Michael's Dispatches

A Consumer Reports: Geared for Combat II



November 13, 2007

A Consumer Reports

Geared for Combat 2 of 2 : Digital Still Cameras

A Nikon Vs. A Canon

When the Nikon D70 got combat stress, I jumped out of the pool and into the Bering Straits of digital cameras. Drum roll . . . I opened the box . . . the Canon Mark II 1DS. Welcome to photography hell! No dummy buttons. The engineers apparently assumed the owner actually knows something about photography to spend $8,000 on a camera body. You make a wrong move with the Canon Mark II 1Ds, and your photos are trash.

It’s sitting beside me now, taunting me, saying, “You’ve owned me for two years, and have not come close to unlocking the powers within me. You don’t even know how to work all my buttons.” [The Canon Mark II seems to have its own personality, and it seems to be a female camera.]

The Mark II 1Ds is for professionals only, and no, it does not have a built-in flash. It’s like a hand-held Hubble Space Telescope. It actually requires the shooter to be part scientist, part engineer—not to mention an artist—and then it begins taunting the person crazy enough to buy it. Irrespective of cost, the Mark II is the best camera I’ve owned.

I remember the night the Mark II arrived in Mosul. It arrived, Pandora’s box, and everyone marveled at it. “How much did it cost?” soldiers asked. “Eight thousand dollars!” They started making jokes that they would keep it when I got killed, which were kind of funny, but not really. Some of them seemed a little too serious.

I used this photograph of Tony Castaneda in the dispatch “Tabula Rasa,” which is about why I came to Iraq and my experiences as a bona fide outsider-on-the-inside. Not being a card-carrying member of either the military or the media, but having some personal and professional experience with both, has given me a very broad, comprehensive and unique perspective on why the coverage of this war has been so damn lousy.

That night, Tony Castaneda from the Associated Press came by my trailer to use my high-speed internet line, and I think he was the first photo taken with Pandora. I was going to do a mission early in the morning with the Deuce Four, and the mission was to kill some bad guys. I couldn’t tell Tony about the mission because it was still secret, and he was tapping away on my computer. I needed to get some sleep . . . but also needed to learn how to shoot a photo with Pandora before the morning. There were some bad guys around and (to make a long story short) just after sunrise, the first Iraqi I photographed with Pandora had blood flowing out of numerous holes in his body.

In the dispatch “Monday,” this was one of a series of photographs of Deuce Four soldiers in action: “The terrorists were making a run for it. I followed behind with my new camera, and actually shot photos while running.”

Our guys had shot him. Shortly after that, just nearby, we were closing in on some other guys who tried to get away by speeding by in a car—and LTC Erik Kurilla along with some soldiers and an Air Force JTAC chased on foot. As they ran and the car fled, they began firing and even though I was running, the Mark II was so fast that it actually got most of the shots in focus and even froze shell cases that were tumbling through the air.

Those two guys were dead. So that’s three dead guys in about the first 30 minutes of combat with Pandora, and—since I had just got it the night before and hadn’t figured out the best way to attach it to me yet—at one point I dropped Pandora which smashed onto a road. But I picked her up and she kept on working.

Several days later, I was in the TOC [headquarters] and Fox News was on the big-screen television, and the announcer said something like, “And these amazing photos from Michael Yon in northern Iraq!” And I looked up and said, “Hey, those are my photos!” as the Fox camera panned over the website and we got ready for another mission.

One day a few weeks later, I was running down an alley with Deuce Four soldiers during a shootout, and the Mark II was humming away at 5fps because the shooting was close to us, when LTC Kurilla got shot.

Both the young 2nd lieutenant and the young specialist were inside a shop when a close-quarters firefight broke out, and they ran outside. Not knowing how many men they were fighting, they wanted backup. LTC Kurilla began running in the direction of the shooting. He passed by me and I chased, Kurilla leading the way.

There was a quick and heavy volume of fire. And then LTC Kurilla was shot.

Last steps

LTC Erik Kurilla (front right), the moment the bullets strike. (2nd LT front-left; radioman near-left; “AH” the interpreter is near-right.)

Three bullets reach flesh: One snaps his thigh bone in half.

Both legs and an arm are shot.

The Commander rolls into a firing position, just as a bullet strikes the wall beside 2nd lieutenant’s head (left).
Kurilla was running when he was shot, but he didn’t seem to miss a stride; he did a crazy judo roll and came up shooting.

While he got shot, 5 photos per second were clicking away until I realized what had happened and had to concentrate on life and death for him and me for a while, which does get in the way of messing with camera buttons. “Sports mode” would have been the choice, but there were no dummy buttons.

Since that time, the Mark II has been with me around the world several times. She’s photographed Hanoi and Angor Wat, Florida and Massachusetts, both Washingtons and Kansas and a lot of places in between, beautiful women, alligators in day and at night, lots of combat, countless birds, a dance in Bali, some of the most powerful people in the world, some of the most evil people in the world, smiling children, and a monkey in Indonesia stealing glasses off the face of a Japanese woman. Boy was she surprised.

The Mark II has crawled through the darkness, slept in the dirt, had diarrhea a few times, photographed terrorists taking their last breaths on many occasions, flown in jets and helicopters, been on trains, buses, taxis, boats, but never a submarine or spaceship, yet.

The Canon Mark II is pretentious. It’s an arrogant female camera, always assuming right-of-way. A hundred lesser cameras can be in the room, snapping away their drivel, but when Pandora walks in, the room changes. Heisenberg must have shot with a Mark II.

Trying to explain much more about the Mark II 1Ds is fruitless because the pros need no explanation, and I am not expert enough to explain it to amateurs. I’ve not come even close to mastering the Mark II, although I do know Pandora’s auto-focus buttons. If there is one part about her I know intimately, it’s her auto-focus.

The Sleeping Poppy: Papaver Somniferum. From the dispatch “Dasht-e-Margo,” published in April, 2006, with a caption borrowed from a favorite film: “Now I know we’re not in Kansas. People come and go so quickly around here.”

There’s probably not many people who understand Pandora’s auto-focus as well. With guns, there is something called “instinctive shooting.” Basically, after you have fired a train-load full of bullets out of a particular gun, you start to know the gun as an extension of your body. You know where the bullet will strike the moment you pull the trigger. Watching the bullet strike is for narcissists. Sure, sometimes you might miss, but only about as often as a properly addressed FedEx package completely misses its destination.

We are talking about instinctive shooting in relation to Pandora’s wonderful auto-focus. I took those lessons from instinctive shooting and practiced them on Pandora, and for once, she smiled, and nearly treated me as an equal. “Nobody has ever handled me like that,” said Pandora, impressed after a long day of shooting in Afghanistan.

“Nearly to the guard tower” was the caption for this photograph, one of a series of dramatic images of a dust storm that struck our campsite suddenly and without warning, published first in “Camp Bastion” in early May, 2006.

The idea is to become so good that I can focus on a human eye within about half a second and take a photo without ever raising Pandora to my eye, like this one of a young Cambodian boy peering out at me taking pictures as I motored by in a small boat. This one made it into the dispatch “The Floating Village,” published in late November, 2006 about a month before I headed back into Iraq.

Or when someone is doing something candid, they don’t change what they are doing when they see Pandora coming up, because she comes up so fast and gets her shot so fast that it’s too late, like in this photograph of a young girl rowing home from school, also a part of “The Floating Village” dispatch.

Practicing in other settings helps ensure that I can get shots so fast that in combat it’s just see and CLICK CLICK CLICK, like this one taken as Deuce Four soldiers charged through a gate in Mosul in “Jungle Law.”

So, around the world, in hotel rooms at night, sometimes I hold Pandora and fire quick shots at targets, such as a doorknob, or at something happening outside my window, like this one taken in Hanoi, Vietnam.

Unfortunately, the only lens I can do that with is a 50mm prime, but that’s okay because it’s the lens I use in combat. [More on lenses later.]

But that brings us to Pandora 2, which is actually the Canon Mark III EOS-1d. Pandora 2 is new and is “only” about $4,500 for the body. I went for Pandora 2 because I had reached the edge of some of the technical limits of Pandora. On Pandora 2 there actually are some dummy functions such as a portrait mode, though after two years with Pandora, I no longer need the dummy buttons.

But what of Pandora 2? She was supposed to have greatly increased low-light sensitivity, and despite that Pandora sees like a cat at night, Pandora 2 raises her one and hears like a bat. Pandora 2 can take interesting photos in light that was impossible with Pandora.

The higher ISO was one reason I fell for the charms and sirens of Pandora 2, but also there was the supposedly increased focus speed. Yet when I took Pandora 2—the Mark III—on the battlefields, she made mysteriously out-of-focus shots that Pandora would have scoffed at.

But back to the auto-focus on Pandora 2. As mentioned, I know what makes Pandora’s auto-focus purr. And so when Pandora 2 fell into my hands, I knew right away something wasn’t right. I spent hours . . . and then days . . . trying to figure her out, and started to think Pandora 2 might have a personality disorder. What could have been an enormously faster camera—therefore adding yet another half-second to my survivability in combat—turned out to have a case of lazy-eye. In fact, Pandora 2 was missing shots because of sluggish auto-focus.

My cameras—they are both women—started fighting. Pandora sneered at her replacement, “I told you she’s a bitch!” she hissed.
“Don’t say that about Pandora 2,” I said gently, masking my unease that Pandora may be right, but still somewhat taken aback by the hostility. “She’s lighter than you, you know. She shoots faster and sees better in the dark.”
“The bitch is half blind!” screamed Pandora. “Go ahead. Take her on your next mission and get 10 out-of-focus shots per second!”
“Don’t use that language, please,” I said, “Children read this site.”
“That word is not even banned from television!” came her rejoinder. “I saw Howard Stern use it!”
“Pandora,” I implored, “Howard Stern doesn’t count, and besides, most people have never heard of a talking camera.”
“I have an audio function, and you would know about it if you read my manual instead of playing with Pandora 2!”
I had never seen a camera so jealous.
“She’s a cheap little tramp!” hissed Pandora.
[Sigh. . . . I should never have opened that box.]

[Note: spending thousands of dollars for a camera that doesn’t work right is the primary infectious agent of the little-known condition of anthropophotos.]

Why wasn’t the auto-focus working on the Mark III? That was the multi-million dollar question. There’s a photographer named Rob Galbraith. Mr. Galbraith has a website where he clearly demonstrates that he knows 10x more about digital cameras than I do. Other than for comments on actual combat photography, he’s a much better source of information on digital cameras. Rob Galbraith had tested the Mark III and had auto-focus problems in shooting conditions where it was hot and bright.

Shazzaaam! Out of all the weather conditions on the entire planet, “hot and bright” applied to just about every potential daytime photograph I’d take in Iraq.

Pandora 2 had been released on the market before all the bugs and kinks were worked out of her mechanics.

Professionals had each spent thousands of dollars on the camera, but more importantly, they were relying on the camera, most not realizing there were actually auto-focus problems built into the camera which would arise in particular conditions. The auto-focus being very bad under hot and bright conditions could mean that a photographer took thousands of shots over a period of months, and thought the camera was fine as a result, but then . . . whammmoooo! The day one brings it into hot-bright conditions, he or she is in trouble. Imagine being the pro who spent thousands of dollars to get to a location and then . . . ? Or how about all the pros who work for clients, and got paid to shoot something that took place in a hot-bright location. The client’s photographs would end up being mostly bad. Failure would ripple so that the initial $4,500 might be the smallest expense out of pocket for anyone who relied on the Mark III for a paying gig.

Worse still, it’s been months and only now has Canon finally started a recall, in my case, this is after I’d spent money taking Pandora 2 to a Canon center in Singapore, where they still didn’t fix it. If the CEO of Canon were an Army general, he’d be called into the President’s office and fired! [Well, if the President were Harry Truman, that is.]

In fact, I took both Pandoras to Singapore. Prima Pandora is good as new, while Pandora 2—the little tramp—got a firmware update to fix the auto-focus, but still isn’t up to par with her namesake. Furthermore, Pandora shoots much better photos during daylight. But when the sun goes down, I have to say that Pandora cannot hold a candle, as it were, to Pandora 2, who really does shoot much brighter photos in dimmer light.


Many photographers who have covered the wars offer advice on which lenses to use in combat. An important note: going to Afghanistan or Iraq or some war somewhere does not mean necessarily that a photographer covers combat. In fact, probably only a small fraction of photographers who go to Iraq or Afghanistan actually go into combat. A person could stay there for two years and never get into a gunfight if he doesn’t leave base, or takes special precautions to avoid conflict.

I see photographers showing up sometimes with mambo-big lenses, making me wonder what they are there for. Birds? [Maysan Province, Iraq.]

From a strictly technical perspective, I’ve found bird photography much more difficult than combat. That never stopped me from trying to photograph birds, even in a war zone like Baghdad.

Combat photography tends to be technically simple, with some notable exceptions, especially in low light. It’s the bullets, bombs and rough living that make something technically simple into something exceedingly difficult, a fact only hinted at in this photograph taken in Mosul in 2005.

At least 95% of my Iraq photos have been made with a 50mm prime.

People say a long-lens is needed, but the fact is, if you aren’t getting hit in the face with hot brass, and if bullets are not snapping by, you are not close enough. There are times when a long-lens would be better, but those are rare exceptions.

The longest lens I have taken to Iraq is a 70-200mm f2.8. (All my lenses are the professional L series.) The 70-200mm has been one of the least-used pieces of gear I’ve taken to the war. It is quite possibly the most worthless thing to have to carry around here: it’s too small for serious bird photography, but it’s like strapping a Godzilla onto your camera. Hardly ideal for fast-moving urban combat inside and outside of buildings

Stepping down from there, I’ve got an 85mm f1.2L II. That’s the biggest lens I’ve actually carried into combat. Downside on the 85mm is glacial focus speed. Upside is that it’s incredible for portraits.

I added a 24mm f1.4L to the mix because so much time is in buildings and vehicles, but in practice it’s seen almost zero use, and even with light use, the 24mm is broken. I shipped it home in October. Obviously a 24mm is useless for birds unless they are attacking you, in which case it’s combat, Alfred Hitchcock style, and in that kind of situation, you really should be fighting back, not photographing. However, if you do photograph an attack on your physical body, out of sheer professionalism and dedication, trying to play Heisenberg by not altering the observation by actually observing it, the 24mm might be a good choice. Except, as mentioned, it broke almost without being used.

The most flexible lens I’ve used is the 24-70mm f2.8L, and I’ve got that on Pandora II now. The 24-70mm does have a magic range for urban combat in Iraq, but the problem is that it’s relatively large and heaps more Heisenberg into situations. The f2.8 just isn’t cutting it when Pandora can have an f1.2. Light situations change drastically.

In urban combat, one minute you can be on a street, and seconds later you’re diving for cover in a dark building. [In truth, as Iraq quiets down, I’m seeing nearly zero combat lately, which is fine with me, as I never did like getting shot at.]


Even during bright daylight the f1.2 trumps f2.8 by such a distance that the 24-70 range just isn’t worth it. Changing lenses is not a reasonable option, and besides, changing lenses often in Iraq is like throwing handfuls of dust into the camera. Also, when you are shooting with a Mark II or Mark III, the resolution is so good (when auto-focus works on the Mark III) that if you shoot on RAW (I use RAW + Small jpeg), if the light is decent, the cropping is much like telephoto over the typical limited ranges.

The 50mm f1.2L II is a remarkable lens, though focus speed is not supersonic. The 1.2L is expensive, but if it focused twice as fast I would pay twice as much. By the time I get a 50mm f1.2L into Iraq, it’s a good $1,700, and one day during combat with British where they killed about 26 enemy, I broke the 50mm f1.2 in half. I looked down and half was missing. The Brits were like, “Mate, you broke the machine.”

I found the other half and sent it to Canon and it’s repaired, and in meantime was using a 50mm f1.4 as backup. But the f1.2 was so good that while the first f1.2 was being repaired, I ordered a second f1.2.

Switching to a new camera is a big decision. After shooting tens of thousands of shots under varying light and weather conditions, in combat, in schools, on beaches and jungles and deserts, you learn the camera. Switching to a new camera means losing time learning the new machine. It means, when you quickly try to change the ISO, for instance, you hit the wrong buttons because muscle memory is pressing the buttons for the old camera. These things are overcome with practice, but practice takes time. Time is all you have. And so moving to a new camera must be a deliberate and committed action.

The $8,000 for the new Mark III 1Ds coming out in November 2007 is the smallest part of the investment, and after getting my eyes burned with the auto-focus on the Mark III 1D, the new 1Ds will not touch these hands until photographers have bought it and reviews are coming in. I recommend not buying the Mark III 1Ds until other people have risked their $8,000 [not to mention their time and professional reputations] and started posting reviews.

All of the images featured have been added to the online gallery: please click here .



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  • This commment is unpublished.
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