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 home >> educational resources >> getting started >> publications >> maritime folklife >> part 2

Documenting Maritime Folklife: An Introductory Guide

Part 2: How to Document

How to document:


Photography is an invaluable tool for recording many subjects of cultural significance, from single artifacts to complicated events. A detailed discussion of the merits of photography as a research tool is beyond the scope of the present publication, but the reader is advised to consult John and Malcom Collier's Visual Anthropology: Photography as a Research Tool and Bruce Jackson's Fieldwork.1

Today, the standard equipment for still photography in the field is the 35mm single lens reflex (SLR) camera with interchangeable lenses. Since it is often desirable to make a photographic record on color as well as on black and white film, access to two camera bodies with an identical lens mounting system is desirable. Due to advances made in electronics in recent years, modern 35mm cameras are relatively easy to operate. Most possess "automatic" modes that require the photographer to do little more than focus and press the shutter release.

The choice of color or black and white film should be based on how the photographs will be used. For example, if a publication will be the result of a documentation project, black and white film is probably the appropriate choice in most cases. If the main vehicle for communication will be a slide show, then color slides are the best choice. The goals of some projects will dictate that fieldworkers use both color and black and white film for documentation. A wide assortment of slow and fast films designed for various lighting conditions are available--slower films for bright light and faster films for low light. In order to obtain the best possible photographs under field conditions, researchers should carry several rolls of film suited to different levels of light. In settings where very low light prevails, the use of an electronic flash (strobe) and/or a sturdy tripod may be advantageous.

When planning how photography will be conducted in the field, it is advisable to draw up a schedule of photographic tasks. Most field photography can be assigned to one of four subject categories: human activities, portraits, artifacts, and photographs in an informant's collection. Each of these presents particular problems for the photographer and calls for the application of certain equipment or techniques.

When photographing human activities, 24mm and 35mm wide-angle lenses are useful for capturing two or more people relating to each other, to their work, and to interior space. Complete coverage of human activities requires taking a variety of medium and close-up shots while walking all the way around the scene. In order to insure that every step of a process is recorded, fieldworkers should learn to take many photographs. Later, copies of photos can be used to great advantage to elicit detailed information about the various steps in the process--details that might otherwise escape the attention of the fieldworker.

Portrait photography is usually conducted with lenses with focal lengths of 85mm to 135mm. When taking portrait photos, tripods may be used to increase camera steadiness. People who pose for portraits are usually more conscious of the photographer than are those who are engaged in activities. Frequently subjects will stiffen up and assume an extremely grave demeanor. It is the fieldworker's responsibility to make the subject feel at ease so that a more natural image may be recorded. Usually this can be achieved if good rapport is established. It is often helpful for the photographer to explain the type of shot that he or she would like to take and how the equipment will be used to achieve that end.

With artifact photography, it is important to take photographs of each artifact from a variety of angles in order to record its basic characteristics. With complex objects, take close-up shots of significant features as well. So that viewers of photographs will be able to discern the size of the artifact, it is advisable to place a suitable object of known size--a coin, a ruler, a range pole--next to it for at least one shot. For example, when photographing buildings a range pole marked off in one-foot intervals and a shorter measuring stick marked off in feet and inches are appropriate for most shots. Photographers should pay close attention to background and depth of field to insure that the artifact is sharply depicted on film. With large, immovable artifacts, such as houses and ships, the photographer should select lighting conditions and viewing angles that depict them to best advantage. Small artifacts can be placed in front of contrasting backgrounds. Because tripods increase camera stability and permit longer exposure times, they are useful for artifact photography.

Fieldworkers are often given permission to copy photographs in private collections. While it is sometimes possible to borrow photographs and take them to a professional photo lab to be copied, if copies are made at the owner's home the possibility of losing originals is eliminated.2 Copies can be made with a 35mm camera and a standard copy stand consisting of an adjustable camera mount, a platform upon which the photo rests, and bright lights for illuminating the photo. An acceptable substitute can be improvised by inverting the center column of a tripod, affixing the camera to the mount, and using adjustable lamps or natural light to illuminate the subject photo. Special attachments for close-up work, or "micro" or "macro" lenses, are highly recommended for copying photographs and other small objects. When copying photos, fieldworkers should bear in mind that a photo itself is an artifact. In order to convey this, it is important to take at least one shot of the entire photo, including its borders.

Although it is impossible to predict all the photographic problems that may occur in maritime settings, it is possible to note a few that fieldworkers are likely to encounter. When photographing on and around water, glare from reflected sunlight is a frequent annoyance. In order to reduce glare, one may wish to consider attaching a polarizing filter to the camera lens. These filters are relatively inexpensive and may be purchased at most camera shops. Another problem is damage to equipment resulting from contact with water, especially salt water. Photography on moving boats, for example, nearly always exposes photographic gear to spray. To cut down on exposure to water, equipment not in use should be kept in a plastic bag or some other waterproof container. In addition, it is important to change film and lenses in protected areas to insure that water does not enter a camera's internal mechanisms. If underwater photography is required, special waterproof housings and waterproof cameras can be obtained at a variety of prices. One other problem that often confronts fieldworkers is achieving good photographic coverage in confined spaces, such as boat cabins and small workshops. This problem is easily solved with the use of wide-angle lenses. 24mm and 28mm lenses are especially useful in such situations.

In order to permit proper cataloging and analysis, it is necessary to record all pertinent data about each photograph. General information about the photo session, such as date, place, names of subjects, description of scene, and name of photographer, should be recorded in the fieldnotes at the end of each day of photography. The cataloging of individual images will probably not occur until after the film has been processed and converted into slides or negatives. After processing, data pertinent to each image can be entered on a form, such as the "Photograph Log" included as Appendix A.4. Black and white films can be more efficiently cataloged and filed if a contact sheet is made of each roll. The filing of slides is enhanced with the use of archival-quality slide storage sheets.

If a project's fieldworkers are not experienced photographers, or if the production of high-quality photographs is important for the success of a project, it may be a good idea to obtain the services of a professional photographer. If adequate funds are not available, it may be possible to persuade a photographer to donate time in exchange for permission to use project photographs and information.


1. John Collier, Jr., and Malcom Collier, Visual Anthropology: Photography as a Research Tool. Rev. and expanded ed. (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1986); Bruce Jackson, Fieldwork, 194-256.

2. However, if it is desirable to borrow photographs (or other artifacts) from private collections, the use of an artifact loan form, such as the one included as Appendix A.7, is recommended.


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   May 15, 2015
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