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
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.
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
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:
Portable and lightweight - you should be able to carry all of your equipment
High quality - no use taking bad pictures because of inadequate equipment
Reliable - you may be areas where repair is difficult, impossible, or utterly
Easy to use - you can't be fumbling with settings at inopportune moments
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:
Former Soviet Union: FED or Zorki series (very tough, less than $50 w/
Upwardly compatible with: Nikon digital SLRs, however there are many
caveats in the Nikon lens compatibility, see a lens guide for more info
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
SLR or Rangefinder?
+ What you see is what you get, including filter
+ Auto-focus and auto-exposure are usually seamless.
+ Focusing telephoto lenses is a cinch.
+ Very quiet
+ 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.
- Mirror slap vibration
- Wide-angle lenses subject to distortion unless exotic materials
(aspheric surfaces, ED glass) are used because of need for retrofocus
- 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.
Great for portraiture, sports, nature,
and general photography.
Great for street, straight, and
available light photography.
Avoid consumer zoom lenses (those costing <$800 retail) and zoom
lenses in general unless you have enough money to afford a 28-70mm f/2.8
constant aperture pro lens (usually ~$1000-$1500 retail). Consumer zoom
lenses are too dark (usually f/4 and above) for available light photography
and selective focus and do not have enough optical quality to warrant
If you can only buy
one lens, get a 35mm or 50mm f/1.8 or faster lens. If you can get a second
lens get the 100mm and then for the third lens round out the triplet.
For a total of $600 for all three lenses, you'll have a higher quality,
wider aperture, if slightly more cumbersome setup than the professional
zoom. The following are typical combinations of fixed lenses used in street
Typical Fixed Lens Combinations
highlighted combinations are perhaps the most popular although
it's up to each photographer to choose what works for her/him. I
personally use 24/50/100 and 35/50/100.
Avoid super telephotos (200mm upwards).These cause the very bad habit
of grab shots or photos taken without subject consent. These type
of grab shots are not very interesting, typically. Get close and personal.
Super telephotos are for the birds (nature photography).
Flash : a simple detachable high-power flash to supplement the camera's
onboard flash (if available)
built-in flashes do not have enough distance for bounce flash or long
Vivitar 285HV is a typical high-powered generic flash for any make of
Canon, Nikon, Minolta, etc. have their own flash systems with TTL automatic
Bring a 1 meter (3
foot) PC cable or use wireless system for remote flash.
Learn how to use daylight
fill-in flash. This is essential. In bright sunlight, it'll help with
shadows under people's eyes and brighten up colors.
Whether to use a waist pouch, backpack, or shoulder bag is entirely
up to you.
Inconspicuous bags are best. Avoid anything with a big bright logo or
that shouts "camera bag." The worst would be one with a huge
NIKON or CANON logo.
Unpadded bags such as Domkes are surprisingly capacious. Padding is
pretty superfluous and just makes things bulky.
The only thing I don't like about shoulder bags is that they tend to throw my back out. I'm using backpacks much more often these days.
I'm a big fan of
using diaper bags for my day bags. They're cheap, capacious, have tons
of pockets, have fold out changing sheets, and thieves seem to avoid them
like the plague.
(more designed for view camera users, but some useful DoF calculations)
- essential for darkroom and any other work that requires an accurate,
Essentials to carry with you:
Spare batteries (always carry with you, even if you put a fresh set
in the morning!)
Spare film or digital memory card (interesting things always happen
when you have only one roll and have shot 34 pictures)
Business card with URL and e-mail address (to give to people who want
to contact you)
Sharpie pens for writing notes and marking film canisters.
Zip-lock bags of various sizes (use for everything and everything)
Shower cap (steal
it from the hotel) : used as a makeshift rain hood for your camera.
Essentials to bring on trip but leave at hotel:
Lens cleaning cloth, blower, cleaning fluid (leave all this at the hotel,
clean after each day)
Small "leatherman" type toolkit for repairs (don't take it
in your carry-on luggage because security will confiscate it!)
Dessicants for drying
out the camera
Another set of spares for your camera. In China, I ran out of batteries for my M7 in the first week of a four week trip. I had one set of spares, but no second set. I'm now always carrying two set of spares for longer trips.
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
faster than their rangefinder counterparts.
for more SLR vs. Rangefinder comparisons including a detailed weight