge will take a good 12-18 hours with an inexpensive wall wart, so
if you need fast recycling look into a quick charger or motorcycle battery
charger. Once the battery is charged it's time to hook everything
up. When you first flip the switch you should hear the familiar whine
as the flash charges up. On my Vivitar flashes with a freshly charged
battery I'm getting 1.5 sec recycling on manual, instant recycling
on auto, and 300-400 full power flashes. After a few dozen flashes the
recycle time will slow down to around 2-2.5 sec, but you'll get
hundreds of flashes with that kind of performance.
Obviously with a seat of the pants solution like this you are sacrificing
some utility. You have no idea when the battery is recharged, you don't
know how much juice is left in your battery, and you have no snazzy factory
made hookup cables. You certainly do have frugality on your side. Assuming
that you pick up a 6v battery at the hardware store like I did, the whole
rig, cable, wall wart power supply, connectors, heat shrink, and battery
can be purchased for only $25. If you already have some power supplies
hidden in a drawer and some spare speaker wire and a few electrical supplies,
you can fashion the whole thing for what it cost me--$15.63 plus tax.
I have about six of these packs, and I tend to use them when I am setting
up a location shot where I need some small flash units positioned off-camera.
I found a bunch of small cordura cases with belt hooks intended for small
point-and-shoot cameras that fit this battery perfectly. My friendly local
camera shop let me have all six of them for $2. I hang the batteries on
the light stands and hook slaves up to the flash units. With the high
capacity batteries hooked up I can set all the flash units on manual and
shoot all day without worrying about changing NiCds or waiting for the
little flashes to catch up with my AC powered studio flash units.
While not the perfect pro solution, a heavy-duty battery and a little
ingenuity will yield a pretty bulletproof flash rig. For those of you
who have digital cameras or camcorders that seem to kill batteries, the
same techniques apply. I sacrificed an AC power supply to hook up a 4.8v
security battery to my Sharp digital camcorder, and now I can shoot all
day without changing batteries. My digital cameras also can shoot forever,
and they are easy to fashion a cable since they have simply 6v power connections
right on the back of the camera. If you can hunt around and find the catalogs
of some surplus electronics stores, you may be able to find batteries
and chargers for a couple of dollars each. (But if you do--let me know.)
If you take your time and make sure that every connection is done meticulously
the system will work well and last for years.