How I use my drone Lipo batteries to power cameras, lights and other things

Apr 11, 2018

John Aldred

John Aldred is a photographer with over 20 years of experience in the portrait and commercial worlds. He is based in Scotland and has been an early adopter – and occasional beta tester – of almost every digital imaging technology in that time. As well as his creative visual work, John uses 3D printing, electronics and programming to create his own photography and filmmaking tools and consults for a number of brands across the industry.

How I use my drone Lipo batteries to power cameras, lights and other things

Apr 11, 2018

John Aldred

John Aldred is a photographer with over 20 years of experience in the portrait and commercial worlds. He is based in Scotland and has been an early adopter – and occasional beta tester – of almost every digital imaging technology in that time. As well as his creative visual work, John uses 3D printing, electronics and programming to create his own photography and filmmaking tools and consults for a number of brands across the industry.

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If you’re like me, and you shoot mostly on location, power is an issue. For photography I solved those issues by switching to Godox strobes with light battery packs or integrated batteries. For video, though, power for continuous lights can be troublesome. Or at the very least, expensive. Some lights will allow you to use relatively inexpensive Sony NPF batteries, while others require expensive V-Mount batteries.

I’ve found another solution to my continuous power problem, though. RC lipo batteries. I had a few left over from my DJI Flamewheel F550 drone after the controller was stolen. So, I figured why not put them to good use elsewhere? They’re also great for powering cameras for battery-draining long exposure timelapse sequences, too.

YouTube video

A word of warning…

Now before I continue, remember that hooking up lipo batteries designed for drones and RC cars to your sensitive electronic equipment will most likely void your warranty. It certainly does with Spekular. So, don’t try this at home.

Batteries like these typically don’t offer all of the protection and safety circuitry of purpose-built power solutions. That’s why they only cost around $30-40 each while similar capacity batteries for DJI Phantom 4 drones are closer to $170. DJI’s batteries contain all the hardware to safely charge and store your batteries, to prevent overcharging, to stop them from draining too much, and a host of other safety features. Dumb lipos do not, you’re responsible for this.

Cheap Neewer/Godox LED Panels

Last year, I picked up some cheap Neewer LED308C panels (they’re basically rebranded Godox). They will take the Sony NPF batteries I mentioned above, but I didn’t want to have to buy more batteries, especially when I had a bunch of Floureon 5500mAh 3 cell lipo batteries rotting away on my shelf. I had no other use for them, so powering those LEDs became their new purpose.

These Neewer LED panels will accept a standard 2.5mm barrel jack and a voltage of between 6.5-12v. Basically, this means a 2 or 3 cell lipo battery can supply enough of a voltage. They also require 3 amps of current, which is easily satisfied by these particular batteries which are capable of delivering a whopping 192.5 amps – basically, you can safely drain these batteries from full to flat in about 2 minutes.

Lipo batteries come with a mix of connectors. Mine are XT60 and XT90. But a little work with a soldering iron and some readily available cables means I can easily adapt them to the 2.5mm barrel jack these LED panels require. Make sure to pick up some heat shrink tubing so you don’t have exposed wire & solder joints.

With the Neewer panels, I get quite a good amount of use out of each of those 5500mAh 11.1v lipo batteries. Even at full power, it’s around 2 hours of continuous use. One thing you need to be careful of, though, is that the lights don’t drain the batteries below a safe level. This is why you need to connect lipo alarms to any of the batteries you use. As soon as you hear it go off, stop using it and swap it out for a fresh battery.

Lipo alarms – use them or you’ll probably kill your batteries.

Moving to Spekular LED Lights

Since then, I’ve switched up to Spekular LEDs. These are wonderful. They’re more colour consistent than any other LED I’ve tried and put out a lot of light. But, they do require a higher voltage than those little Neewer LED panels. The Neewer operate at 6.5-12 volts, Spekular, though, requires around 24 volts. But there’s a relatively easy way to power these with the same batteries.

You might’ve noted above where I called my batteries “3 cell”. Lipo batteries are made up of cells. It’s typically noted on the battery, in the case of 3 cell batteries, as “3s”. 2 cell batteries are “2s”. Each of these cells has a nominal voltage of 3.7v. So, a 2 cell battery is 7.4v (same as we find in most cameraS). A 3 cell battery is 11.1v. These individual cells are connected in series inside the overall battery.

This means, then, that we can connect two 3 cell batteries to each other in series to create a 6 cell battery. Or, a nominal 22.2 volts. All it needs is a simple cable. The batteries I’m using have XT90 connectors, so I use an XT90 serial connector to patch two of them together to effectively create a single 6 cell battery.

The combined output from here connects to the XT90 to 2.5mm barrel jack cable shown in the image above. The other end of that is then is plugged into the Spekular control segment. Again, in case I wasn’t clear enough, this will void your Spekular warranty. So, don’t do it.

But what about cameras?

I have several 3 cell (11.1v) and 2 cell (7.4v) batteries. Most cameras run at one of these voltages (or a range that includes both). My Nikons, for example, all run on EN-EL3e, EN-EL14 or EN-EL15 batteries, all of which are 7.4v, as they’re standard 2 cell batteries. The Nikon EH-5 AC adapter puts out 9 volts. Some camera bodies can happily accept up to 12 volts.

Side note, this higher voltage tolerance is why some bodies will give you features like faster framerates with the grip because they allow you to use the Nikon EN-EL4 and EN-EL18 batteries which are 11.1v, rather than the more standard 7.4v.

Anyway, again, it’s a simple case of making up a cable, although finding the right plug is a little more tricky. With some bodies, like my pair of Nikon D100 bodies, my D200, D300 and D300s, there’s a socket right there on the side of the camera into which you plug the Nikon EH-5 AC adapter. On other cameras, you need to use a dummy battery which goes to a cable containing the same square connector.

The tricky bit, for me at least, was finding the appropriate square plug to solder up my own cable. They’re not exactly a standard part. I got lucky on eBay, and found somebody selling off half a dozen Nikon EH-5 AC adapters “sold as seen”. There were six of them in total, and they were cheap enough that if they didn’t work, it would still be worth it for the cable with that plug on the end.

Fortunately, four of them were fully functional, and two were completely dead. As I planned to use these to power the cameras when I did have access to plug sockets, I was happy, and I had two that I could chop the cables off to make my own for battery powered use. Which is exactly what I did. So, that I could utilise the barrel connectors I’d already made up, I put a 2.5mm barrel socket on the other end of the cable, connecting to the appropriate positive and negative pins on the plug.

The pinout for the plug is easy to find as it’s printed right on the EH-5 adapter, and knowing which wire goes to which plug is easy to test with the continuity mode in any multimeter. Then it’s just a case of soldering on the barrel connector.

If you don’t have to worry about EH-5 compatibility with your dummy batteries, then others are available that already have barrel connectors on them. Then you can just plug the cables I made that I showed above for using with lights straight in.

Although these cameras are well out of warranty now and I’m not worried about voiding it (I did mention that can happen, right?), I still don’t want to risk killing them. So, I typically use 2 cell 7.4v batteries with this adapter cable. While I have tested the 3 cell 11.1v batteries with the D300s, D7000 and D800 bodies, I’ve no idea what the effects, if any, may be of using this high a voltage for too long.

So, I err on the side of caution.

As to why one might want to use lipo batteries with a DSLR when it fits perfectly good ones internally… Well, for me there are a few reasons. The first is video. If I’m shooting a lot, carrying around one 5500mAh lipo battery is a lot less hassle than carrying around 4 or 5 EN-EL14 batteries (which are only 1230mAh each). One lipo battery can last me a whole day, whereas I might blow through most of those EN-EL14s.

Even the EN-EL15 batteries in the D7000 and D800 are only 1900mAh. So, that 5500mAh lipo battery is still almost 3x the capacity of an EN-EL15. As they’re the same voltage, measuring mAh is a valid comparison of overall capacity and running time.

The other reason I like to use external power is for long exposure timelapse. With DSLRs, long exposures really drain the battery. This is because an electromagnet holds the shutter open for the whole duration of the shot. This electromagnet is drawing power the whole duration of the shot. So, if you’re shooting a timelapse comprised of 30 second exposures for a couple of hours… Well, your regular internal battery probably won’t last the whole two hours.

Using an external battery of 3-5 times the capacity of the internal battery means that timelapse can keep going for much longer. And if you use parallel connectors instead of the series ones I mentioned above, you can “hot swap” your batteries indefinitely, as long as you can keep them recharged fast enough. Such parallel connector cables are common in the DIY drone world, as they allow you to stay in the air for longer (assuming your drone’s strong enough to lift the weight).

Remember, though, lipo alarms. You don’t want to kill your batteries, and if you go hot-swappablem then you’ll want to know when they’re actually low enough that they need swapping.

So, what else?

There are all kinds of things you can power with lipo batteries, you just have to use a little care.  There are step down voltage converters, for example, with a 5v USB socket output. Very handy for charging up phones, tablets, action cameras, 360 cameras and other devices while on location. Sure, you can buy USB power banks, but if you already have these, why not use them for that, too?

I also use 5v step down converters to charge up my Tascam DR-100 while it’s in use, too. If I’m using my wireless lavs, or the Rode Reporter mic which don’t require phantom power, the internal battery lasts a while. But if I’ve got a pair of shotgun mics on there that both require 48v phantom power, then it can drain very quickly. Being able to hook up a large capacity batery externally means I can keep it recording for hours at a time, even with dual phantom power.

Right now, I’m working on a DIY project to motorise my camera slider using 3D printing. It’s a fun project that’s teaching me a lot about 3D printing, the strength and design of 3D printed parts, and giving me a bit of a refresher on electronics and Arduino coding. It may not surprise you to learn that this will also be powered by my lipo batteries, too. But that project is for another post.

So, there are a lot of things you can power with lipo batteries. But if you’re not sure what you’re doing, don’t risk it. Connecting things up badly can result in killing equipment, or even exploding batteries. Hence, the whole warranty voiding stuff, and me telling you not to try this at home.

Updated to add: Just in case it wasn’t clear the first few times I said it, do not try this at home. You do so at your own risk. It’s very easy to fry equipment or explode batteries if you’re not careful or don’t know what you’re doing. And if you try it anyway, remember those lipo alarms.

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John Aldred

John Aldred

John Aldred is a photographer with over 20 years of experience in the portrait and commercial worlds. He is based in Scotland and has been an early adopter – and occasional beta tester – of almost every digital imaging technology in that time. As well as his creative visual work, John uses 3D printing, electronics and programming to create his own photography and filmmaking tools and consults for a number of brands across the industry.

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8 responses to “How I use my drone Lipo batteries to power cameras, lights and other things”

  1. Lars Oeschey Avatar
    Lars Oeschey

    someone recommending LiPo batteries should also mention the dangers of deep discharge (RC cars etc. usually monitor discharge, but the use in the video won’t)… fireworks are not everyones best friend ;)

    1. John Aldred Avatar
      John Aldred

      Yes, I mentioned it in the description of the video, and several times in the article, along with a photo, that you should use lipo alarms. :)

    2. Lars Oeschey Avatar
      Lars Oeschey

      ah, ok, just watched the video, and it alarmed me a bit ;)

  2. Laurent Roy Avatar
    Laurent Roy

    Very interesting. Thanks for sharing. :-)

  3. joe_average Avatar
    joe_average

    very cool, thanks!

  4. Mateusz Polkowski Avatar
    Mateusz Polkowski

    “Hot swapping” with a parallel connector is just dangerous. These connectors are for plugging two batteries of the same type with the same voltage in parallel to double the capacity. So if you know one battery will be drained in say 2 hours, you can use that connector with two batteries to double that time.

    You should not use this connector to hot swap batteries. That would mean you are plugging in a fresh 4.20 V battery in parallel with a say 3.30 V battery. As you mentioned LiPos don’t mind being discharged at couple 10Cs, but they really do not like being charged above 1C and you will overcharge the drained battery in an instant reducing the battery’s lifespan at best or a fire at worst.

    1. Kaouthia Avatar
      Kaouthia

      For the couple of seconds it takes to plug in a battery and unplug the old one, I’ve never found it to be that much of a problem in the real world (although it’s something I’ve only needed to do rarely). I would suggest that letting your cells get as low as 3.3v is far more damaging to the battery. :)

      1. Mateusz Polkowski Avatar
        Mateusz Polkowski

        What would be a safe LiPo voltage per cell to unplug at for you?

        LiPo’s shouldn’t go down below 3.0 V per cell at any point in time because they take damage. They are stable down to 3.3 V per cell. For drone 6s flying I would start landing at about 3.5 V per cell, for micro 1s whoops I would land at 3.1 V per cell and it’s fine because these little guys can’t pull enough current.

        For extending your camera battery life running the LiPo’s down to 3.3 V per cell would be perfectly fine.