4 Principles of Photography Marksmanship

Marksmen use a handful of fundamental principles to take aim, fire and hit their target.  Many of these same principles can also be applied by other kinds of shooters – photographers.

When marksmen fail to abide by those principles, they may miss the bulls-eye.  When photographers fail to follow them, they may end up with a blurry photo.

Photographers need to hold the camera still in order to prevent blur as a result of camera shake.

The general rule of thumb is to use the reciprocal of your focal length as a minimum shutter speed. For instance, if you are using a 200mm lens, your minimum shutter speed should be 1/200 of a second. (Note that image stabilization systems and “crop factors” can change this generality a bit.)

Your mileage may vary from this rule of thumb; but, here’s four principles to help you make the best of your shutter speed for less blur in your photos.

1. Grip and Hold

Your position and hold of the camera must be firm and enough to support the camera.  In most cases, you want to support the camera with two hands.  The right hand goes on the camera grip.  The left hand cups the bottom of the camera where the lens and camera join.   Tuck your elbows in and use your body as a brace.

With handguns, marksmen us a push/pull technique.  The right hand pushes the gun forward, while the left hand pulls the gun back, thus creating a more steady hold.  This technique can be somewhat replicated by pulling the camera slightly into your face and using the portion of your forehead above your eye as a third contact point.

2. Stance

Your stance should be stable.  If standing up, stay upright.  Don’t bend your back.

Marksmen are taught to stand in a variety of positions; however, one of the prevailing positions nowadays is a boxer’s stance, or a 45-degree stance.  This creates stability.

Right-handers stand with their left foot forward with the toes pointing toward their target.  The right foot is back and pointing in the same general direction, but a little more open to the stance.  The knees are not locked, but slightly bent.

Going low?  Kneel instead of squatting.  Kneeling gives you a solid foundation, as opposed to a rather wobbly stance when squatting.  A couple of kneeling variations are leaving one foot on the ground and resting the elbow on the upright knee.  With two knees on the ground, consider sitting back with your butt on your heels.  There are several variations of the kneeling stance; however, the key is to remember to find a solid base and shoot from there.

3.  Shutter Release

Use the pad of your index finger to rest on the shutter. Apply enough pressure to activate the shutter, but don’t get carried away.  If you squeeze the camera with your right hand too hard while you press the shutter, then you can actually twist the camera a bit and create some blur in your image.

4. Breath Control

You don’t need to hold your breath, but you do need to control your breathing.  If the moment permits, you should release the shutter at a resting point in your breathing cycle.  During inhaling and exhaling, your body experiences more natural movement than the moments in between.  Take the shot after exhaling, when the body is at its most natural still point.

Final Thoughts

Focus on being stable, smooth and still.  Craft your own position for what works for you in order to produce the most keepers in low light or when shutter speed otherwise requires.

Do you have other practical tips for staying stable?  Feel free to share them in the comments below.  We’d love to hear from you.



  1. forkboy1965 says

    Funny….I hadn’t really thought about it, but I’ve been practicing some of these techniques all along.

    I used to enjoy target shooting with my Colt .22 target pistol and techniques I learned there had naturally segued to photography, especially the part about breathing.

    Never really thought about it until now though.

  2. says

    It goes both ways…I found that after I was drafted into the Taiwanese army, my photography skills allowed me to get top riflemanship scores. Same principles.

  3. says

    I do that a lot, as my camera has poor low light performance, so i have to do all that just to get the shot at lower shutter speed :P

  4. Roderick says

    Hmmm, I found that these principles have helped with my basketball skills. I don’t dribble so much now.

  5. says

    I really dislike the analogy between someone wielding a gun and someone using a camera. It’s already too much that the camera is considered a weapon by freedom-suppressing authorities around the world, we don’t need it compared to a gun. And I was rather disgusted by your gun pointing in my face.


  6. Johan says

    Very nice advice. I want to add that it is often possible to lean against a wall, a car or something else and thus achieve
    even greater support.
    Leaning the camera on objects in the area will also add stability.
    There is always something you can use. learn to see what you can use.

  7. Luther Bolen says

    I was on an army pistol team for a few years, and I think that must have
    had something to do with the lack of blurred shots with my cameras—-

  8. Leo says

    Quote [The general rule of thumb is to use the reciprocal of your focal length as a minimum shutter speed. For instance, if you are using a 200mm lens, your minimum shutter speed should be 1/200 of a second. (Note that image stabilization systems and “crop factors” can change this generality a bit.)]
    “crop factors” have no influenze what so ever. An 200 mm lens has the same distance to the sensor on a full frame sensor as on a crop sensor and the distance is the only factor that makes that general rule of thumb. It is an common mistake to think that your 200 mm lens changes when there is a crop sensor involved. The thing that is different is the covering, wich gives you more covering on a bigger sensor. Another difference has to do with Depth of Field (DOF). The acceptable DOF produced by a lens relates to the actual focal length, aperture setting, subject distance, circle of confusion and sensor size.

    • says

      @Leo – I’m going to disagree with you on this one. There’s no doubt that the lens is the same lens whether it’s on a full frame or crop body; however, any camera-shake blur is magnified because of the increased “crop.” The same would be true if you cropped the full frame image in post-processing – you would be magnifying any blur in the image.

      As a result, it is a sound practice to choose a reciprocal of your “effective” focal length on a crop body as your minimum shutter speed. On the Canon 7D with a 200mm lens, the rule of thumb would be minimum of 1/320s. In practice, I can tell a difference when using crop-bodies vs. full frame bodies.

      Taken a step further, the same is true on point and shoot cameras that can have an “effective” focal length that is 6x or 7x of the attached lens due to the tiny sensors. While it’s not quite 6x, the Fuji S1500 has a true focal length of 5.9-70.8mm, which is equivalent to the field of view of 33-396mm on a full frame camera. When zoomed out to 70mm, the minimum shutter speed should be 1/400s rather than 1/70s (without taking image stabilization into account). It would not make sense (or sharp images) to try to shoot at 1/70s on the long end of the S1500’s zoom. This example of the S1500 demonstrates the same principles for applying a “effective” focal length reciprocal to a DSLR with a crop sensor body.