Using Surplus Laptops For Tethered Remote Control

This post is a quick guide to how I used an old netbook and my Samsung Chromebook to remote control my Canon EOS 600D.

Side by side to show remote viewing taking place, Netbook to the left, Chromebook on the right.

The netbook (A Packard Bell PVA80) was surplus after my wife bought a “proper” laptop, the battery was bad and Windows 7 starter edition crawled on this machine, I bought a cheap battery (had double the capacity of the old one) and was then on my way. First thing was to format the hard drive and install Xubuntu (a “lightweight” Ubuntu distro) this installed with no problems, all hardware was discovered.

Next job was to install tethering software, Linux has several programs that can do this, I decided to try one called Entangle which has the advantage that it is fairly lightweight and is really only for tethering, no editing or photomanager included, (wanted to keep it clean and simple), it also has support for almost any DSLR that allows tethering.

The final step to install on the netbook was a VNC server, again there are several of these for Linux, I chose Vino, this server is started from the command line, but there is a GUI for configuration, once set up there is no need to have a GUI running especially on such a lightweight machine.

Now we move to the Chromebook, I installed VNC Viewer from Google Chrome store again no problems very easy to set up, once I had the IP address of the netbook it was just a matter of clicking on connect, and then allowing the connection on the netbook (the connection can be password protected if required).

So to simplify

  1. Start netbook
  2. Start Vino-server and then Entangle.
  3. Connect USB cable to netbook and camera, turn on camera then click on connect button in Entangle.
  4. Start VNC Viewer on Chromebook, input IP address of netbook, click on connect, allow connection on netbook, ready to start using the remote control!

Entangle allows you to see Live view in real-time, and also allows you to change settings of your camera, ISO, aperture, white balance, shutter speed etc. When you are ready click on the icon for capture and a shot will be taken.

Now because you have the netbooks desktop showing on the Chromebook you can do all this without touching the camera or netbook – remotely in my case is within the limits of the home WiFi network, but theoretically you could do this using an ad-hoc network out in the field without a router, or even via the Internet, it is all just a matter of configuration and the tools you use.

My idea at the moment is to set the camera and netbook up in our free standing conservatory, with the camera aimed at a birdfeeder in a small tree outside, then sit indoors (in the warm!) and take shots from there. The range should not be a problem and with live view I can actually see what I am taking a shot of and the result.

I should add that it is also configurable where the captures are stored, I have chosen to have them stored directly on the Netbooks hard drive.

Note! All the above could just as easily be done on Windows if you have the right software.

If you are wondering, the tripod tray is also a DIY project made of scrap material, somewhat over-engineered perhaps, therefore no description of how it was made, you will find simple DIY versions on the Internet or you can buy ready made, it is not absolutely necessary for this project but it does make the setup more portable and easy to handle and can also double as a macro stand/support/table whatever you like to call it!

Following images show the setup.

DIY tray attached to leg of Manfrotto tripod
DIY tray attached to leg of Manfrotto tripod.

Netbook and Canon EOS600D Liveview tethered using USB and  Entangle software.
Netbook and Canon EOS600D Liveview tethered using USB and Entangle software.

About The Author

Michael Baker is a Swedish based production technician, Linux geek & amateur photographer. You can follow his blog here and his Flickr stream here. This article is based a post that was first published here.

P.S. if you are new to tethering, check out our Introduction To Tethered Shooting.

  • benjay

    I’d recommend to usw xrdp, as vnc is screenshot-based.
    RDP works mich smoother if you gonna work in cross-os sceanrios.

  • ///

    i know, you have this spare Notebook flying around – a raspberry pi with a wlan-dongle and an usb batterypack (2000mAh give me about 4hours of tethered shooting) does the same job way more compact…..

    • joe_average

      curious…what do you use for usb hosting the camera (canon 60d) on the rpi? do entangle and vino still work? thanks!

  • Michael Baker

    Benjay, Because the Liveview screen refresh rate in Entange is slow on this underpowered netbook i saw no reason to use another server/client, the Liveview image popped up within a few seconds on the Chromebook, fast enough for non critical/non action work, also as you probably know there are only a couple of remote desktop clients that work under Chrome OS , I did try Google remote desktop but could not get it working in this setup. so the only one available to me on the Chromebook was plain vanilla VNC.

  • Michael Baker

    /vv, The idea with the project was to take what I already had, there are of course a lot of different ways to do this, and with the latests DSLR’s with Wi-Fi you only need a smartphone or tablet to access the camera, then we are talking really compact! this setup cost me nothing, others with old laptops laying around could do the same, perhaps not with the same server/client/OS combination, this was thought of as “proof of concept” project, actually the setup really requires a tripod so I see no reason for compactness, as for battery life, with the new battery I mention I get between 3-4 hrs.
    Finally I am always interested in trying to extend the limited capabilities of the Chromebook, this shows it can be used for remote control photography.

  • joe_average

    cool stuff, thanks for the free idea! I use vnc and windows remote desktop, they’ve been solid for work and home…and now photography. I don’t know why this didn’t occur to me =D

  • joe_average

    and, way cool diy computer tray!!!