Consumer Reports: Geared for Combat

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.

Money Baba in Kathmandu. In fact, he is a brightly-colored beggar who depends upon the ignorance of travelers and tourists. Locals laugh at foreigners who take the money Babas seriously, and those foreigners who empty their pockets for fear of offending obvious fakes.

I used this and several other images from my travels to India and Nepal in the dispatch “The Greedy Ones,” published on June 16, 2006. In that dispatch, it was captioned “Mother River: Dawn on the Ganges—Hindus taking ablutions in Ganga Ma, or Mother Ganges.”

North India with amateur camera.

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.

Himalayan road from India into Nepal.

More money Babas: bums who dress as holy men to collect money. People all over the world don the garb of the pious for profit and for pleasure. Untold thousands of these guys can be seen in India and Nepal. The most astute sometimes start Ashrams in Europe and America. One thing they all have in common: they embrace the power of the lens.

Holy waters of the Ganges.

 

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.

Whereas the camera and the photographer are key, being there is most important. I have have spent far more time embedded with combat troops in Iraq than any other writer or photographer I’m aware of. Someone might be able to debunk this claim, but probably it’s true. That I am likely the most experienced civilian writer/photographer with combat troops in this war hides something. It is nearly a certainty that there are Combat Camera and Public Affairs service members who have a great deal more experience than I do. To get a balanced opinion, they would have to speak up because in cases where I have gotten to meet truly experienced Combat Camera people, it’s been a learning experience for me.

Nikon vs. Canon: this seems to be an emotional issue for many people, like Ford vs. Chevy. I don’t care either way.

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.

This photograph, taken in May 2005, in Mosul, after a car bomb detonated in the middle of a group of children who’d gathered around the soldiers and their vehicles, resonates with many people. Readers alert me to the ongoing attempts to “borrow” it to promote organizations that are both pro-military and those that are vehemently anti-war. Candidates from all political parties have asked to use it, but I won’t allow it to be used for any political purpose. People read “facts” into the photograph, despite that all the relevant ones have been in the dispatch titled “Little Girl” since it was first published in May, 2005.

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:

Staff Sergeant Richard Sturm, conducting combat operations with the US Army 1st Infantry Division in Baquba, Iraq. From the dispatch “Showdown in Baquba,” first published on January 22, 2005.

Intelligence clues led US soldiers to this suspected insurgent’s home in Baquba. From the dispatch “Seven Days to Forever,” first published on January 25, 2005.

Bradley Fighting Vehicle: Combat in Baquba. From the dispatch “Final Mission,” first published on January 25, 2005.

From the roof of the most dangerous place in Baquba: The Police Station. From the dispatch “Tuesday in Baquba: Five Days Before Elections,” first published on January 25, 2005.

Peace Day: Baquba on the Eve of Historic Elections. From the dispatch “To Have a Voice,” first published on January 29, 2005. A car bomb detonated outside and blew out the glass in the building, but Colonel Dana Pittard kept the meeting on track. The elections in Baquba were a stunning success.

Iraqis Vote for Bright Future. From the dispatch “Election Day: Iraqi Courage,” first published on January 30, 2005. This man told me he voted for his daughter. The photo required no translation.

Five Men Fallen. From the dispatch “American Lives Lived Well,” first published on February 1, 2005.

Mosque Man. From the dispatch “Please Don’t Shoot Us,” first published on February 4, 2005.

Fashion Insurgency. From a dispatch titled “Perfect Hair,” first published on February 4, 2005.

My Favorite Voter. From the dispatch “Week in Baquba,” published on February 5, 2005.

Iraqi Kids Brighten a Rainy Day. From the dispatch “The Kids,” published on February 9, 2005.

The Face of Security: An Iraqi Policeman. From the dispatch “Are We There Yet?” published on February 10, 2005.

Peaceful Tea in Khanaqin out near the Iraq-Iran border. From the dispatch “Tennessee in Iraq ,” published on February 20, 2005.

A Woman with Two Girls. From the dispatch of the same name, first published on February 20, 2005.

Soldiers from the US Army 1st Infantry Division begin the long road home after successfully completing what many considered an impossible mission: ensuring a secure election for Iraqis. From the dispatch “Mission Impossible: Mission Complete,” published on February 23, 2005.

Contractors use 65 pounds of plastic explosives to destroy 80 rockets. From the dispatch “Enemy Weapons,” first published on February 28, 2005.

The short fuse was only one of the problems I noted in the dispatch “Survival Tip: Beware of Captured Grenades,” first published on March 3, 2005.

In “Survival Kit Contents: Headlights,” I used this photograph of a soldier in Iraq wearing the Petzl with 3 LEDs, although I thought the TacTikka Plus model, with 4 LEDs, the better choice. The dispatch was published on March 5, 2005 and within weeks, cases of headlights were being shipped over to soldiers by different support groups.

Sometimes all a dispatch needed was an interesting photograph, like this one of an Iraqi man taking advantage of a sunny Sunday to wash his truck, which ran in “Ford . . . or Chevy . . . ” published in March, 2005.

Iraqi Translator watching an accused Iraqi Terrorist in the dispatch “The Talk of Iraq.”

Nobody really cared where the fighters came from. Nobody really cared which unit the fighters belonged to. They wanted to see men in the ring.

“Nashville Near Iran. Minefields everywhere.” That was the caption for a dispatch titled “Tennesse National Guard,” which had only two photos.

 

Charlie Daniels, who came and played for the soldiers on FOB Cobra in April, 2005, which I wrote about in “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.”

Children of Umar Bill: shiny pennies every one. I wrote about my visit to a school in an old village along the Iran border, in a dispatch called “Hello Ameriki!” The village elder, one of only a handful of men who survived the worst that Saddam could throw at this Kurdish community, told me that he’d heard that some of the young girls taken from the village by Saddam’s soldiers had escaped torture and death. The beautiful ones, it was believed, had been sold into slavery. Although he knew I was not likely to be able to help, he still seemed to search my face for some small hope. I wrote: “But to those who believe, maybe, just maybe, some of them live in homes in countries nearby, or across the seas. Maybe the girls have memories of families in villages they can never speak about. Maybe they sometimes dream in languages they can no longer speak aloud. Maybe they were once Kurdish girls, too beautiful to kill.”

Viana, the young girl with big dreams who told me to be quiet, in “Doctor Viana, I Presume,” published in April 2005, part of the series of dispatches from my time with the Tennessee National Guard.

No matter where I go, I can’t escape green gators. Mosul, 2005.

“Shoot me, shoot me,” this wounded insurgent was pleading with soldiers from the Deuce Four. They’d already done that; what he really wanted was for them to kill him. But since he was more valuable alive, his prayers weren’t answered that day. This photograph was published in “Rounding Up Bombers,” in May, 2005.

EOD arriving on the scene, with his bomb robot trailing behind, from the dispatch “Thursday in Mosul,” which included this description of my normal reaction to eminent traumatic dismemberment: “While we walked around the rubble of the abandoned station, the commander noticed two artillery rounds on the ground. A minute or so later, someone [I] spotted a radio command switch for a very large booby trap. We were surrounded by nine bombs (large artillery shells) all rigged to explode by radio control. While I ran away as fast as I could, the soldiers ‘pulled back quickly’ and called EOD, who arrived and removed the bombs without incident.

The Deuce Four Fighting in the first of the four-part series “Battle for Mosul.”

Girl who survived the same car bomb that killed Farah and another little boy, from the dispatch “Two Weeks.”

This girl saw the camera and chased half a block, insisting I photograph her little sister. That effort alone would have landed her a spot in “Children in Iraq,” a dispatch that was more a montage of photographs taken during the preceding 6 months, published in May 2005.

This photograph was part of the second installment of the “Battle for Mosul” series.

Friends in Boston tell me this reminds them of a famous statue in that city about a famous children’s book, Make Way for Ducklings. I used the photo in the first dispatch focused on how the media covers the war: “Now For the Rest of the Story,” published on May 24, 2005, with the caption: Investigating Firsthand: Ducks look like ducks.

Downtown Market in Dohuk, the first of two stops in Kurdistan, the northern province that has grabbed the ring. “Fork in the Road” was the title and the metaphor for the dispatch published on June 2, 2005.

“My children’s children are free . . . it was worth it.” I wrote about my day with the Yezidi village headman and his family in “Lost in Translation,” published shortly after “Fork in the Road.”

Blast Impact: Iraqi man after children are killed by car bomb in Mosul, from “Battle for Mosul Part III”: that was a month-long journal about how the Deuce Four was making progress in Mosul that was unique to most of Iraq, but which seemed to go unnoticed by media and military leaders. [This was from the same series in which Farah was killed in May, 2005.]

The Big Picture:

Walking the Line in 2005 ” with CSM Mellinger and the Nikon D70

From “Walking the Line Part II:” Battle Stations: This is not a drill.

In “Walking the Line Part III,” I described the impression this guy made: “The Iraqi Police arrive en force, and all eyes are drawn to a Rambo-looking character among them who has a light machine gun. He looks cool, but has the tactical sense of a parakeet. Perfect target for a sniper. I take a knee.” This is another dispatch where the Nikon’s increasing unreliability became a brief part of the narrative.

The fourth part of “Walking the Line” focused on our visit to a Combat Support Hospital (CSH). On the way there, I learned that LT Noah Harris, whom I’d met in Baquba, had been killed in action. Reporting on wounded and fallen soldiers brings a particular and precarious set of challenges. But it is a given in war and so must be covered. The soldiers and their families have earned that, at a minimum.

The final installment in 2005’s “Walking the Line” (which I was fortunate to be able to revisit in 2007) had this photograph of American soldiers in a tank telling us about an IED ahead.

The Streets of Mosul, as seen from inside a mosque, felt strangely like home when I returned after spending almost a month on the road with CSM Mellinger. This photograph was part of the dispatch “Angels Among Us” that was published on July 16, 2005, and has become one of the most popular on my site.

A Deuce Four soldier carefully passing up items from a massive weapons cache described in the dispatch “The Devil’s Foyer,” published on July 21, 2005.

Abuse No Camera Should Have to Experience

The whole Nikon D70 set-up—camera and only two lenses—cost about half as much as just the lens I shoot most often with these days. But I hadn’t considered cost as a primary factor when I bought it.

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.

While in combat, I keep the camera attached to my body armor so I can drop it and keep my hands free. This means every time I hit the ground, the camera gets smashed. Can you imagine? I’m legendary for being the first on the ground. I never hesitated to jump on the D70. That little camera deserves a medal for continuing to work after all the beatings it took.

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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