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Video Cameras Slug It Out in Combat

Combat cameras take video -- and a beating -- in the field.

John Alpert interviews Iraqi soldiers for an HBO documentary on a combat hospital.

The presence of cameras on the battlefield has been common for U.S. troops ever since Mathew Brady dispatched teams of photographers to capture images of the Civil War for an American public that had never experienced the reality of combat.

Today’s battle-ready video cameras would be largely unrecognizable to Brady and his bunch. Brady’s crude still-image cameras and battlefield darkrooms were unable to record a moving object, and their extremely fragile glass plates had to be handled with care.

Today’s cameras are meant to take a beating and can seamlessly record high-quality video and sound under the most difficult conditions. Rugged cameras are being used both by journalists, for mass public consumption, and by soldiers who are recording the images for internal military use.

Experts note that combat photos matter to both the military and a public that is asked to support the battle from home.

Is there any photo that better captures the bravery and spirit of the American fighting forces than that of the flag-raising on Mount Suribachi on Iwo Jima in 1945, taken by photojournalist Joe Rosenthal? The photo, taken with a bulky Speed Graphic still-image camera, was used in a 1945 war bond drive that eventually raised $26.3 billion. The iconic image of Marines (and one Navy sailor) raising the flag is also the stirring design of the Marine Corps Memorial on the edge of Arlington Cemetery just outside Washington.

Canon EOS C300 camcorder


At the center of the Canon story are the optics and lenses. Canon’s EOS C300 HS and EOS C100 HS are digital high-definition (HD) camcorders that have been specially modified to expand their usability into technical surveillance, tactical and forensic applications, according to Chuck Westfall, technical advisor for professional imaging products at Canon USA.

“The thing going on from the military point of view is that they are much improved for low light,” Westfall said. “There are so many situations in combat where you are shooting in non-existent light conditions. These cameras have the ability to come up with identifiable video even in those conditions, shooting by moonlight.”

The cameras can shoot in almost total darkness without the use of infrared (IR) light. Both record to dual SD cards and can be outfitted with a range of more than 70 Canon EF, EF-S and EF Cinema lenses. Both cameras also feature Canon’s unique Super 35mm single-CMOS sensor and DIGIC DV III image processor for 1920×1080 HD video, Westfall said.

“Having a choice of 70-plus lenses is really something that benefits the customers, especially when they need to fit it to a job they are working on,” Westfall said.

Although these cameras can’t pick up a rifle and shoot, they are plenty tough. Engineered to withstand rugged conditions, the 3.2-pound C300 HS and 2.2-pound C100 HS feature dust- and splash-resistant designs, with sealing gaskets around the edges of all access covers, dials fitted with O-rings on the axis of rotation and button key tops sealed with rubber. An optional WFT-E6A Unit can be added to the EOS C300 HS for wireless connectivity and live camera view, Westfall said.

You won’t find these at your local photo shop because the HS versions of the C300 and C100 are not available to the public.

Panasonic AG-HPX600 P2 camcorder


Panasonic said that its camcorders are built around versatility and reliability. No one wants to be digging around inside a camera in the middle of combat action, trying to fix some broken inner connection.

The company’s AG-HPX600 P2 HD shoulder-mount camcorder is tailor-made for demanding use, said Steve Cooperman, senior product manager for professional video at Panasonic System Communications.

The AG-HPX600 was the first 2/3-inch shoulder-style HD camcorder under seven pounds with an interchangeable-lens and capable of delivering 10-bit, 4:2:2 AVC-Intra video, Cooperman said. It also features power consumption of only 18 watts and AVC-Ultra, Panasonic’s newest video compression platform.

One of the reasons that camera is so reliable is that it is built around the P2 technology, he said.

“The HPX600 embodies all the intrinsic advantages of P2, the industry’s first solid-state, no moving-parts format,” Cooperman said. “P2 hardware is better able to perform in extreme environments and is resistant to temperature extremes, shock and vibration, unlike mechanical tape, hard disk and optical disc systems.”

Optics are also important to Panasonic, and the HPX600 employs chromatic aberration compensation (CAC) to suppress the most serious artifacts. CAC identifies the signature of a compatible lens and applies an average correction. The result is considerably less color fringing in high-contrast images, which results in an improvement in clarity.

The HPX600, equipped with the optional encoder board, produces high-resolution QuickTime proxies, which can be streamed via the optional Wi-Fi or wired LAN and viewed in the browser of a laptop, iPad, tablet or smartphone.

JVC GY-HM600 camcorder


The JVC GY-HM600 ProHD camcorder is a next-generation handheld unit that delivers excellent imagery and is well-suited for military operations, company officials said. Weighing less than 5.5 pounds with battery, its features include auto-focus and optical image stabilization that make it an ideal companion on the battlefield.

The HM600 is equipped with three 1/3-inch full-resolution (1920×1080) CMOS sensors, and a 23x (35mm conversion: 29 to 667 mm) Fujinon permanently attached lens with autofocus lens delivers the highest zoom range in a small camcorder and includes an integrated flip-in lens cover to eliminate hassle with lens caps. The camera offers f11 sensitivity for excellent low-light performance, officials said.

The unit features dual mic/line selectable XLR inputs with phantom power and a variety of output connectors, including HD-SDI, HDMI and composite video out, along with timecode sync in/out and a headphone port.

The JVC GY-HM600 also features an LCOS (Liquid Crystal on Silicon) 0.45-inch viewfinder with 852×480 resolution.

Sony NEX-FS700 camcorder


Award-winning filmmaker Jon Alpert, of the Downtown Community TV Center in New York City, favors Sony camcorders because he finds them reliable and adaptive. In recent battlefield work, he has used Sony’s new HXR-NX30U high-definition camcorder, which is a palm-size addition to the company’s line of video cameras. The HXR-NX30U records at full 1920×1080 HD resolution using a Carl Zeiss Vario-Sonnar lens.

“These are unbelievable cameras,” Alpert said. “We rely on that camera in adverse situations, either in tight quarters in armored personnel carriers or when we are running toward something or running away from something that is trying to kill us. It’s light and makes tremendous pictures.”

Alpert also carries the Sony NEX-FS700 camcorder, which is the workhorse in Sony’s lineup of NXCAM interchangeable E-mount camcorders. The FS700 can capture footage at up to 960 frames per second and features a range of capabilities such as 3G HD-SDI output and Sony’s well-regarded 4K “Exmor” Super 35 CMOS sensor, which is specialized for high sensitivity.

Over the past 40 years, Sony engineers have listened to Alpert’s feedback on ways to improve the cameras. The FS700’s new lightweight servo-operated zoom lens reduces the need to switch lenses on the battlefield.

“In a war zone, you can’t carry a bag of lenses around with you and you can’t really change on fly―you’re in a dirty environment where you don’t want to take the lens off,” Alpert said. “The new lens helps with that.”

For rugged use, Sony also promotes the PMW-200, a light and compact 1080p video camera that is part of the company’s XDCAM series of professional camcorders. The PMW-200 features three 1/2-inch Exmor CMOS sensors with full HD 4:2:2 50-Mbps recording and a 3.5-inch articulating WVGA LCD monitor.

The camera is tough, recording on solid-state (SxS) media, and it features a 14x Fujinon zoom lens that starts at a wide-angle shot of 5.8mm. The PMW-200 lens also has an improved servo that gives better slow-zoom performance.


Combat photography is not for the faint-hearted, and camera operators have to be as tough as their equipment. Alpert’s tightest spot came during the first Gulf War when he was trying to sneak film past the censors in Baghdad in the early stages of the fighting.

The film was hidden in his sock, but his team was confronted by a band of Iraqi citizens acting as an armed militia. One man tried to kill him.

“He put this gun to my head and was screaming about the vengeance he was going to get by shooting me in the head,” Alpert said. “Fortunately for me the gunned jammed and he wasn’t able to shoot me.”

Eventually emotions calmed and Alpert was able to make it out safely with the film intact.

When you have to get the shot at the same time people are trying to shoot you, there’s no substitute for nerves of steel and the sturdiest gear you can find.