Universal Charger: Last chance saloon when you are on the road
Last week in Germany I realised I had committed the cardinal sin of the itinerant photographer. I hadn’t packed the proprietary (and difficult to find in stock, even at exorbitant price) charger for the Panasonic GX8 batteries. I’d thoughtfully purchased a third battery for Berlin and I decided I would top it up (just in case) before leaving for the airport.
Of course, I forgot both battery and charger, still plugged in at home base. Now this is not funny. Don't laugh. I had but two batteries and number one was already down to the last bar before I’d finished tramping around the IFA exhibition. I still had work to do, including an assignment to take some product shots inside a new physiotherapy clinic in Wittembergplatz.
The GX8 (unlike the admirable LX100/Leica D-Lux and many other cameras) does not have in-camera charging. If only it did. All cameras should have in-camera charging, whether or not the manufacturer chooses to supply a charger unit. I have a collection of proprietary chargers from Leica (four disparate devices), Panasonic and Olympus. It’s a constant worry and an easy mistake to pick up the wrong charger when packing. This is just as bad as picking up none.
With in-camera charging it is a simple matter to buy a USB cable wherever you happen to find yourself in the world. It’s cheap and effective. It is one reason I always pack the little Ricoh GR in a corner of my camera bag, irrespective of which camera I choose as my main tool for the job.
The Ricoh, unlike my other current cameras, does have the ability to recharge batteries through a USB cable. It's incredibly useful and avoids expensive mistakes. Even if I forget the correct USB cable I can usually find one in the nearest phone shop.
Instead, through my own carelessness, I was stuck in Berlin with a rapidly depleting source of power for the Lumix. What to do? The chance of finding the correct Panasonic charger even in a large city such as Berlin is next to none. And, even then, it would be prohibitively expensive. Even third-party chargers, readily available on eBay or Amazon, are extremely difficult to track down in physical camera stores.
The solution was a universal charger. Now I have never investigated this market, nor did I have even a haziest idea of how such a device might work, nor where to get one. After all, no two batteries are the same and all have contacts in different configurations and in different places.
I took myself off to Conrad, Germany's answer to Maplin, in Kleiststrasse. I didn't have much hope but I was surprised to find a rather bulky device that claimed to be all things to all batteries, from AA to Leica's substantial SL power pack.
Frankly, I really didn't think it would work but shelled out the €29 more in hope than expectation. This is the extent of my desperation. Indeed, as I found out back at the hotel, this is a Heath Robinson construction of heroic proportions. My worst fears were about to be realised.
It doesn't deserve to work; it shouldn't work. But it does. There are fairly mainstream slots for the common AA batteries but also four contacts that can be moved around like sweeties in an arcade machine by means of a duo of thumb wheels. I imagine it is like tuning a 1920s crystal radio set, very much hit or miss.
Making the right contacts
It's a matter of checking which of the contacts on your camera battery—any camera battery as far as I can see—are marked + and -. Depending on the configuration of the battery you can use the vertical or horizontal contacts. Then you offer up the battery and twiddle the thumb wheels until the contacts are in the right place. The spring-loaded cover then clamps the battery in place, ready for charging.
You must be careful not to knock the charger unit or the power pins could stray from the battery contacts. But, used carefully, this device does work and is a lifesaver. Admittedly it is bulkier than any camera charger I have encountered, but needs must when the devil drives. It comes with a power unit (jack-plug connection, supplied with UK and Euro plugs) which is something else to remember. There is also a USB-A output socket which can be used to to charge a phone or tablet.
In future I will probably pack the Hähnel UniPal Plus "just in case". In the meantime, having got the Heath Robinson bug, I might look around for a smaller but equally serviceable unit. I am sure there are bargains to be had on eBay or Amazon. This particular Hähnel unit is available from Amazon UK at a cost of £22.99.
NOTE: After posting this article I met the Hähnel people on their stand at Photokina. They had an upgraded version of the UniPal Plus, the UniPal Extra which has a USB micro power input. It also includes a small battery which means you can recharge a camera battery without a power source; similarly you can use the device to top up a phone or other USB device. This is clearly a better choice for the traveller since it can be powered from many USB power sources, not just from the supplied charger which, the case of the Plus, has a jack-plug connector.
Incidentally, I learned that Hähnel, Umlaut notwithstanding, is not a German but an Irish company based in Cork. Chris Hähnel, the director and, presumably, founder, is a native of Cologne.