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This dispatch is in response to requests like the ones above. This installment will focus on digital still cameras. My opinions are well-informed on the specific products I describe, but I am no camera expert. My opinions on the cameras described lack a detailed field comparison with other products. Although I conducted careful research, I have not tested dozens of models. I try to select the best gear on the market for the conditions expected. As the saying goes, sometimes the magic works. . . .
It’s hard to calculate how many people view the photos shot through my lenses, but the fact that entire wars are sometimes framed by a selected (and often selective) set of photographs means there is no understatement in saying that a photo taken in a war can have strategic consequences. Last year’s movie Flags of our Fathers made the case for how one iconic image from World War II—the Rosenthal photograph of US Marines raising the American Flag on Iwo Jima—re-energized public support (and financing) for the war, which up until then had been declining steadily.
Sometimes the iconography works its power in the opposite direction, by shocking and draining the reservoir of public opinion, while energizing the enemy. Collective memory of the Vietnam War for many Americans coalesces around three images: a terrified young girl running naked down a dirt road; a curbside execution snapped just as the bullet begins tearing through the skull of a man whose face is forever frozen in a grimace of fear and pain; a saffron-robed monk sitting in the street, engulfed in flames after self-immolating in protest of the war. It’s been argued that those images not only galvanized anti-war sentiment but also shattered the psyche of a generation of Americans. There is no understatement in saying that those images shook the world, and they likely will ripple through generations yet born as those photos become set-pieces in museums, documentaries, and history books inside and outside of America.
This war in Iraq has been drastically and negatively affected by photographs taken in Abu Ghraib. Time has hardly dulled their power to shame and provoke outrage. Years from now their release may come to be seen as the greatest setback for America in this war. We have not yet paid the full price for those images; our British friends have pointed out to me numerous times that our use of torture (such as water boarding) will come back to haunt us. We are only waiting for photos to leak, and they probably will.
In the case of iconic or iconoclastic images, the camera itself often is irrelevant, as long as it works. A cell-phone image would have worked as well for the Abu Ghraib photographs.
Some of the best photos I’ve made were actually before the war and shot with an amateur camera, a Sony F707. The key to getting the photos was being there. Some of the photos of sitting around fires with cannibals are stunning. Though the Sony is in Iraq and I sometimes have used it, I have not used it for combat and likely never will. I keep the Sony as backup in case my other gear is destroyed or lost.
The Sony F707 is an amateur’s camera, and the engineers seem to have built it while chanting a mantra like, “This camera is for idiots who want great photos. This camera is for idiots who want great photos. This camera is for idiots who want great photos.” That’s why I used it for many thousands of shots. The Sony F707 practically calls your cell phone to tell you when you are missing a good shot.
The Sony F707 is a great little camera, but far too slow for combat, and it has a built-in flash. It’s easy to turn off the flash, but even when turned off, the camera also sometimes emits light to focus. Any camera that thinks for itself and decides to turn on its own light, even if infrared, is not suitable for modern combat. I shot thousands of photos with the Sony F707 and it was worth every penny. The F707 is no longer in production, but a similar camera likely would come in under $500. The F707 doesn’t look rugged but I’ve beaten the heck out it and it works fine. The model was outstanding for amateurs.
The most expensive cameras that are suitable for combat cost thousands of dollars, with the very top end at about $8,000 for the body. This might seem exorbitant but is a pittance given how certain photos can influence hundreds of millions of people. Although rare, those photos make strategic consequences. Given that fact, and the fact that the most expensive camera suitable for combat costs less than a decent used car, cost should not be considered when selecting camera gear for combat. For those folks who are very serious about making excellent photos, it’s more appropriate to pick the right camera and lenses for the situation, and figure out any money problems later. If money is an issue, find it. Take a loan out for the camera, if needed.
I chose the Nikon D70 after much research and based on the uses and budget (when I still thought budget should be a factor for a combat camera). The D70 was an excellent first choice. When I needed to replace it, after almost seven months with combat soldiers, I chose the Canon Mark II because I’d learned what was important to me in combat shooting: 1) Fast, accurate focus. 2) High ISO for low light sensitivity, but with lowest noise possible. 3) Frames per second.
That I have chosen Canon over Nikon is not an endorsement. Combat Camera and military Public Affairs use Nikons, and they like Nikon.
During roughly my first seven months in Iraq, I shot with the Nikon D70. That D70 is the best camera for the money I have owned. The photos can be stunning. The photo above was the TIME Magazine Photo of the Year (readers’ choice category) in 2005, and more than two years after shooting the photo, requests to use it are constant. After the photo was released, Iraqis responded and called in tips on terrorists. Later I learned that the terrorists stopped intentionally targeting kids because the photo damaged the terrorists badly. This is an example of a positive outcome of a photo.
Looking at the photos on my website, all of the photos used in the dispatches from December 2004 to July 2005 were shot with the Nikon D70, and at least 99.9% of the shots were made with a cheap 50mm Nikkor f1.8 lens. Real photographers might see this as the mark of a true amateur (which I am), but the ultimate trump card for making photographs that brought the reality of this war home was my being there to capture it.
These photos were shot with the D70:
The Big Picture:
Abuse No Camera Should Have to Experience
The D70 is light and doesn’t feel as rugged as my Canon Mark II. The Canon Mark II is so rugged that it feels like it could be used to drive nails. The D70 doesn’t feel like much. But I beat that thing like a redheaded stepchild and it hung in there for seven months of combat. At about the six-month mark it started to limp, and in about the seventh month it was still crawling forward but needed to be put in a museum.
The downsides on the D70 are combat-related and likely would not matter in “normal” use. For instance, it has a built-in flash and a mind of its own. It focuses quickly, but not nearly as quickly as the hypersonic Canon Mark II. In combat, where there truly are the quick and the dead, the frame rate of the D70 is slow compared to my Canon Mark II, which shoots 5 fps (frames per second). The D70 is not in that class when it comes to focus speed and fps, and so for combat shooting, it loses out.
Like the Sony, the D70 had the comforting “dummy buttons.” The dummy buttons are for the shooting modes, such as “night shot,” “portrait,” “beach,” “sports” and so forth. Put the D70 on “sports,” and it automatically turns off the flash, sets a high ISO and shutter speed, and does some other pre-packaged photo magic, and there you go. With the “sports” function you are ready for daytime combat photography and you need to know little more than how to charge the battery.
Although the Nikon D70 still had the dummy buttons, giving it a shallow end for those who cannot swim in photographic deep water, for those who want water plenty deep enough to drown in, the D70 still has flexibility to humble most people into realizing they don’t know squat about photography.
Stay tuned for an exciting combat review of the Canon Mark II 1Ds. It’s so rugged I use it as a hammer.
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