Which fieldwork camera should you buy?

I recently came across an old camera that I took around Asia back in 2013. It still had a few shots from time in Assam and especially Nagaland, which I uploaded and fixed up a bit (Flickr album here). And it reminded me much I hated that camera, which I’d bought after a few minutes of cursory googling – terrible in low-light because of a tiny sensor and unreliable autofocus, especially at the long telephoto end. The Nagaland photos show it at its best, since it was bright and sunny and the ISO was kept nice and low, but the sunniness created the problem of blown highlights and thus lost details in the sky. I’ve always regretted taking it, rather than something better, on research trips in India, Thailand, Myanmar, and Singapore during that year. Taking photos in dim libraries/archives was a disaster, with illegible photos and endless autofocus hunting and weird distracting/embarrassing whirring noises.

So what should someone heading out to do some kind of fieldwork buy? I’m assuming this is a grad student (or possibly aid worker, Peace Corps, etc) who wants to capture their experiences, but also possibly to take lots of photos of documents, maps, etc in dimly-lit archives, have survey teams use it in their activities, etc. Thus the parameters are 1) decent image quality, better than a smartphone, 2) very small size that is highly portable (so no RX10 III or most DSLRs), and 3) a tight budget, ideally in the $200-600 range used (so no Leica M Monochrom).

There are four basic categories I would recommend.

1-inch sensor compacts. I think they are the best bets for most – solid image quality in low light, useful zoom ranges (though much shorter than the cheaper, smaller sensor compacts), reasonably responsive, and very very small. The Sony RX100 series, which ranges massively in specification and price from models I through V, pioneered this category (here’s a nice summary from DPreview). The Panasonic LX15 and, with a longer zoom but slower lens, ZS100, and the Canon G7X II are other excellent options. A DPreview overview of this category recently came out.

Large-sensor compacts. These are probably outside the budget of the average grad student, but used options may be affordable. These tend to have a single focal length, equivalent to either 28mm or 35mm, and a larger sensor. The Fuji X100 series and X70, Ricoh GR/GR II (though beware dust on sensor), and Nikon Coolpix A are the standard possibilities. The Panasonic LX100 is an exception in this category – an “in-between” sensor size plus a zoom. There are real trade-offs with these – can you afford them, do you need a large sensor, and can you live with a fixed or limited focal length?

Interchangeable mirrorless cameras (with small lenses). I’m leaving aside classic DSLRs here, like the Canon Rebels, Nikon D3400, etc for size reasons. Instead, for people needing high levels of portability, the newer breed of mirrorless cameras makes sense. They are excellent – very good 4/3 or APS-C sensors, fast and accurate autofocus, and a wide range of lenses. Olympus E-M10/II and E-PLs, Panasonic GX850/GX85, Sony a5100/6000, Fuji X-A3, and Canon M6 are plausible options here, plus various other used options in the Fuji X, Sony E-mount, Canon M, and Olympus/Panasonic Micro Four-Thirds systems. There are small, if not always very good, collapsible zoom lenses for Sony, Panasonic, and Olympus that can make the body + lens package extremely compact.

The downside is that often there are few small lenses, and once the lenses grow larger, portability decreases. The kit zooms that come with these cameras are sometimes not great and on their own might undermine the advantage of such a camera over a smaller sensored compact with a faster, sharper lens. Buying new lenses blows the budget, so a lot hinges on money and the likelihood of/interest in expanding one’s lenses collection over time.

Specialist cameras. For people going to very challenging physical environments, an Olympus TG-4 Tough camera might be good – not great image quality, but built to withstand sand, rain, snow, freezing weather, extreme heat, etc. For large “full frame” digital sensors, we’re way beyond budget, but a Sony A7/A7 II might be a good option. If you want a film camera, a good condition Olympus XA/XA2 is a nice highly portable possibility.

Tips. For figuring out portability, the Compact Camera Meter lets you compare the size and weight of cameras and camera/lens combinations. Buying used is best through KEH, Adorama, B&H, and highly rated, frequent sellers on Ebay, Etsy, and Amazon (especially if Amazon fulfillment allows returns). Best Buy also has some great Open Box deals on their website and their Ebay Outlet store to check out; I’ve seen RX100 I’s under $300 there. Proceed with great caution on Craiglist, most Ebay sellers, etc. Reviews from DPreview, Wirecutter, Imaging Resource, and numerous other sites and blogs can be very helpful.

Ayub Khan and the ‘Bengali Question’

Ayub Khan is generally framed as an authoritarian modernizer who tried to build a centralized Pakistan run along technocratic lines. He is frequently set in contrast to the Islamizing Zia ul-Haq, who more aggressively pursued an Islamist ideological project after 1977. Huntington, in Political Order in Changing Societies, used Ayub as a classic example of the ambitious military modernizer bringing order from the wreckage of weakly institutionalized civilian democracy.

When it comes to Islam, Ayub is seen as personally not particularly religious, instead trying to mobilize a particular brand of Muslim nationalism for his own purposes, whilte set against the more ideological clerics and religious parties he despised. This is not wrong on certain dimensions (he certainly hated the traditionalist ulama etc), but it’s striking just how deeply his diaries reveal him to be obsessed with the question of religion and the Bengali. Hinduism is repeatedly equated to Bengali identity in his discussions of the problem of East Pakistan. I’ve found Ayub’s diaries (edited by Craig Baxter) quite fascinating; a few select excerpts on the Bengali issue:

  • If ground given to Bengali regionalism, “the point of no return would be reached and East Pakistan will go under Hinduism and be separated forever” (25 May 67, 100-101)
  • “when thinking of problems of East Pakistan one cannot help feeling that their urge to isolate themselves from West Pakistan and revert to Hindu language and culture is close to the fact that they have no culture and language of their own nor have they been able to assimilate the culture of the Muslims of the subcontinent by turning their back on Urdu. Further, by doing so they have forced two state languages on Pakistan. This has been a great tragedy for them and for the rest of Pakistan. They especially lack literature on the philosophy of Islam” (12 Aug 67, 132)
  • “the two communities lived strictly apart with very little in common. This is because our philosophy of life was totally opposed and so our culture too had to be different. Our contact is perfunctory and shallow. I told them that through emotional upsurge the East Pakistani had cut himself off from Urdu, the vehicle in which Muslim thought and philosophy is expressed. If consequence, he was now totally at sea, drifting. This will prove very dangerous for their future. If not careful they will have no choice but to drift back to Hinduism and be engulfed by it” (23 August 1967, 137)
  • “without meaning any unkindness, the fact of the matter is that a large majority of the Muslims in East Pakistan have an animist base which is a thick layer of Hinduism and top crust of Islam which is pierced by Hinduism from time to time” ( 23 August 1967, 138)
  • in conversation with Khawaja Shahabuddin re: East Pakistan “we could not think of a worst combination. Hindus and Bengalis. I told the Khawaja not to lose heart. If worse comes to the worst, we shall not hesitate to fight a relentless battle against the disruptionists of East Pakistan. Rivers of blood will flow if need be, unhappily. We will arise to save our crores Muslims from Hindu slavery” (7 Sept 1967, 145)
  • “I am surprised at the Bengali outlook. It does not conform to any rational yardstick. They were exploited by the caste Hindus, the Muslim rulers and even the British. It was at the advent of Pakistan that they got the blessing of freedom and equality of status and a real voice in the running of their government. . . any normal people should have recognized and rejoiced at this blessing. Instead, they urge to fall back on their Bengali past. This can only result in their complete absorption by Hindu West Bengal influence” (Jan-March 1968, 210 – date not given because during period of illness)


On Africa and Civil War

I just finished reading Philip Roessler’s excellent book for my graduate Civil War seminar. Already a fan of his 2005 piece on electoral violence, I learned a lot from the new book and highly recommend it. But, just as when reading major work by Will Reno, Reno and Chris Day, Jeremy Weinstein, Paul Collier, Jeffrey Herbst, and others, I had the reaction that “This looks nothing like the places I study.” At least in the stylized world of African politics presented in these projects (I have no idea if this is accurate), Hobbesian insecurity preys on all in the absence of any real institutions, ethnic balancing and calculation dominates any other form of politics, and regimes are held in place by fluid, shifting alignments with “Big Men” rooted in local power bases.

As a result, we get shambolic and weak central regimes prone to either coups or revolts, and rebels easily bought off by patronage or co-optation. Weinstein highlights the inability of ideological rebels to overcome waves of material resources that eliminate discipline or politics, Roessler’s regimes are simply what Skocpol calls an “arena” for political competition between social actors rather than possessing any institutions or interests autonomous from social forces, and Reno’s civil wars (with the exception of “reform rebels”) are simply a grim game of bargaining over patronage between states and insurgents that are more similar than different.

Some of this has deep resonance in the places I study – my work of wartime political orders and, now, “armed orders” more generally has definitely been inspired by reading work on African political violence.

But the visions of both states and armed groups in this Africa-specific literature don’t line up particularly well with what I think are the broad patterns of contestation in South Asia and much of Southeast Asia and the Middle East. Greedy, undisciplined rebels simply wouldn’t survive long, or have any incentive to stay in the fight, against the Burma Army’s “four cuts” COIN offensives or the tender mercies of New Order counterinsurgency; the state institutions of coercion that can be deployed by the Indian and Pakistani security managers involve hundreds of thousands of combat forces that don’t split and feud and fall apart; elite politics in countries like Cambodia, the Philippines, and Bangladesh do not simply revolve around ethnic politics; the Taliban, LTTE, Naxalites, NPA, Khmer Rouge, Viet Minh, PKK, and Kurdish pesh merga were/are not collections of greedy thugs simply trying to insert themselves into patronage networks or rebelling as part of a bargain to reinsert themselves into central coalitions.

Roessler, indeed, argues that Africa has a “unique institutional structure” in which external conflicts are rare and internal disorder common. If Africa is indeed unique, it is hard to know how arguments rooted in the African context can travel beyond Africa.

At minimum, I’m becoming increasingly convinced that research on civil war needs to become at least partially bifurcated into work on its dynamics in very weak states (the representation of African conflicts dominant in the literature, plus Afghanistan and a few others) versus those in medium-capacity states (India, Colombia, Indonesia, Russia, etc) that possess large, centrally controlled conventional and internal security forces embedded in bureaucratic institutions.

Trying to build arguments that apply to both categories may simply be impossible, or likely to descend into lowest-common-denominator claims that don’t advance much knowledge. My current book project has increasingly found itself situated in the latter cluster of medium-capacity regimes trying to manage violence driven by political, rather than pure military/functional, logics – which means, in turn, it won’t have much to say to much about most of Africa. As the field grows more mature, it seems like it’s time for more splitting rather than lumping.