Ethnographic Fieldwork Equipment That (Hopefully) Won’t Break the Bank: Camcorders by Matthew L. Hale (Indiana U)

from Anthropology News:

Ethnographic Fieldwork Equipment That (Hopefully) Won’t Break the Bank: Camcorders

Having considered digital audio recorders and cameras in the first and second installments of this four part series, I now turn our attention to digital camcorders. Once again, a disclaimer before I begin, this column is not an endorsement nor is it a review of any particular product, brand, or service. It is intended to provide student and professional anthropologists with an overview of the kinds of digital camcorders currently available on the market and to highlight several key features that one ought to consider when investing in or upgrading their field equipment.

Why a Stand-Alone Camcorder? 
As in the previous installments, we begin with a simple question: Why do I need this device? For most anthropologists, the answer is simple. You don’t. If you own a smartphone, tablet, or digital camera that will capture relatively high quality audio and video, these devices will suffice for most basic applications.

For many ethnographers, video footage functions as a secondary medium—a means to create better written texts. You might use video footage as a kind of audio/visual set of jottings, a tool for generating transcriptions that better attend to the embodied or material dimensions of a particular cultural practice, or a resource that could be incorporated into a conference presentation. In each of these instances, video footage is a means to an end, but not the end itself. If these are the sorts of methodological practices that your research demands, you almost certainly don’t need a professional grade camcorder.

If you intend to use video footage as a primary medium through which to produce and disseminate ethnographic knowledge, you’ll want to learn to use and invest in professional grade tools. This caliber of equipment will offer you precision controls, the highest quality audio and video content possible, long battery life, adaptable design features, and an ergonomic form factor. The downside to all of this is that it is going to cost you.

What To Look For
If you are on the market for a prosumer, or professional grade digital camcorder, there are several features that are essential for ethnographic research.

  1. Onboard stereo audio inputs with manual controls is a must. Minimally, you’ll want to have two channels (hence stereo) with independent gain or volume controls of each channel. While many small camcorders will feature a single 1/8” stereo input, this won’t be sufficient for your professional audio needs. You ideally want two separate XLR inputs (large round connectors that typically house three pin connectors) and “phantom power” (the ability to send power from your battery through your XLR cables to your microphones or other equipment).
  2. While automatic control features have become amazingly adept, you’ll nonetheless want to have manual control over your white balance, zoom, focus, and again, your audio. Although you might be tempted by touch screen technology, manual buttons are your friends. When you’re in the field, you’ll want to reduce the amount of work that you have to do to adjust a parameter on the fly—physical controls are simple, effective, and reliable and they will prevent you from missing a shot.
  3. If you are going to invest money in a professional camcorder, you owe it to yourself to try several devices out in person. You want a camcorder that feels good and balances well in your hands. You’re going to be holding this hunk of metal and plastic in the air for hours at a time, so finding an ergonomic and well balanced camera will help you reduce camera shake and will minimize the inevitable pain you’ll feel the next day after a 10 hour shoot (trust me on this). Your camcorder-to-be shouldn’t feel like a plastic toy. It needs to have some weight to it, but shouldn’t be too heavy. You’ll want to look for camcorders that fall in the range of 3-6 lbs. excluding the weight of the battery, microphones, and cables.
  4. Ensure that your camcorder records its data in a format that is compatible with your preferred editing software.
  5. Finally, although high-definition audio and video recording has become the new standard for digital camcorders, new 4k resolution devices are quickly flooding the market. While you might want to invest in these products—and this isn’t meant to discourage you from doing so—keep in mind that recording raw data at this quality will require that you have massive amounts of storage.

The DSLR: The Contemporary Ethnographer’s Swiss Army Knife 
If you are a investing in their your first camcorder, don’t underestimate the power and value of DSLR cameras. These devices are an excellent alternative to digital camcorders for several reasons.

  1. They are capable of producing both high-resolution still photographs and video. While some camcorders can produce still images (the Sony NEX series for example), they aren’t suited to this application.
  2. They have interchangeable lens systems unlike most prosumer level camcorders (exceptions are noted below).
  3. Although most DSLRs do not have XLR inputs or phantom power, you can easily sync audio captured from a stand-alone digital audio recorder to the video content that you generate with your DSLR.
  4. The price point of a suitable video capable DSLR is far below that of a professional digital camcorder.

Options At Various Price Points 

  • GOPro Hero4 (especially, though not exclusively for Point of View footage)
  • Any entry level DSLR camera, especially the Nikon D5500 or Canon EOS 7D.


  • Canon XA10
  • Canon XA 20
  • Panasonic AG-AC90A
  • Sony 96GB HXR-NX30 Palm Sized
  • Sony PXW-X70


  • Canon EOS C100 (interchangeable lens system)
  • Canon XA25
  • JVC GY-HM600
  • JVC GY-LS300CHU (interchangeable lens system)
  • Sony HXR-NX3/1
  • Sony NEX-VG30H  (interchangeable lens system)
  • Panasonic AG-AC 160

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