Past Image Photography

World War II Photography

World War II photography

Modern cameras are loaded with features such as automatic focusing, in-built exposure meters and of course now use digital media instead of film.


I wanted to explore what it was like to take photographs of events using the type of cameras that would have been available at the time.   The British mainly recorded WW2 in Black and White as colour film was in limited supply and tended to be reserved for newsreels.  Cameras themselves were in short supply and the government urged the population to hand in good quality cameras such as Leicas, Contax and the Zeiss Super Ikonta so that they could be transferred to the military. Click HERE for a description of cameras used by the Allies during WWII.

The Army Film and Photographic Unit (AFPU) was founded in 1942.  The stills photographers were normally issued with Zeiss Super Ikonta (532/16, 530/16 or 531/2 models), initially from a shipment seized in Turkey.  This was a slow and awkward folding camera, using 120mm medium format film.  It was generally disliked by the photographers. The AFPU Manual also includes instructions for the Rollieflex, to be used for more staged shots and also the US Kodak Medallist I - a heavy and ugly camera using 620 size medium format film. The Medalist was described as suitable only for the more experienced photographer and was used for colour photography. At a more simple level of photography The AFPU manual also includes instructions for the basic model of the Voightlanda Bessa which did not even have a rangefinder. Distance had to be estimated and set by a focussing ring on the lens.


Use of 35 mm cameras by the British was rare, although Bert Hardy, well-known photographer for Picture Post before his recruitment into AFPU managed to use his existing Contax II camera (and Rollieflex) - although the War Office refused to pay for their repair! Somewhart ironically, AFPU instructors at Pinewood trained  photographers of the 30 Assault Unit  to use Contax II cameras prior to D Day. Civilian photographers acredited to magazines were more likely to use the 35mm format, with the Contax II preferred as being more rugged and easier to load than its main rival, the Leica III. Most famously, Robert Capa and Lee Miller both used the Contax II (as well as a medium format Rollei) whilst the British Life photographer, George Rodger used a Leica.


The standard press camera of the 1930s was the Speed Graphic - a 5" x 4" large format camera. The Speed Graphic Anniversary model is  frequently shown in publicity shots of the Canadian Photographic Unit. Although unwieldy, the US produced a military version which was used to take the famous photo of the raising of the US flag at Iwo Jima.


The combat cameramen who went into battle armed only with their cameras and a .38 pistol.  deserve the greatest respect. There are extraordinary stories of sergeant cameramen calmly cleaning and re-loading their camera on the beaches of Normandy, riding into action exposed on the backs of tanks, and taking part in commando landings in Greece.  They also recorded for posterity the first horrific scenes as the Nazi concentration camps were liberated. They produced some of the most iconic images of World War II and yet are rarely credited.


To see a collection of their original photographs go onto the Imperial War Museum web site and explore their online photographic collections, searching under the key word Army Film and Photographic Unit or AFPU.


See also Photography in the Spanish Civil War.




Autobiographies of AFPU servicemen

Grant, Ian, Cameramen at War, Cambridge, 1980.

Hardy, Bert, My Life,  London, 1985.

Hopkinson, Peter, Split Focus, London, 1969.

Whicker, Alan, Whicker’s War, London, 2006.


Other works relating to the AFPU

Gladstone, Kay, The AFPU – The origins of British Army combat filming during the Second World War, Film History, vol.14, no. 3.4, 2002, pp.316-331.

Haggith, Toby, 'D-Day Filming - For Real. A comparison of 'Truth' and 'Reality'in Saving Private Ryan and Combat Film by the British Army's Film and Photographic Unit, Film History, Vol. 14, No.3.4, 2002, pp. 332-353.

Haggith, Toby, 'Filming the Liberation of Bergen-Belsen, in Holocaust and the Moving Image, ed. Toby Haggith and Joanna Newman, London, 2005, pp.33-49.

Hartwell, Keith, Ink and Image,  2008.

Sumner, Dawn, 'The work of the AFPU Re-evaluated: Forgotten Heroes, British Journal of Photography, March 2003, pp. 22-24.

'Birth of a War Picture', Illustrated, 28 June 1942, pp.9-13.



Capa, Robert, Slightly Out Of Focus,  2001.

Penrose, Anthony (ed.), Lee Miller’s War, London, 2005.

Whelan, Richard,  Robert Capa: the definitive collection, London, 2004.

Vaccaro, Tony, Entering Germany 1944-49, Cologne, 2001.


Website links

Two excellent sites by re-enactos who depict the AFPU, containing much information on the history of the unit.


Jeff Ball and Gary Hughes

Stuart Williams,


Malcolm Atkin