Camera Shutter Release Technique Is Like Shooting A Gun

When I was in the U.S. Army I was an expert with my M16 rifle and Beretta M9 pistol, plus I earned a German Schutzenschnur, shooting expert medal in bronze from the German Army in Koblenz, Germany. No, this isn’t an article about the pros or cons of gun ownership or joining the military during these troubling times, this is an article on how you can take military techniques and apply it to improve your photography as I did when it came to shooting a weapon.

Military Helo Sling Operations Photo

The military and their techniques are based on tough discipline, doing what your’e supposed to be doing when no one is watching.

The BRASS Military Technique

In all the years that I’ve taught photography workshops and even supervised a team of photographers, if there is one thing I’ve seen at one time or another is a photographer jerking their camera while shooting. While I’ve seen the intentional jerking of a camera for special effects, most jerking takes place during the release of the camera’s shutter and the photographer doesn’t even realize they are doing it and only see its effect after downloading the image.

This type of jerking during the release of the camera shutter leads to images that can look blurry, or un-sharp, but it’s easily corrected using the same method used to fire a weapon that I learned when I was an active-duty soldier. Basically the technique that will eliminate or reduce camera jerking is used in the military to ensure accuracy when firing a weapon and it’s called BRASS.

The acronym stands for Breathe, Relax, Aim, Sight, and Squeeze, a term soldiers first learn during the basic marksmanship weapons training section of basic training. The breathe part works in tandem with the relax part. Simply focus on a being relaxed during your shooting, then release the camera shutter button between breaths, not during the inhale or exhale portions of breathing. You learn to control your breathing to improve your shooting skills as seen in the movie American Sniper.

Basically before you can release the camera shutter, you must first aim, or in the instance of photography identify what you’re going to photograph, then you sight, or in photography compose your image frame, and after you exhale, release your camera shutter. Practice this over time and before you know it, it will become a natural way of depressing your camera shutter release button.

Ok, for the skeptics out there, yes, this is difficult if you’re shooting sports or trying to capture something at the exact moment, but in a more controlled environment, like the photography studio where you can take your time, use this technique, it works! Over time you will naturally learn how to control your breathing, even when shooting sports as I did when I covered the San Antonio Spurs for five years with NBA credentials.

Finger tips count too. In the military we’re trained to use the finger tip when pulling the trigger, as this also helps eliminate any jerking along with keeping your actual pulse beat of your blood flow away from the trigger—it’s about reducing any type of vibrations from your body. Vibrations do cause for loss of sharpness in cameras as outlined in my articles about Mirrorless Camers vs. DSLRs.

The Scan Your Sector Military Technique

Another technique used in the military during weapons training is to “scan your sector,” or “scan your lanes.” Basically this is to ensure the area you’re assigned to watch is covered, not just one specific spot in that area. Normally a soldier is told their area of responsibility to observe for enemy targets and given left plus right end points. Obviously in photography we’re not looking for the enemy, we’re looking for the best angle of view, but the reason I like this term, is that it teaches you to look at what you see in a given area, beyond an obvious point.

As an example, let’s pretend you have a nice landmark and a human subject; the obvious is to place your subject next to the landmark—especially if you’re on a vacation. By scanning your sector you might find a nice set of steps that can create leading lines to your subject, then in the background, perhaps in a juxtaposition method, include the landmark. Sometimes the obvious, in this case the landmark, prevents us from seeing what is really out there that can provide a more interesting photograph. The rule here is to learn to “see” by scanning your lanes, or sector. Look for slivers of interesting light too, not just objects.

Military Archive Photo

Military photographers have been around for a long time as seen in this photo from the National Archives, circa 1916.

The Ends, Ways and Means Military Technique

The ends, ways, and means taught in the military is a strategic technique whereas the ends is a strategic outcome you are after through the ways and means. The ways are the methods, practices and strategies to arrive at the ends while the means are your resources, or in the case of the military, troops, weapons, budgets, politics and time. The whole equation, Ends = Ways + Means, is about balance of your needs with your resources. What are you willing to sacrifice and at what costs to get what you want is the approach.

When analogized to photography the ends is the final photograph you are trying to achieve and the ways is the how to achieve that result, whether it’s the correct exposure through the proper selection of aperture and shutter speed for that specific capture, all the way through your lens choice, white-balance, and even ISO selection. The means is your photography equipment plus the location needed to achieve the ends you’re after.

The Drill Sergeant Military Technique

The drill sergeant technique is really just called the “repetition technique” but the first taste of it is while attending Basic Training where drill sergeants are “drilling” what they are teaching you in your head and they do this by repetition and the use of the Pavlov Theory, or respondent conditioning. Basically if you do something wrong you are punished, usually with pushups in the military, and if you do something right you are rewarded, like a shooters badge for your uniform when you qualify for marksman, sharpshooter or expert in weapons training.

This is one of the fastest ways to learn forward and improve an outcome. The same is possible in photography. Enter a photo contest, if you’re on top of your game chances are you’ll be rewarded—if not, then that is a sign that you need more repetition, or practice, and practice makes perfect or close to it. Just don’t think of practice as punishment. Bottom line, you learn, improve, and stay proficient by practicing your craft. The rewards also come with acceptance of your photography by your client and your intended audience.

Mission Essential Task List aka METL

A mission essential task list, also referred to as METL, “is usually a short numbered list of generic task statements. Some tasks may be broken down into separate types of tasks.” Basically it’s a comprehensive short list of tasks used to complete a mission. While METL is more wartime oriented, in photography we can use this concept to reach our photographic goals and become better photographers.

For example, a METL for a photographer may go like this:

  • Comprehension: Understand the basics, fundamentals and principles of photography including understanding my equipment thoroughly plus what it takes to make a great photograph through proper exposure, composition, and execution.
  • Communication: Understand that ability to communicate with my subject and intended audience.
  • Creativity: Understand that not everyone is born with a creative eye, but that it takes creativity to achieve a great photo, so if I lack it, I will improve on it.

Thought this is the first time I’ve expressed the use of METL in photography, I’ve actually written about “The Three C’s of Being a Great Photographer” in several of my photography books. Take a good look at one of those C’s and if you’re lacking in anyone of them, then it’s up to you to improve upon it, and in the military, they call that act discipline—doing what you’re supposed to be doing when no one is watching.

We also invite you to join us for one of our photography adventures or photography workshops where I share many tips, tricks and techniques to help improve your photography, hands-on. The end result isn’t about winning a battle, it’s about establishing your photographic style and practicing good photography habits to achieve great photographs, not just mediocre photos.

And with that I close and hope you’ve enjoyed these military technique analogies. I ask that you share them with others to help us keep growing Americano Dream and not to forget the men and women in uniform who proudly serve to protect our nation—God Bless them, their families and friends, Rolando

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