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Shooting digital in Iraq - Continued

A typical work day during Lowy's last stint in Iraq, in January, would begin with a planning session over breakfast. Lowy says he generally prefers to shoot in the company of at least one other photographer, often fellow Corbis shooter Jehad Nga, and the two would hash out a rough plan of action each morning. "A lot of [photographers] travel alone," Lowy says. "I like being alone. But I also like traveling with one person who I really trust, who I know shoots completely differently than me, but intellectually we are compatible, and we don't get in each other's way."

To get around in Iraq, Lowy used an SUV owned by an Iraqi driver with whom he had worked for many months. The driver also helped Lowy to communicate with Iraqi citizens and officials. "I speak a little Arabic," the photographer says. "Jehad speaks a little Arabic. Our driver spoke a little English. So it worked out."

Self-protection was, of course, an ever-present issue, especially when he travelled with U.S. soldiers where the probability of encountering violence was much higher. "I have a bulletproof vest," Lowy says. "I also have a helmet, which I don't really wear. I can't see what's going on around me with that helmet. It bangs into my camera. So I made the decision not to use it. But I do wear the vest when I'm with U.S. soldiers."

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During a scorching July day in Iraq, US soldier Steve Everitt of the 32nd Field Artillery Regiment and Achmed (not shown), an Iraqi pool boy and food vendor, compete in a diving contest in the late Uday Hussein's palace pool. (Photo by Ben Lowy/Corbis)

Lowy transported his gear in a large Domke bag but doesn't use a bag when he's actually shooting. He generally works with the 14mm and 85mm lenses on his two D1X bodies and carries his 20mm and 50mm lenses in Domke belt pouches or a fanny pack he bought at The Gap. Lowy used Sandisk and Lexar 32X 1GB CompactFlash cards in Iraq, and generally took six with him into the field each day. He carried them in a velcro CF-card wallet. When he filled a card with images he would put it back in the wallet upside-down to differentiate it from empty cards.

The 80-200mm stayed in the car where it was available if needed, along with the iPod and a Belkin Media Reader accessory that lets you download a CF card directly to the iPod. Lowy says this latter setup was there for emergencies only. He found the card reader too slow, and the process too hard on the iPod's battery, to use for regularly off-loading images during a shooting day. He rattles off a list of other necessities: "Flash, notebook, pens, power bars, beef jerky. That's key. Beef jerky is key."

"My images are pretty contrasty and very warm," Lowy says. "I shoot primarily with my white balance on [Shade]." He prefers shooting at ISO 125, of course, but will go as high as ISO 400 if necessary, though he can't remember doing so in Iraq. His other typical shooting parameters include Color Mode 1 (sRGB) and both tone compensation and sharpening set to high. He uses sRGB, Lowy says, because it has "good blues, and the greens look better to me."

All of the work that he shot for Time was captured in JPEG format. For his Fortune assignment, which had no daily deadlines, Lowy shot in RAW (.NEF) file format.

At the end of a shooting day, Lowy downloaded images to his iBook using a Sandisk FireWire card reader or, sometimes, just a FireWire cable between his iBook and the D1X. He used Camera Bits Photo Mechanic v3.2.4 to view his take and give each image a basic caption, including date, location, and general description of the event or action. He added a more detailed content caption to the selects from each day.

Lowy used Adobe's Camera Raw plug-in inside Photoshop CS to convert the RAW images he shot for Fortune. He also used Photoshop to crop his selects and make curves adjustments where necessary. He then saved edited images as low-compression JPEGs for transmission.

The transmission was done one of two ways. For the January trip, Lowy was staying at a rented house in Baghdad with a group of other journalists. The house had a DSL connection and a WiFi network, so Lowy could easily transmit images in the evenings.

For breaking news, however -- and all through his original assignment for Time -- Lowy transmitted photos using a satellite IP modem from Inmarsat known as the Regional BGAN. The device is about the size of a laptop, weighs roughly 3.5 lbs., and transmits data at two to three times the speed of a dial-up modem. The BGAN system's coverage area stretches from Western Europe across the northern half of Africa through the Middle East to the Indian sub-continent.

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Iraqi children from the poverty-stricken town of Mamoodiah play on a rusting ferris wheel as evening overtakes Iraq. (Photo by Ben Lowy/Corbis)

Lowy connected the BGAN to his iBook via an Ethernet port, and it's controlled by a simple Java applet. When necessary, he could power it in the field using a DC to AC automobile power inverter. The BGAN establishes a standard internet connection and supports web browsing, e-mail, FTP file transfer, and Virtual Private Networks.

"I have to say the whole [BGAN] transmitting process is really simple," Lowy says. "You just hook that thing up, point it southwest with a 50 or 60 degree tilt, and you're connected. It takes seconds."

After processing and transmitting images, Lowy's final task each night was to copy the day's entire take from the iBook to the FireLite hard drive and then again to the iPod. He also kept a copy of all his selects for each day on the iBook's hard drive. "So I have the selects in three different places, and the raw take in two places," he explains. He did not burn CDs or DVDs.

He's also decided not to burn optical disks for his long-term archive back in the U.S. "I just buy hard drives," Lowy says. "I usually buy two 250GB LaCie hard drives, and I put my take on both of them. And I leave one at Corbis and one at home. And that's my archive."

In sharp contrast to conditions in Iraq when we spoke to Lowy in April, January was the safest month he ever spent there, the photographer says. "You're usually distinguishable as a journalist, and I never had any problems. But that was before these past couple of weeks," said Lowy.

"I try not to look like a soldier," he continues. "I have my cameras. I grow a full beard. I grow my hair out. I bought one of those white, knit [skullcaps] that many Muslims wear. I don't carry my passport. I don't carry my wallet. I carry cash, and that's it. You can sense tension. I mean, if you go into certain neighborhoods you know there's going to be a problem. That's why I always have my driver check, talk to people he knows, go meet people on the street. I had a couple of angry crowds saying things like 'they're spies, kill the journalist' and [other Iraqis in the crowd] would yell at them 'shut up'."

Lowy says he never felt like he was in a life-threatening situation, but he was in Kuwait's Camp Pennsylvania when an American soldier set off several grenades in a fratricide attack. "The [soldier] sleeping next to me got hit by shrapnel," he says. "And I was shot at by a looter [in Bagdhad]. That sucked." But overall he seldom had what he considers close calls. "I'm glad about that. I don't think you need close calls to make you better."

Though his desire to return to Iraq was strong when we spoke to Lowy in April, he was under no illusions about how things had changed since January. "Three friends that I have there, who are Corbis photographers, are leaving. They've just had enough. Jehad is going back on Monday. It's really hard. A lot of people aren't going out [in the field]. And I think the photographers are now doing a lot of the legwork because the writers aren't going out at all."

But the risk is part of the draw for him, Lowy admits, and he thinks that draw is powerful enough that he will make a career of shooting war. "There is a certain attraction to doing conflict photography," he says. "I think anybody who says there isn't, doesn't really look at themselves. You're your own personal Arnold Schwarzenegger. You get to run headlong into danger. And there's something really attractive about that. But you also have a tremendous priviledge to be witnessing history for everyone else in the world."

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(Photo by Ben Lowy/Corbis)

"I'd like to get into more social issue stuff. I'd like to do war, but I'd like to do it in a less spot newsy way. More about how people live through it. A lot of people interviewed me during the war, and I said I wasn't sure [that I wanted to continue with conflict photography]. But I think I just wasn't in touch with myself. Yeah. I'm definitely going to continue."

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