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Photojournalist Danfung Dennis: How I cover the Afghanistan war with the 5DmkII

Danfung has been producing incredible work from Afghanistan where he works as an embedded photojournalist. His filming is both editorially and visually compelling – especially given the extreme conditions under which he works. He is currently working on his own documentary, “Battle for Hearts and Minds”, as well as having his footage featured on PBS Frontline. This is his first post about his technique for www.dslrnewsshooter.com

Battle for Hearts and Minds Trailer from Danfung Dennis on Vimeo.

Embedded photojournalist Danfung Dennis in action with his Canon 5DmkII while following the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade, RCT 2nd Battalion 8th Marines Echo Co. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Embedded photojournalist Danfung Dennis in action with his Canon 5DmkII while following the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade, RCT 2nd Battalion 8th Marines Echo Co. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty)

I’ve been inundated with emails asking what camera rig I use, so I will keep this technical to try to answer them. The 5D mark II is capable of unprecedented image quality, but since it is a stills camera, there are several limitations that I had to address before using this camera in a warzone.

The first problem is with audio. I used a Sennheiser ME- 66 shotgun mic and G2 wireless system running into a Beachtek DXA-2s (I’ve since upgraded to a Juicedlink CX-231 with the Magic Lantern hack) which converts professional XLR mics into a minijack suitable for the 5D. I built custom aluminum ‘wings’ in a workshop to hold this audio setup.

The second problem is stabilization. The design of the 5D Mark makes hand held video shooting difficult. I mounted my whole system onto a Glidecam 2000 HD with custom rubber pads on the mount and a foam ear plug to suppress the vibration of the the lens. The rig is very heavy and it took about two months to get my arm strong enough to shoot extended shots. I cut up a Glidecam Body Pod to make it fit with my body armor and used it to rest my arm when I was not shooting.

The 5DmkII and Glidecam custom rig (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty)

My 5DmkII and Glidecam custom rig (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty)

To achieve a cinematic look when shooting in bright daylight at f2.8 at 1/60th or slower, requires a drastic amount of reduction of light that hits the sensor. I used a Singh Ray Variable ND filter. While the filter can reduce the amount of light by 2 to 8 stops, I had serious problems with uneven coverage, so part of my frame would be darker than others. I have tried Fader ND filters, but also have the same problem.

Another issue is that all focus must be done manually after recording begins. The only way to address this was a lot of practice racking focus. I was not able to rack focus when running, so I often had to try to stay the same distance from my subject to keep them in focus.

The most frustrating problem was that the camera would overheat after about 15 minutes of continuous shooting in 120 degree heat. I had no option other than to turn it off and let it cool. I did not have a spare body.

5DII_kit_01

The final serious problem is that the files straight out of the camera are difficult to edit with. I use a 2.93 GHz Macbook Pro 17in, 256gb SSD HD, 4 GB RAM and convert the files into Apple Prores 422 LT using Compressor (the program often crashes when handling many files, but the quality is better than with mpeg streamclip). I use a 8TB Sonnet D400QR5 set at RAID 5 to store the 45 hours of footage and Prores files.

I carried six extra batteries and five 16 GB Sandisk Extreme IV cards.

To be notified when the documentary is available online, sign up at
www.battleforheartsandminds.com

Danfung

dennis3

PBS has also used Danfung’s footage for the opening of this documentary

Click here to see Danfung Dennis interview with PBS on covering the war in Afghanistan.

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Posted on October 14th, 2009 by Danfung Dennis | Category: Canon Eos5DmkII, Journalism |

73 responses to "Photojournalist Danfung Dennis: How I cover the Afghanistan war with the 5DmkII"

  1. Daniel CDMs Says:
    October 14th, 2009 at 2:09 am

    thanks for this entry :)

  2. Gary Taylor Says:
    October 14th, 2009 at 5:07 am

    This is great work – I really appreciate Danfung’s effort and the upload to the blog!

    I’ve never quite understood this hearts and minds concept. For some part of my life I grew up in Northern Ireland, and I remember the army patrols through the housing estates. I was just a kid/teenager but I always remember feeling uneasy when they came through. Of cause you have nothing to worry about, but it’s just not a friendly “hows it going” feeling you get seeing them.

    Some of the issues with the gear sound like an absolute nightmare. I’ve always been a fan of the Canon XL range, so I’d be hard pushed not to a take a camcorder as well as the 5DmkII over there. Just seems the 5D is being pushed way beyond it’s capabilities, but as all good things do, it’s holding it’s ground well! I love it!

  3. Long Says:
    October 14th, 2009 at 9:24 am

    Amazing, really admire all your works Dangfung,really really make sense

  4. Mark Says:
    October 14th, 2009 at 2:30 pm

    Can’t wait to see the full doc. The footage looks really good and shows what can be done even in a difficult environment.

  5. Dallas Childers Says:
    October 14th, 2009 at 6:16 pm

    Thanks for doing the legwork on the 5D and THANK YOU for bringing back some amazing and powerful images! You’re a great storyteller, stay safe and look forward to the doc.

  6. Jenna Patrick Says:
    October 14th, 2009 at 11:17 pm

    Great work you are doing here! That’s some nice video equipment you have.

    I’ll definitely want to see the documentary when it’s ready.

  7. Antoine Says:
    October 15th, 2009 at 2:02 am

    The narrative seems great, the images are beautiful… but the soundtrack sounds totally WTF!

    It makes war looks like a game or a movie where it isn’t…

    I’d like to see the whole thing (again: could be a great documentary), but the music in that trailer is totally silly.

  8. Chris Gibbs Says:
    October 15th, 2009 at 11:19 am

    I agree with Antoine about the music, especially after watching the Frontline piece which had a perfect soundtrack IMHO!

    We’ve got to be careful that the music issue does’t start to take on that *Cokin Filter Effect* with viewers – It needs to be understated – let the superb images and ambient sound sell the piece!

    Lovely job on the camerawork. Very honest and un-sanitized and I really liked the fact that there was no talking head ruining your footage. I’m a huge fan of commentaries for this kind of piece (www.mediastorm.org) but I do find the US news media approach juvenile and basically unwatchable. Your work shows just how stressful this whole situation is by leaving in an honest dialogue!

    Fantastic work – thank-you for sharing!

    PS. My comments are offered sincerely from a viewers perspective – I claim no professional insight here at all.

  9. Steve Lee Says:
    October 15th, 2009 at 3:54 pm

    Why do the US Soldiers assume these farmers understand English? How absurd is that?

  10. A_Flama Says:
    October 15th, 2009 at 5:27 pm

    Very nice production… unfortunately for a sad reality.
    Congrats!

  11. Polprav Says:
    October 16th, 2009 at 7:03 am

    Hello from Russia!
    Can I quote a post in your blog with the link to you?

  12. Patrick Says:
    October 16th, 2009 at 1:46 pm

    Greetings Danfung…awesome cinematography!! I’m truly impressed with the footage coming from these DSLRs. Will have to get one for my shop. I do have a few questions for you. Why did you choose the Glidecam over other stabilizers like the Steadicam Merlin? Also, what kind of body armor were you using? I was downrange in May filming for DoD and just had the big heavy and bulky body armor that they issued me which made it very difficult to move…let alone film. Look forward to seeing your documentary. Stay safe and keep low!

  13. James Adamson Says:
    October 16th, 2009 at 7:23 pm

    I find your work brave and striking. Thank you for your commitment.

    James

  14. Bela Says:
    October 16th, 2009 at 9:47 pm

    First, for the good news. At the rate the US and its allies are “winning the war” in Afgahnistan, Danfung can be covering the action over there well into his retirement age.

    Knowing full well that these CMOS sensor + electronic rolling shutter mega-sensor DSLRs were not really designed for video shooting but for still photography, I am still trying to figure out the rationale of using a DSLR instead of a camcorder in this, or in fact any other situation where either the camera moves or the subject(s) front of the lens move.

    A year or two ago, the front cover of GV (Government Video) magazine showed a soldier all geared up in armor and shooting the Iraqi campaign with a nicely rigged Red One digital film camera.

    This is the year of the DSLRs, it seems. We’ll see what different cameras our battlefield-bound video journalists will be using in the Afghanistan (and Pakistan?? and Iran??) campaign(s) in 5, 10, 15, etc years hence. There surely will be a lot of new equipment to cycle through.

  15. Diseunlisse Says:
    October 17th, 2009 at 9:18 am

    Im new here and i enjoy music and movies alot , Hope lots of ppl like me here :)

    [url=http://www.tamilmask.com]watch tamil movies online[/url]

  16. Chris Gibbs Says:
    October 17th, 2009 at 11:05 am

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oskar_Barnack

    Cannot speak for anybody here other than myself, but the first paragraph in the wikipedia entry explains my rational for wanting to shoot video on a DSLR. I’m a stills guy, that’s what I do, that’s my first love, but I do find having the ability to capture *some* video absolutely fantastic and I’ll live with the compromises that the DSLR brings!

    I think if you polled most guys like us you’d find that bread & butter is still that single frame capture – for that I need a DSLR!

  17. Chris Gibbs Says:
    October 17th, 2009 at 2:24 pm

    @Diseunlisse,

    Check this out: http://www.multimediashooter.com/wp/uncategorized/podcast-on-assignment-with-dai-sugano/
    You’re not alone. Listen what he has to say about music videos – he produces lovely work, his music is original and very on point! You watched Ami’s lovely piece on this site ;-)

  18. Bela Says:
    October 17th, 2009 at 3:36 pm

    @Chris #16, apaprently Herr Barnack died in 1936. I am not sure what, if anything, he had to do with video-capable DSLR cameras.

  19. brian Says:
    October 18th, 2009 at 10:41 am

    what a brain fuck. what are you doing?
    never seen such a war advertising. the cuts, the music. everthing very cool. if that is the conception of embedded photo-”journalism” Good night journalism.

  20. Mark Says:
    October 18th, 2009 at 11:51 am

    Its a trailer for a documentary. Try waiting til you’ve seen the full doc before passing comment on the journalism.

  21. josh Says:
    October 19th, 2009 at 8:03 am

    great work Dennis. it’s amazing..
    can’t wait to see the full documentary.

  22. Reinhard Mueller Says:
    October 19th, 2009 at 8:09 am

    It’s pure pro-US and pro-Military propaganda.

  23. Bela Says:
    October 19th, 2009 at 11:22 am

    I must say, it is one dumb title, “Obama’s War.” Besides, who really gives a hoot about Afghanistan anymore, anyhow? It’s old news, our outstanding soldiers have been fighting the enemy over there for longer now than the U.S.’s entanglement had been in WWI and WWII combined.

    While they are playing in Afghanistan, Pakistan is also moving to be under Taliban control.

    Undoubtedly, Canon will be releasing many more new and exciting video-savvy DSLRs well before the war-like show will draw its final curtain in Afghanistan, Pakistan, etc.

  24. Gary Taylor Says:
    October 19th, 2009 at 6:17 pm

    Why photograph war?

    by James Nachtway

    There has always been war. War is raging throughout the world at the present moment. And there is little reason to believe that war will cease to exist in the future. As man has become increasingly civilized, his means of destroying his fellow man have become ever more efficient, cruel and devastating.

    Is it possible to put an end to a form of human behavior which has existed throughout history by means of photography? The proportions of that notion seem ridiculously out of balance. Yet, that very idea has motivated me.

    For me, the strength of photography lies in its ability to evoke a sense of humanity. If war is an attempt to negate humanity, then photography can be perceived as the opposite of war and if it is used well it can be a powerful ingredient in the antidote to war.

    In a way, if an individual assumes the risk of placing himself in the middle of a war in order to communicate to the rest of the world what is happening, he is trying to negotiate for peace. Perhaps that is the reason why those in charge of perpetuating a war do not like to have photographers around.

    It has occurred to me that if everyone could be there just once to see for themselves what white phosphorous does to the face of a child or what unspeakable pain is caused by the impact of a single bullet or how a jagged piece of shrapnel can rip someone’s leg off – if everyone could be there to see for themselves the fear and the grief, just one time, then they would understand that nothing is worth letting things get to the point where that happens to even one person, let alone thousands.

    But everyone cannot be there, and that is why photographers go there – to show them, to reach out and grab them and make them stop what they are doing and pay attention to what is going on – to create pictures powerful enough to overcome the diluting effects of the mass media and shake people out of their indifference – to protest and by the strength of that protest to make others protest.

    The worst thing is to feel that as a photographer I am benefiting from someone else’s tragedy. This idea haunts me. It is something I have to reckon with every day because I know that if I ever allow genuine compassion to be overtaken by personal ambition I will have sold my soul. The stakes are simply too high for me to believe otherwise.

    I attempt to become as totally responsible to the subject as I possibly can. The act of being an outsider aiming a camera can be a violation of humanity. The only way I can justify my role is to have respect for the other person’s predicament. The extend to which I do that is the extent to which I become accepted by the other, and to that extent I can accept myself.

  25. Gary Taylor Says:
    October 19th, 2009 at 6:36 pm

    We must look at it. We’re required to look at it, We’re required to do what we can about it. If we don’t, who will?

  26. Danfung Dennis Says:
    October 20th, 2009 at 1:41 am

    Thank you for your interest and comments.

    In response to Antoine and Chris, I agree with you about the music. The composer I had originally hired did not meet my expectations, so I had to use generic temp music which I think is over the top. I am, however, trying to bring a cinematic look and sound to documentary to reach and engage the widest possible audience about the realities of the war in Afghanistan.

    Bela and Patrick, I chose to use the 5D II because I am primarily a stills photographer, so the camera allows me to switch between the two mediums seamlessly. Also, the excellent image quality and low light capabilities give me the aesthetic freedom that no traditional video camera can provide. The small size of the camera also allows it to be mounted on a hand held steadicam. I choose the Glidecam because it seemed more robust and could hold more weight than the Merlin.

    Brian and Reinhard, the documentary will primarily be conversations between US Marines and Afghan villagers- an on the ground perspective that will give voice to ordinary Afghans that are caught in the crossfire. They complain of civilian casualties and intrusive raids that disrespect Pashtun culture. If the US does not show these same people that they are their to help and show tangible progress within the next 12 months, the war will become unwinnable. I invite you to watch the whole documentary as I believe there is no other outlet that will show the realities on frontline in Afghanistan as this film will.

    Gary, thanks for your posts. James Nachtwey’s book “Inferno” was what inspired be to get into photojournalism. As in Northern Ireland, it’s hard to win the support of the people when wearing heavy body armor.

  27. Bela Says:
    October 20th, 2009 at 8:32 am

    “… the documentary will primarily be conversations between US Marines and Afghan villagers.

    MY RELATED QUESTION: Danfung, have you ever considered that the Afghan villagers do not want to have “conversations” with the American, British, or any other occupying forces soldier. In fact, they probably don’t even want to look at them anymore.

    Pretty soon, they would probably like to have their own country back, thank you very much. Now, can everybody please, please go home already?

    “…within the next 12 months, the war will become unwinnable.”

    MY INSTANT CORRECTION: The “war,” if you can call it that even, has been already LOST as far as the US, Britain, and their NATO allies is concerned, and lost some time ago. Problem is, news of this spectacular deafeat had not yet reached Washington and NATO HQ near Brussels.

    In Washington, you have the curious case of having a new President who apparently still thinks that the “other guy” is srill in office. And that therefore, he’s got plenty of time yet to figure out a new “strategy.” Which is why he is doing squat, the best I can figure.

    I agree with you though that having usable nighttime and low-light video images, nothing beats that giant-sensor EOS 5D2. Only if it did not do that ridiculous downsampling and line-skipping business in video mode, hmmm?

  28. dunner000 Says:
    April 15th, 2010 at 6:54 pm

    Danfung, holy shit dude, that is absolutely incredible. You’ve got some serious balls being there. But beyond that, you got some amazing footage and the story is there. Holy freakin shcnikeys, I can’t wait to see the documentary. Thanks for sharing all your gear ideas and workflow procedures.
    Thanks very much, awesome stuff

  29. wholesale review Says:
    October 27th, 2010 at 8:30 pm

    Its a trailer for a documentary. Try waiting til you’ve seen the full doc before passing comment on the journalism.

  30. FCMedea Says:
    May 6th, 2012 at 9:46 am

    Can you tell me which picture style was used in Hell and Back Again? Technicolor Cine, Neutral??

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