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Lessons Learned in Combat Videography

Military journalists perform unique tasks

U.S. Army soldiers with the 1st Cavalry Division transport Alaska and Jersey barriers to an Iraqi army traffic control point in Camp Taji, Iraq, June 8, 2007. (U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Rachel M. Copeland)

Combat Documentation and Production Specialist is my job title. Combat Camera is what we call ourselves, as we are never without a camera while on the job.

The nation has been at war for more than a decade and we have been there capturing the moments. It all started with Advanced Individual Training, which taught me the basics of photography, videography, captioning and editing. My unit training expanded on the basics, added field environments and real-world scenarios that taught me how to successfully document, edit and turn around a polished product in 24 hours.

This is the workflow requirement of a Combat Camera soldier. We are the eyes and ears for the task force commanders during training exercises and on the battlefield.

Our imagery is cleared by a public affairs officer, then uploaded to both the Defense Video & Imagery Distribution System and Defense Imagery Management Operations Center, depending on the classification. There are only two Combat Camera units in the Army; an active-duty component, 55th Signal Company and an Army Reserve component, 982nd Combat Camera Company (Airborne).


We are unique in that we deploy in small numbers, are broken down again once we get boots on ground, and are scattered all over the countryside with our leadership in a centralized location. This is where knowing the job is extremely important to our mission success.

Not only did I have to sell my mission purpose to the leadership I fell in on, but I also had to prove myself to each company’s soldiers when we went outside the wire for the first time. It only took one mission, the right attitude and the first set of photos and video product to win them over. In each of my three deployments during the past 10 years, this scenario did not change as each one was under a different task force. Once again, I was a stranger to the ranks.

My first deployment to Iraq was in 2003-2004 under 4th Infantry Division. I spent three months based at the Convention Center located inside the Green Zone and four months working for the British Forces Press information Centre located in the Basrah airport.

U.S. Army Spc. Alexander Naylor, combat documentation and production specialist with the 982nd Combat Camera, shoots a preventive maintenance and services training video at Camp Maiwan, in Logar Province Afghanistan, Dec. 15, 2013. The 982nd Reserves unit, based out of East Point, Ga., captures and archives historical documentation while deployed to Afghanistan. (U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Rachel M. Copeland)

My kit contained a Nikon D2H still SLR camera, Astroscope 9350 night vision optics for the Nikon camera, Sony VX 2000 video camera and a Panasonic Toughbook computer with Adobe Premiere editing software. What really sold our skills was the use of night vision. I would transport which ever camera I wasn’t using, night vision, tripod, wireless lavaliere microphone in a black backpack, and shoved the other lenses in my cargo pockets for easy and fast change outs. I used a D-ring looped through my body armor to secure the strap to my person, this made for easy transitions from my camera to my weapon.

Prior to the start of each mission, I would try to get a quick interview with the convoy or foot patrol commander. I’d record as much B-roll as the mission allotted without redundancy, and a couple short interviews with the team and squad leaders at the end of the mission to ensure I had the right sound bites to tell the story.

Major lesson learned: B-roll is awesome when hand held as it makes you feel part of the action; interviews should be recorded on a tripod/monopod something stationary in the area as movement during an interview looks horrible. I also learned very quickly that still photography was faster in post-production because I had to real-time import the video footage in order to edit. I got really good at editing through the lens while recording. These are the skills I took back to my unit and implemented into our squad technical training.

Casting a silhouette against the midday sun, U.S. Army Spc. Charles Willingham, combat documentation and production specialist with the 982nd Combat Camera, documents soldiers in a motor pool at Bagram Air Field, Afghanistan, Nov. 13, 2013. (U.S. Army photo by Spc. Ryan D. Green)


In 2006-2007, I returned to Iraq with new equipment and more responsibility, as I was a team leader to a non-deployed soldier. We continued with the Nikon D2H but upgraded to the Sony DSR-PD150 SD camcorder with Morovision Astroscope attachment because the microphone was detachable and would prevent it from breaking during transport.

I started using Tiffen polarizer filters to prevent washing out of the horizon during extreme sunlight. We also added the Gorilla Pod camera support with flexible legs, which works wonders as the legs are bendy and can be wrapped around just about anything for un-shaky footage. This is one of my favorite tripods for combat camera type recording—it’s lightweight, small, and its easy flexibility allows for unique angles and fast set up.

With the implementation of the side armor plate, I attached a canteen pouch under my left arm as this was perfect for securing the camera, lens down, in order to keep it from bouncing all around when my weapon was my focus. Thank you SFC Marcus Quarterman—this saved my camera numerous times when climbing up and over walls, in and out of vehicles when in a hurry or in the dark.

I have a new-found appreciation for the sound of bag pipes and an emotional trigger whenever I hear “Taps.” Having to film fallen-soldier ceremonies is one of the hardest jobs of my career. It’s such an honor and I take great pride in having been part of capturing the traditions and raw emotions of brothers-in-arms as they honor their fallen comrade.

The first couple ceremonies were really hard as I had to learn to block my own feelings. However, once I got the stationary cameras set up on the podium and learned the cue phrases within the dialog, the real work was using a roaming camera to capture each phase of emotion that happens during the ceremony.

U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Rachel Copeland, combat documentation and production specialist with the 982nd Combat Camera, documents soldiers in a motor pool at Bagram Air Field, Afghanistan, Nov. 13, 2013. (U.S. Army photo by Spc. Ryan D. Green)

Many hours poured into the editing phase to create a product that was burned to CD and mailed home to the family. You hope that it will give them a glimpse of how his/her military family felt about their loved one in life and after giving the ultimate sacrifice. Having lost a few of my new-found brethren to IEDs during this deployment, I experienced this from both sides of the camera lens.


When asked how do you do it, I tell them that I look through my viewfinder at the worst parts of war and tell myself I’m shooting Hollywood films and the special effects guys have really outdone themselves this time. Most of my videos from this deployment were for official use only, but I did create some pretty awesome, what we like to call, “Hooah” videos. These are comprised of still photos, b-roll, and a couple interviews all laid down to music with special graphics unique to each unit. These take the most post production man-hours, but can be crucial in getting your butt a seat in the convoy or on the aircraft.

My recent return from deployment to Afghanistan in 2013-2014 was awesome because all travel was done by air. There really is nothing like hanging over the side of a UH-60 Black Hawk to get the best aerial footage across the countryside. I gained more responsibility as my duty position was the detachment non-commissioned officer in charge of seven soldiers.

We were spread out across RC-East and worked for the 101st Airborne Division CJTF-J3/9. Our cameras had upgraded to high definition and merged into one body. The Canon 5D Mark II has both still and video capabilities in one, and the quality of 1080p had changed my opinion of Canon vs. Nikon.




Gorilla Pod:




Computers had evolved to Macbook Pros with Final Cut editing software and the Adobe Premiere package. I still had my favorite Gorilla Pod and gained a Swann action camera (similar to a GoPro). Even my M16 was upgraded to an M4; this was one of the best things, as most of the time my weapon was strapped across my body and the shorter barrel and butt stock prevented me from putting the end of my barrel in the dirt every time I had to take a knee. 

As the mission focus changed to instructional videos, my team and I were able to plan, direct produce and edit video products for the Afghan Armed Forces. It started with first aid videos, basic soldier skills that had saved many Afghan soldiers lives during the last three months of our deployment because they knew how to apply a tourniquet on their fellow comrade.

I edited four preventive maintenance checks and services videos in Pashtu and Dari, which gave the Afghan Army the ability to maintain the military equipment they had received and were currently operating. The generator class was a complete success, as it increased the number of working generators right as the winter season was starting.

Our deployment was cut short and we went home after six months, but that time was full of gun shots, mortars and moving locations every 30 days as the U.S. military footprint shrank and outlying bases closed. I now spend my military time sharing my experiences and training the next generation of Combat Camera soldiers, so they can support whatever comes next.