Photoethnography Equipment

Street Dancer, Shinjuku, Tokyo. Karen Nakamura

Everyone seems to think that you need the latest $2000 Nikon or Canon digital SLR to take great ethnographic photos. What a load of baloney! The wonderful thing about 35mm cameras is that Japanese, Germans, and Americans have been building fantastic cameras for over 70 years so there's a large supply of used classic cameras out there that are both excellent and inexpensive.

For beginning photoethnographers on a budget, my recommendations are to get a good quality leaf-shutter rangefinder such as:

All of these cameras are readily available in yard sales and flea markets for next to nothing and have absolutely wonderful lenses. The auto-exposure systems on them have been well designed and they should be usable for another couple of decades. The point is, you don't need expensive gear to do good photoethnographic work. The main requirements are:

I am a big fan of buying classic camera equipment from the 1950s-1970s. They are usually well-built, rugged, and very cheap. I have more information on buying inexpensive classic cameras as well as detailed information on the various classic cameras I own. If you can afford a high-end 8mp+ digital SLR (e.g. Canon 20D) then go for it, otherwise I'd recommend sticking with film for the next year or so until prices drop further. The sub-$1000 Digital Rebel, Pentax *ist D, and Nikon D70 are very good options but they are not built very ruggedly and are still not as full-featured as the mid-line film SLRs. However, if you shoot often, you will save enough in film costs in a year to make them reaonable options.

If you have a bit more money, I would recommend getting an inexpensive SLR or rangefinder. More important than the body is the lens availability. You want to be able to afford several high-quality prime (non-zoom) lenses. My recommendations are to buy into either the Leica screw mount (m39) for rangefinders or for SLRs, the Pentax screw mount (M42) or Nikon bayonet mount. All of these series have very high quality lenses that are very commonly available, usually less than $100.

Leica Screw Mount Bodies:

Pentax Spotmatic Screw Mount (M42)

Nikon Bayonet Mount Bodies


Equipment Recommendations


  1. Camera : either a single-lens reflex (SLR) or rangefinder. Whatever camera you get, the principle thing that will control the quality of your images is how comfortable you are with it. The best photographer will take better photos from the worst camera than the worst amateur can take with the best camera. Your camera is the conduit for your artistic vision. Know all of its nooks, crannies, idiosyncrasies, and talents. I have a page on choosing between SLRs, TLRs, rangefinders, and so forth. The following chart is a distillation:

    SLR or Rangefinder?
      SLR Rangefinder

    + What you see is what you get, including filter effects.
    + Auto-focus and auto-exposure are usually seamless.
    + Focusing telephoto lenses is a cinch.

    + Lighter
    + Smaller
    + Very quiet
    + Reliable
    + No mirror slap vibration
    + Wide angle lenses are usually highly corrected without resorting to exotic materials.
    + Focusing wide-angle and "dark" lenses is a cinch.


    - Heavier
    - Bigger
    - Louder
    - Mirror slap vibration
    - Wide-angle lenses subject to distortion unless exotic materials (aspheric surfaces, ED glass) are used because of need for retrofocus designs.
    - Wide-angle lenses and "dark" lenses (> f/4) can be hard to focus.

    - Usually manual focus.
    - Viewfinder image does not always match film image, including filter effects and parallax error.
    - Long telephoto lenses (> 100mm) can be hard to frame and focus.
    Executive Summary Great for portraiture, sports, nature, and general photography. Great for street, straight, and available light photography.

  2. Interchangeable lenses
  3. Flash : a simple detachable high-power flash to supplement the camera's onboard flash (if available)
  4. Camera bag
  5. Pocket tape-recorder, memo-pad, or Palm Pilot
  6. Essentials to carry with you:
  7. Essentials to bring on trip but leave at hotel:
  8. Optional Equipment
Contents of My Camera Bag
Heavyweight Version Lightweight Version

Canon EOS-3
Canon EOS 10D

EF24mm f/2.8
EF50mm f/1.4 USM
EF100mm f/2.8 USM Macro


EF 16-35mm f/2.8 L
EF 28-70mm f/2.8 L


550EX flash
ST-E2 Wireless flash controller
TC-80N3 Time Remote Cord

CF Cards and Batteries

Ultrapod II Hiking Tripod
Palm m505 w/ 64mb card
Fine-point Sharpie pens, Band-Aids, showercap,
Petzl Zipca, etc.

Camera Bag:
LowePro Rover AW or
LowePro MicroTrekker 200

Things left in hotel room:
Gitzo Explorer with Arca-Swiss B1
Dessicants for storing lens/cameras in overnight when in tropical conditions
NiMH Battery Charger

For digital: Laptop + memory card reader
Camera battery charger

Leica M7
35mm f/2
50mm f/2
90mm f/2

Leica SF-20 flash


Leica CL
40/90 Lenses
Gossen Digisix


No camera bag
(jacket with big pockets)


Spare film in pocket
Spare batteries

No tripod needed with rangefinders.
Maybe a small flash stashed in a pocket.


Just as an aside, my Canon EOS-3 system (camera + 3 lenses, no accessories) weight is 2.2 kg (4.8lb) while my Leica system weight is 1.3 kg (2.9lb). Guess which one I bring when I'm just walking about? Granted the EOS lenses are one stop faster than their rangefinder counterparts.
See here for more SLR vs. Rangefinder comparisons including a detailed weight comparison.


Links to other resources:

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Last modified: Friday, 07-Jan-2011 15:14:26 EST , [an error occurred while processing this directive] .