Mobile Visual Ethnography Kit

Simple Mobile Equipment

Simple Mobile Equipment

Last year I posted a bit about the simple, mobile equipment that I have put together for the students in my visual anthropology class to use on their visual documentary projects. This year I have made a few updates that are worth a quick share.

I’m still committed to using Zoom H1s for audio capture—there really isn’t a better recorder for the price—and I’m a big fan of the tripod/case accessory package that is available for the Zoom H1 on Amazon. Related to this the FurryHead “Dead Cat” Windscreens still can’t be beat.

This year, the biggest change has been to the camera. At long last I have managed to dump the now nearly-ancient Flip Cameras for an upgrade to the now very affordable VIXIA HF R500. Over the past few months I have reviewed some other camera options that I thought might work nicely. Seeking a balance between size, quality, price and my commitment to ease of use, however, wasn’t easy.

  • Initially I loved the idea of the Sony HDR-MV1. The form factor was a very small, James-Bondy-cool with a solid build quality. I also liked the idea of the higher quality sound of the X/Y mics built in. The camera packs well and would work in many situations. The side view monitor, however, was awkward. Also, I was disappointed that the camera does not have audio input or headphone jacks. And, there is no way to attach a windscreen to the mics.
  • I also checked out Zoom’s portable recorder, the Q4 Handy Video Recorder. I read all the reviews I could find and checked out sample footage. It had high quality Zoom X/Y mics built in and a removable video monitor. By the end of my online review, I was so sure that the Q4 was my dream recorder that I bought one.  After a week of putting it through its paces, however, I promptly returned it. The build quality seemed cheap and not rugged at all. Most disappointingly, however, the video quality was very poor in low light—intolerably so.
  • My last exploration was in the realm of pocket still cameras that also shoot video. At the urging of a guy at the local camera store I tried a Nikon Coolpix AW120. It was rugged, had the added bonus of geotagging and some decent quality video. In the end, however, it really was a still camera not optimized for video. The hobbling of video capture to under 30 minutes was irritating. Also, the price was a bit high for what I needed.

So in the end I went with consumer video camera, the VIXIA HF R500. It is small, has a built in lens cap and easily swappable battery pack. It is light and built reasonably well. It has both external mic and headphone jacks. Most importantly, it shoots nice video at a nice range of quality in MP4 and AVCHD. The controls are simple and the SD card easy to swap while on a tripod. Also, the special effects modes are nice for when students are asked to copy the style of films from the various eras we are studying. Most significantly, it will record for as long as there is space on the SD card. I specifically chose the R500, without WiFi capability to keep things as simple as possible. The biggest surprise bonus, however, was that at the end of 2014 they went on sale at $100 below list price. It was like buying two and getting a third for free.

While last year I gave iPhones a go for class work, I really wasn’t entirely happy with the quality of video that they produce for the big screen. So this year I’m enforcing use of the higher quality video cams. I’ll report how things turn out.

A final update that must be reported this year are the great gearbags! This year my awesome spouse took quite a bit of time to help me solve a big problem—safety carrying the mobile equipment around from place to place. She helped me design and then sewed from scratch a whole collection of roll-up gear bags. They look great and really bring together the whole idea of a mobile ethnography field kit.

This week students are beginning to check out the equipment and go to work on their projects. I look forward to reporting how things go.


The gearbags pull the kit together.



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