Technology for conflict zones, on a tight budget!
December 25, 2016 1:16 PM   Subscribe

I'm leaving in about 5-6 weeks to (finally!!!) start my dream job overseas. I won't find out where until about 2 weeks before my departure, but it will most likely be in a remote location in Sub-Saharan Africa, probably a conflict zone. I will be there for 9-12 months, but plan to continue with further assignments for many years to come. Great, right? Well, my laptop and camera are on their last days, and I need to replace them with something suitable, but cheap.

I'm currently using a (2008-ish) barely functional 17" MacBook Pro, and have a Canon 30D sitting on my shelf, though I rent a 5DMKIII when I shoot for paid gigs. In an ideal world, I'd purchase a 15" MBP and a 5DMKII to take, but I do not have that in my budget. Anything I purchase will be on credit (for now), so I'd like to spend no more than $450 Canadian on each item, ideally less. I have to be able to purchase these in a Canadian (Montreal or Toronto) store, or used online (Craigslist or Facebook groups). Size and weight is also a bit of an issue. I'm ok with buying used things that only last a couple years, and then just upgrade once I have the money.

LAPTOP: I'm ok with either Mac or Windows, but I know Windows will be much cheaper. 15" is about the right size. I'll be using my laptop for some of my office work/email, watching movies from an external drive, blogging, and ideally, I'd like to be able to run at least one Adobe program on it at a time (Lightroom, Photoshop, or Illustrator CS6), to edit my photos, and not lose my design skills. It's ok if it runs a bit slow with Photoshop, as long as it ends up working. I will possibly (but not guaranteed) have very slow wifi, so large, mandatory Windows 10 updates will likely be a problem. Not sure what to do about that. Needs to be able to function in (dusty) 40° heat, and not fry itself when I use a power adaptor, or run it off a generator.

CAMERA: Realistically, I know a Canon Rebel is more in my price range. Ability to shoot fully manual, and in RAW, is non-negotiable. I have a Sigma 55-200 that shoots ok, so I'll just need something wider (maybe a prime?), plus a body. I'm not going to worry about an external flash, unless I can get something tiny, for less than $50. I'd LOVE to be able to use some of my photos as ad/fundraising stuff, or print/sell them (as I've done before), but they'll mostly just be used for my blog, and maybe a photobook one day. So all I really need is a cheap upgrade on my 30D.

I know my budget is tight, and I have a difficult wish list, but hopefully you guys can make some good suggestions!

Thanks in advance!! :)
posted by hasna to Technology (8 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I will possibly (but not guaranteed) have very slow wifi, so large, mandatory Windows 10 updates will likely be a problem. Not sure what to do about that.

Scroll down to the part about metered connections in this article. It will reduce the amount of updates that Windows 10 attempts to do.

As to lenses, you might see if you can pick up something old, manual, and wide like the 24mm f/2.8 cheap to go with the new (to you) body.
posted by Candleman at 1:40 PM on December 25, 2016

Sub_Saharan Africa is a pretty wide descriptor with lots of climate variety. West Africa at least is exceptionally hard on digital devices because of the extremes of climate. In the rainy season it's properly humid with huge thunderstorms. Think south Florida but more so. In the dry season there's a haze in the air which is hanging dust from the Sahara although it looks like mist/fog in the morning. When the wind blows you can feel the grit in your face. Imagine what that can do to a laptop's delicate orifices. It's partly as a result of the climate that roads can be very very bad. Your luggage needs to be either cheap and lightweight or expensively rugged. You may be staying in a comfortable place with aircon and screens but per your description you may not be.

And I probably don't need to mention but it can be hot enough that you see your shadow body in sweat on the bed if you get up in the middle of the night. If you have a laptop with a tendency to heat up you can imagine how scarily hot it gets in such conditions - I thought mine was probably melting.

All this is to say don't take a precious bit of new kit. Get a cheap and simple workhorse. Having said that, in Nigeria at least you can buy all sorts of cheap(er) chinese technology: mobile phones, tablets, laptops and phablets. They tend to be robust and I think it's really interesting seeing what iterations are made for the African market. You will find that well-off middle class people in the country you go to will have the latest global brands but there will be cheaper technology available for ordinary people. You'll be able to get a made in China smartphone of an unfamiliar brand that takes acceptable photos, just handy for whatsapp as a way of keeping in touch with. Wifi....well if you're used to sending or reading large attachments it's frustrating. Sending pictures is ok, sending video is annoying. But speaking of Nigeria there's complete mobile phone penetration and it's actually easier to buy mobile phone credit there than it is for me in UK. That's because everyone's granny uses a mobile phone.

When you know what country you're going to this is a good question to ask on one of that country's forums: what is good kit for the conditions I'll be in. What you shouldn't do is expect the answers to be necessarily predictable. In the meantime you could look up Jumia, which is like Amazon for Africa to see what's available at what price, and look up Tecno Mobile, a firm that's selling some nifty technology about a quarter of the price of Samsung et al depending on how the dollar is doing. And some odd little crunky old fashioned technology suitable to the local market as well.

Of course all this is specific to Nigeria but I think the suggestion to seek local advice stands, because conditions will be different from what you're used to. You may not be able to get things serviced, or buy parts.
posted by glasseyes at 2:41 PM on December 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

Thanks for the great answers so far! To clarify where I'll be going, it could technically be anywhere (Pakistan, Haiti...), but will most likely be South Sudan, DRC, or CRA. Maybe Chad, maybe Sierra Leone. Most likely far away from the capital (think small village accessible only by a UNHAS flight), living in either a tukul (hut), a tent, or possibly a "real" room with solid walls and a real roof. Air Con is very unlikely. I'll have a "real" office with 4 walls and electricity during the day, however. I've lived in Guinea and Uganda before, but it was years ago, and I was in relatively modern accommodation. I'll usually be able to travel to the capital every few months, but I don't want to depend on buying anything there.

Keep the suggestions coming, especially if you can suggest specific products!
posted by hasna at 2:55 PM on December 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

I'm a linguist, and while I don't do a lot of fieldwork, my colleagues all do, mostly in remote Australia or Papua New Guinea, which has similar challenges, I think. They all tend to go for Thinkpad laptops. They aren't as rugged as they used to be, though (which means some of my colleagues deliberately seek out older models). Ideally, if the extra bulk isn't a problem, get a pelican case for all your electronics.
posted by lollusc at 3:16 PM on December 25, 2016 [3 favorites]

This link might also help, but I can't vouch for any of the laptops personally.
posted by lollusc at 3:18 PM on December 25, 2016

I do linguistic fieldwork in West Africa.

The particular model of computer or camera is less important than having a backup in case something goes wrong, which it likely will. It could be environmental damage, or it could be a technical incompatibility you can't resolve due to lack of resources. Everyone I know brings two laptops if they can and most of us have ended up using our backup at one time or another.

(I'm typing this on my backup laptop right now, because my primary laptop isn't compatible with the only source of internet: a usb cell modem.)

I've never bought a laptop specifically for fieldwork (because who can afford that), but:

If you end up in an area with less than stable electricity, which is likely, long battery life is a plus--unless being able to continue working is not a big deal to you. You will probably want a stabilizer as well, but those are fragile and don't ship well, so it's a thing to buy once you arrive.

I don't know about where you'll end up, but here Macs are much less common. This is an issue if you need to buy something for your Mac, like ... a USB cell modem, or a power cord, or something like that. But buying Windows isn't a guarantee either since the models available in the country are probably going to be different. Again, backups...

USB keys here are often counterfeit and either not the size they advertise, riddled with viruses, or both. You might want to stock up on relatively cheap ones, if you plan to do any file sharing with colleagues. I don't, but I have them to share music/movies with friends. You'll want to have a very good protection/protocol you intend to ever use someone else's USB stick.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 4:13 AM on December 26, 2016 [1 favorite]

Apologies this isn't related to the camera or laptop, but I could definitely recommend a head torch (allowing you to be hands-free when going for a night time wee!) and a hand-held fan (fans help keep down on mosquitoes because they can't fly against a breeze). You could use a solar-recharging power bank to recharge them. On the laptop front, I am no expert but I have been incredibly impressed with my Asus Chromebook Flip - it won't help you much on the photo editing side I imagine, but everything else on a Chromebook seems to work really well, even offline. It is light, thin and versatile so is great for travelling. It also doesn't get hot, which is probably a bonus in Sub-Saharan climates.
posted by askmeaboutboardgames at 5:14 AM on December 26, 2016

(Advice from my awesome photographer sister:) 450 bucks is probably better spent on used but high quality lenses for your existing Canon 30D than for a whole new setup. A 30D is also better weather sealed than a Rebel; my sister says that her Rebel died from exposure to rain.
posted by Drosera at 8:49 AM on December 26, 2016 [2 favorites]

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