Reposting: Cameras in the field

In Cambodia, 2006
Photo by Kathy Schaefer
I posted the piece below in April 2009. Reading it over, I see a lot that I'd change: my gear and gear preferences are very different now. So what was originally intended as straightforward "information" has become a record of earlier working practices. Nice. That's why I'm re-posting this unchanged, with minor edits inserted.


I'm often asked about my photography "how-tos" so I thought I'd throw together some brief notes on taking a camera to the field, especially for anthropologists and other seasoned fieldworkers. I'm not going into a heavy discussion about the power relations inherent in "capturing" images of the Other; for that you'll have to turn to one of the media anthropology blogs. These are just some tips and words of advice from someone who "went digital" in 2005 (relatively late) and has since become an amateur hobbyist, and has survived taking a DSLR (digital single lens reflex) to the field. In no particular order:

(1) If your camera is a small point-and-shoot (PAS), chuck it in your bag along with notebook and take it everywhere with you.

(2) If it's not a small PAS (e.g., a relatively chunky DSLR like my Nikon D70 [edit: D700]), chuck it in anyway, which takes us to:

(3) Find a sturdy travel bag / camera bag that can hold camera, spare batteries, spare memory cards, notebook(s), pens, purse or wallet, and other odds and ends. A standard rusksack or bookbag works, but I personally don't like having to unshoulder and rummage for the camera when I'm in a hurry. To me field photography means being able to respond quickly with the camera. Fanny packs are uncool and déclassé, but they do work... but careful of "sag", which can arouse all sorts of murderous thoughts when you're doing a punishing trek in the bush. A fanny pack with firm shoulder strap is a good compromise. [edit: Absolutely not. My current bag of choice, in and out of fieldwork: a Lowepro Fastpack 250]

(4) Rainproof everything. Especially if your field is in the wet humid tropics and renowned for its hydrological richness. Always have a few air-tight plastic bags at the ready (zipper storage bags). Also useful for dusty conditions. In Cambodia I always kept my DSLR wrapped even when inside the bag. Lots of river-crossings in shallow boats, see, and lots of dust in the dry season.

(5) Cameras can be intrusive and disruptive. It's a tradeoff between taking pictures and going with the flow. Except when you're ordered to take photos by the people, as has happened to me several times, both in Malaysia and Cambodia. I think my Cambodian friends considered me a cheap source of commemorative images but, hey, I didn't mind.

(6) Digital cameras need charging (the camera doesn't, but the battery does). It helps to have electricity. Where there's none, worth looking into installing solar power. I had a PV system in Cambodia and was happy with it. But the Nikon D70 can also be powered with replaceable CR2 batteries—of which I had a ready supply... another factor to consider when shopping for your first fieldwork DSLR.

(7) For my photographic taste, I'd want a good camera, a DSLR in the "prosumer" class at least, but size and weight are important considerations if your fieldwork involves a lot of mobility (especially if you have to walk a lot). So far I haven't suffered too much with my D70: had a car in Cambodia, and when not surveying by car, used motorbikes, bicycles, and boats. Didn't walk that much, which had deleterious effects on my weight. [edit: I'll have to rethink this point, now that I'm using the far larger and heavier D700]

(8) Impact factor: the bigger the camera (and the lenses), the bigger your marker of wealth. That can cause all kinds of symbolic problems: are you rich or poor, are you an anthropologist or photographer, can you be all of these things and accepted by the host community? (Actually, forget "poor": if you can travel to a remote area for fieldwork, you'll never be poor by local standards.) No easy answers here. Just something you have to deal with on a case-by-case basis. Hopefully your charm will disarm all comers. Basic rule of thumb is: don't try to be what you're not. [edit: ditto previous comment]

(9) Lenses: in Cambodia (when I last did extended fieldwork) I mainly lived off the kit lens, the 18-70mm. That had the flexibility I needed: no need to change lenses all the time. Changing lenses can be a real pain in the field, especially when things are happening quickly and you need to be shooting, not fumbling with lenses. I tend towards the "all-in-one" school of thought; I want a lens that does (almost) everything I need it to, so I don't have to travel with a lot of glass and face the hassle of changing lenses all the time. You'll want to do some research and find the lens(es) that best meets your field requirements. For my next fieldwork, I'm bringing along one of my portrait lenses, the 50mm f/1.8 or the 35mm f/2 (tiny things that fit in the pocket). Okay, enough dork talk, but basic point is: it's not the camera, it's the lens that makes a real difference to your images. If you're happy with both, you'll have a sweet time. [edit: ditto previous comment, now that my lens kit has changed completely]

(10) Be a Boy Scout: be prepared all the time. I'm thinking of memory cards here. I've just discovered that it takes me 4 days to use up a 2GB card (with fairly continuous field shooting). What if you're in the middle of a forest trek when your card fills up and you haven't got anymore? Memory cards are cheap nowadays. Stock up and keep the spares with you at all times.

(11) Download images as often as you can. In Cambodia I downloaded every evening to my laptop: with host family members looking over my shoulder, I was able to annotate images with their help immediately after downloading. It's also safer to do it this way: you never know if the camera or memory card might seize up in the field (not that this has happened to my D70 so far, touch wood). It's also good for reviewing fieldwork progress: the metadata on images gives you detailed information on time spent on particular activities (if you're documenting continuously) and if you find at the end of the day that an important photo didn't turn out so well, you can re-take while you're still there. Reviewing daily hauls also helps you to improve your photographic skills, of course. Plus the images give you all kinds of new things to talk about with your hosts.

(12) In the end, it all comes down to who you are and what you want of the camera. If you're not really keen on photography but have to do it because "we're anthropologists and we're forced to take pictures for documentation", you might make do with a compact PAS. If your field stint is short (1-2 weeks), and you're pretty convinced that all your shots came out perfectly, then get something you're comfortable using, invest in a sack of memory cards and batteries, and just haul the whole load home when you're done. But for the sake of people who have to look at your images when they buy your books and listen to your lectures, I do think it's nice to spend a bit more money on equipment and aim a little higher! Think community service. (It's a joke!)

I'm sure I've got loads more to say on particular topics (like how to take pictures of people) but different people do things differently. This post just covers the main issues I've dealt with. If you want to get into the nitty gritty of shooting and post-processing (nerd-talk), well... But that's for another day, perhaps!

Posted By Lye Tuck-Po to Anthropological Notebook on 3/04/2009 08:09:00 PM

Postscript, 2012: A couple more points I added in response to comments:

(13) If you're planning on upgrading your kit before your next fieldwork, try not to make a hasty buy on your way to the airport, and give yourself plenty of time to practice (on your flowers, pets, kids, students, colleagues, etc.) before you go.

(14) How to choose your next camera? This is what I did before I got my D70. I knew I wanted a good digital camera that I could learn photography with (rather than a crap toy for snapshots). So I asked around for advice, narrowed down the specs, went on the internet, looked through camera fora (like, read discussions and Q&As on cameras with the specs I was after, then selected the D70 based on a friend's recommendation and price values.