Postcards from Tradocia

iraq gear guide, signal corps style, part 2

Earlier this week I wrote part 1 of my Iraq gear guide for REMFs. Now, spurred on by Doc In The Box’s fawning praise, I give you part two.

Bring a digital camera. Period. Even if you’re not a hopeless photo dork like me, or even if you’re a poor bastard in a combat arms unit with no sexy babes to stalk, you’re going to see things in Iraq that you’re going to want to show your friends back home.

Film cameras are fun (I have several), but film is highly impractical out here for several reasons. One, it’s an expendable item that you have to keep track of. Murphy’s law applies to photography just as well as combat, so the one time you want to take a once-in-a-lifetime shot is when you’ll forget your film back in the hooch. Two, film is sensitive to heat, and I’ve heard it gets hot in the summer. Three, loading film is a sure way to introduce sand and dust to the delicate inner workings of your camera. Four – and this is high photo-snobbery so bear with me – the film they sell at the PX is inevitably crappy consumer-grade stuff. And don’t try to have film sent from the US – most mail is so thoroughly bombarded with x-rays that any film will be obliterated before it gets to you. (Same goes for luggage checked on an airline, by the way.)

Digital cameras have become so cheap that you might as well have one. A good entry-level digicam like the Olympus D-580 only costs $189.95 and will produce decent images for most any purpose. More features like manual controls, bigger zoom lenses, interchangeable lenses, waterproofing, and the like will set you back more money. If you’re a high-roller and/or expect to have a lot of time on your hands (AND you don’t have to carry an M249 like me), you could get a Canon EOS 1DS II, which costs less than $8000 and has a full-frame (same size as 35mm film) image sensor, takes all of Canon’s lenses, has a magnesium alloy body, and is fully weather-sealed against water and dust.

Size is a factor that you should consider carefully. The Olympus linked above and my own Pentax Optio 43WR are handy pocket-sized cameras that can slip in your cargo pocket or, more tactically, in an extra grenade or ammo pouch on your load-bearing gear. A larger camera may often be more capable – I have a Canon PowerShot G5 which is fantastic – but is often impractical. The G5 is particularly obnoxious since its shape makes it take up a much greater volume than you’d expect. However, it does take vastly better pictures than my Optio; you can’t notice the difference in my web-sized photos, but when viewed full-size it’s obvious.

For more information, you can read B&H Photo’s digital camera buyer’s guide (large PDF file). Also, visit Digital Photo Review, for exhaustive news, discussion, and reviews of every make and model of digital camera.

After all that business, what about video cameras? Not really necessary, unless you’re planning to shoot a movie or something. It’s another thing to haul around, and you have to have tapes or discs on hand, which can be difficult to acquire in-country. If you do get one, don’t get a Canon – their film and digital still cameras are superb (I have owned several), but the Canon Elura 50 digital video camera I have is unquestionably the worst piece of electronics I’ve ever owned. The autofocus went out within the first month; after that was repaired the camera developed a sticky aperture so the autoexposure didn’t work right; and halfway through Ft Hood the tape transport went to shit so that it would intermittently refuse to load a tape, with “intermittent” becoming “all the fucking time” until it became inoperative. So anyway, don’t get a Canon. The Pontiff has a Sony and it rocks. Cost nearly a thousand bucks, though…

My gear: Canon PowerShot G5 ($600), Pentax Optio 43WR ($350), Canon Elura 50 ($500)

pros: The G5 has great image quality, full manual controls, and a nifty fold-out screen. Optio is small, handy, and waterproof (and by extension, dustproof). Elura is…uh…small and shiny.

cons: G5 is too big to fit in most pockets. Optio has high shutter lag (very slow to take a picture), and the lens could be better. Elura is generally just a piece of shit.

Bring to Iraq?: I thought the G5 would be a good all-around camera, but I had to get the Optio as a small, rugged backup. I’ve gotten a lot of pictures I wouldn’t have otherwise gotten thanks to having the Optio on me at all times. Glad I have both. The Elura – hell no. *spit*

Crap, this went longer than expected. Guess there will be a part three, for portable music devices and…whatever else a REMF might need.


  1. Lola Barnes

    We’re glad that you can send such good pictures since they give us a much better idea of Iraq. It’s snowing right now and we’re supposed to get 6 to 12 inches. Speaking of shooting, Sam just sent us an E-mail about his goose hunt in S.Dak during spring break. He and his buddies got 165! Love, G & G

  2. Sean

    Thanks for the ping! I’m really enjoying your blog and you deserve more attention then you’re getting. Don’t forget external hard drives! Best 200 bucks that I’ve ever spent. Any given unit has a dozen or so and all the people that have them pass them back and forth till they’re all cloned copies of every song, picture and video that has passed through that users hands. 160 gig is jammed full. Stay safe!

  3. Kevin

    I can recommend the Canon digital Elphs. They fit anywhere and take good pix. I had the 3 mpix in OIF 1, have the 4 mpix now, but they make a 5, all in the same form factor.

    I also have a digital rebel, which takes great photos, but is a PITA to carry around.

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