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Take your best shot

How to snap better photos on your next deployment

Sep. 12, 2009 - 03:05PM   |   Last Updated: Sep. 12, 2009 - 03:05PM  |  
Senior Airman Christopher Lynch says he takes hundreds of photos daily: "I like to document the course of a day." He took this shot of Airman 1st Class Dan Egert making the best of a dusty day at Joint Base Balad, Iraq, on his current deployment.
Senior Airman Christopher Lynch says he takes hundreds of photos daily: "I like to document the course of a day." He took this shot of Airman 1st Class Dan Egert making the best of a dusty day at Joint Base Balad, Iraq, on his current deployment. (SENIOR AIRMAN CHRISTOPHER LYNCH)
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"When you only have four seconds to grab an image, luck, chance and coincidence count," Sgt. Brendan Mackie says. He didn't have much time to take photos while escorting an MP brigade survey team through an abandoned building, but he improved his chances by taking several shots through this bullet-pocked window. Of his favorite, which frames a distant Humvee in the splintered glass, he says, "I was lucky one worked out." (SGT. BRENDAN MACKIE)
Spc. Alissa Crump embraces a daughter of the family she and her unit adopted. (SGT. BRENDAN MACKIE)

Sgt. Brendan Mackie, a history junkie who loved studying old military photographs even as a kid, realized when he deployed to Iraq in 2007 that it would be his shot at recording history.

A military policeman with the Delaware Army National Guard, he took thousands of photos after arriving in the war zone.

What took him by surprise was the power of those photos. When a slideshow of photos documenting his unit's war-zone experiences was played at the family Christmas party back home, "My mom was crying, other people were crying," he said. "They really wanted to see photos from our perspective."

Lt. Cmdr. John E. Gay, a former Navy photojournalist who now works for Joint Public Affairs Support Element, would like to see more troops telling the military's story with cameras.

"Everyone in the military should be looking for opportunities to document what we're doing," he said.

Your next deployment is your opportunity. So pack your camera and check out these five tips for making the most of every shot.

1. Carry your camera everywhere.

It will make the difference between good intentions and good photos.

"Everybody just brings a camera and forgets to take pictures," said Senior Airman Chris Lynch, who is currently deployed to Joint Base Balad, Iraq, on a joint expeditionary tasking. He estimates he's taken 3,000 to 4,000 photos since he arrived three months ago— 300 to 500 shots a day, which he pulls off his camera almost daily. "Several of my co-workers know me as Peter Parker," he said.

"It's just like any other piece of equipment — you've got to make it a habit," says Gay.

He always had a camera around his neck and sometimes another on his belt. Lynch keeps one in his backpack. Mackie stowed his in his grenade pouch.

"It was just something I grabbed," Mackie said, "like I grabbed my weapon going out the door."

2. Protect your camera - but be prepared for damage.

"It's a destructive environment," said Chris Maddaloni, a Military Times staff photographer. "I'd assume anything you're going to bring will be broken, lost or destroyed."

So consider bringing a used or relatively inexpensive point-and-shoot, at least until you know what conditions you'll be living in.

Mackie brought a point-and-shoot at first, but he came back from leave with his more sophisticated SLR camera — a Canon Rebel XTI — because he thought he could keep it safe. He knew there were risks, but he decided they were worth it.

"I realized how important the pictures were. ... I wouldn't have this opportunity again," he said.

But before you throw caution to the wind like an MRE wrapper, do what you can to protect your camera.

"Keep your stuff covered," said Air Force Master Sgt. Jeremy Lock, a photojournalist with the 1st Combat Camera Squadron. He cleans his cameras with brushes and canned air after every shoot.

For cleaning the inescapable dust off your lens, Air Force Staff Sgt. Jacob Bailey, also with the 1st Combat Camera, suggests picking up some microfiber towels at the auto store, as well as buying lens-cleaning solution and paper for getting at the fine areas of the lens without scratching it.

Finally, don't send your camera into a combat theater without armor. Bailey recommends investing in a watertight protective case for transport and rubberized housing in case your camera takes a licking against a Humvee door.

3. Shoot what you know.

You don't need to go looking for the bizarre.

Lynch said he knew when he volunteered to deploy that his work escorting third-country nationals would provide plenty of material for his photography habit. "Half the reason I came out here was to take pictures," he said.

Daily life at Balad is so different from ordinary experience that he can't stop trying to capture it.

"I like to ... document the course of a day," he said, right down to the food.

Mackie said one of his favorite subjects were "the guys in my squad ... performing their job."

As he downloaded photos each night, he noticed he was taking a lot of photos of soldiers with children and animals. "I wasn't trying to," he said. "That's what the soldiers were drawn to. ... When all you see is Army, Army, Army, Army, it's the kids and animals that you really appreciate. It was much more important to us there than it would be back home."

One of his favorites is a photo of a small girl kissing a female MP in his unit. The girl was living with her family in a bombed-out building at an Iraqi police station. The father could not work because of a back injury, so the MPs adopted the family, bringing them food and water, even ordering clothes for the children online.

"I could come home and tell anyone that story," Mackie said, "but you show them the photos and it brings it home."

4. A little bit of technique can make a big difference.

The professional and amateur photographers interviewed for this story have spent years honing their skills — and no set of "tips and tricks" can replace that. Still, a rudimentary understanding of principles can help you make your photos say what you want them to say. Read their advice for every skill level.

5. Know your priorities.

Your first priority is always your job, Mackie said, but for most service members, "opportunities will present themselves."

Both he and Lynch were tapped as unit photographers by higher-ups who saw their interest and were sometimes given more freedom to spend time shooting.

"If it's something you're interested in doing ... volunteer to be the [unit public affairs representative]," Mackie suggests.

Lock said the most important — and the toughest — part of taking good photos is waiting for the moment that engages you — and time to wait isn't a luxury you'll always have.

"There were times that I missed a picture that I wanted to take," because his duties came first, Mackie said. But the military life has payoffs, too, for amateur photographers.

Your eyes are trained to be aware of your surroundings and observant of details. More importantly, you have the chance to visit remarkable places, sometimes beautiful, sometimes strange, smack dab in the middle of history.

"Take a camera," Gay said. "You really need to capture this stuff because you're not going to get another opportunity."



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