The importance of shot discipline

I’m going to start by defining shot discipline. There are two aspects: timing and technique.

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Miss it, and the moment is gone. Procession, Nepal. Nikon D700, 24/1.4

Part one: Timing

Imagine having a revolver, and say four enemies that are going to come towards you in a short space of time – too short for you to reload. You’ve got six shots. If you’re good, you’ll only need four; if you miss three times, you’re screwed. How is this relevant to photography? What part of the workflow is limited to just a few shots? Your buffer, especially during fast paced action. (Why do you think pro cameras have huge buffers? Insurance.) Anticipation and waiting for the critical moment – that peak in action when everything comes together – is very important; more so if your camera doesn’t have a motor drive or a huge buffer.

The revolver analogy is a good one. I’d compare a D3/D4 class camera to a machine gun with a telescopic sight: it’s complicated, but you can spray and pray indefinitely and probably get something good – even if you have no skill or experience whatsoever, simply by the sheer weight of statistics. (If you take a thousand photographs, one or two will probably be okay – similarly, aim in the right general direction and you’ll probably hit the target once or twice). In experienced hands, it’s impossible NOT to get the shot.

Honestly, I found shooting with the D3 too easy. Same goes for the D700. The M9-P, on the other hand, is a completely different beast. It’s like a Magnum .44 or a Desert Eagle 50 Cal; utterly useless to a beginner, but a fantastic tool if you know how to use it. But, you pretty much only get six RAW shots when the barrel is hot. See why timing is important while shooting action?

Do I find it limiting? Yes, but only if I’m not paying attention. And guess what: that was the simple part to shot discipline.

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Spot the Himalayas. Would more resolution be better? Actually no, it wouldn’t have made a difference. The scene itself was resolution-limited by atmospheric mist. Nikon D700, 85/1.4 G

Part two: Technique

The higher the pixel density of your camera, the more technique matters. For a fixed sensor size, small movement on a low-resolution camera matters less than on a high resolution one. Let’s say camera A has 4MP, and camera B has 16MP – that’s double the resolution, not quadruple (2x in each linear axis). If you move by a factor of half a pixel on camera A, the image is still pretty much aligned with the original pixel it was focused on; your edges might be a bit blur, but you could probably use unsharp masking to fix the perceived acuity. If you move by the same factor on camera B, you’re going to be out by a whole pixel. And that’s not fixable by unsharp masking. Increase the resolution further, and the effect is compounded. Those original 2.7MP APSC cameras were pretty forgiving, actually. The 24MP APSC ones will not be.

Technique actually covers several things.

1. Stability. This is the biggest one. If you don’t move, then your edges will stay where you focused them on the sensor plane. All will be sharp. So how do we achieve this? Several ways – the easiest is a sturdy tripod. Good shutter tripping technique – roll gently, don’t jab. And the last way is to reduce apparent movement by maintaining a high shutter speed, either by cranking the ISO, using faster lenses, or using a flash.

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mmm, lenses.

2. Lenses. Good lenses have better resolving power, right? Yes, but these days, the difference is mostly visible only when shot at maximum aperture. By f8 or f11, most lenses are capable of resolving identically to near as enough makes no difference at the sensor plane. And certainly not enough to be noticed in a moderately-sized print. Having said that, test your lenses carefully to determine what the optimal aperture is, and by what point resolution is ‘acceptable’. Look at the corners. It’s pretty important to do this before buying too, to avoid any issues or inconvenience later on. Just one of the reasons I’m still happy to go to a real retail store to buy stuff; I want to make sure the lens I’m going to use is going to perform the way I expect it.

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Speake-Marin Immortal Dragon. The eternal fight between more DoF and diffraction limits. I cheated a little by using a wider focal length, which has more DOF for a given aperture. Nikon D700, Zeiss ZM 2.8/28 Biogon

3. Watch out for diffraction. Although all lenses have an optimal aperture, the smaller the pixels, the closer the diffraction limit will be to wide open. Most compact cameras – especially the 1/2.33″ kind – will resolve optimally wide open, and be noticeably softer if set to f5.6 or f8. (This is one reason most manufacturers use a switchable ND filter rather than a real aperture; also on a sensor that small, everything is in focus all the time.) For instance: I can use f45 to shoot macros on the 4.1MP D2H without noticing any diffraction softening; however, by f27 on the D700, I’m seeing a noticeable reduction in acuity. That limit becomes f16 on the 16MP APS-C cameras, and I suspect as low as f11 on 24MP APS-C. F8 is as far as I’d go with any lens on Micro Four Thirds.

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Missed focus in either direction would turn this from a keeper into junk. Nikon D700, Zeiss ZF 1.4/85 Planar – manual focus

4. Focusing. If you’re shooting a rangefinder, make sure the RF is properly calibrated for the lenses you normally use. Be aware of focus shift with aperture stop down. If you’re shooting an SLR, make sure your AF system is properly calibrated, especially for wide open lenses; use the AF fine tune function if you’ve got one. Shoot live view, wide open, manual focus and magnified to determine what the absolute best result you can obtain is, and then adjust your AF system until you achieve that consistently. AF accuracy matters most when shooting wide open – sadly these days SLR focus screens are optimized for brightness rather than focusing snap, which means it’s much harder to see when something is in focus or not. (Camera makers want to sell you the latest AF lenses, so they discourage you from focusing yourself.) It isn’t helped either by tiny viewfinders. If you’re going to use your SLR manual-focus, it’s worth adjusting your mirror zero position and focus screen shimming to ensure that what you see in the finder does in fact match what the sensor sees. And a coarser matte split prism or micro prism screen helps immensely, too. Don’t try to do this yourself, however – it’s difficult and there are a lot of fragile, easily scratched components inside the finder which can be irreparably damaged if you don’t know what you’re doing.

5. Maintenance. This also covers several things: make sure your lenses and mounts are clean, for one. Clean lenses are obvious. Clean mounts, less so: a little bit of misalignment between the lens/ mount/ sensor combination can cause noticeable softness on one side of the image. It mattered less in the days of film because the ‘sensor’ plane had some thickness to it; you could be off by a bit and the image would still be focused on the emulsion. A digital sensor is a perfectly flat single plane, with no forgiveness in the front-back direction.

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A good example of condition-induced limits. Paris. Leica M8, 21/1.4 ASPH

Bottom line: if you don’t think you can handle that many pixels, shoot in a binned and downsized raw mode, or get a camera with fewer pixels. You’ll save yourself the hassle of handling enormous files, too. I know that under certain conditions – photojournalism and street, for example – it’s extremely unlikely that I’ll be able to fully achieve more than 12MP of resolution on a full frame camera. This isn’t because I’ve got poor technique, but simply because there are restrictions put on you by the shooting conditions – for instance, being jostled by people; having to shoot in extremely dark environments at high ISO; using a MF rangefinder with wide open shallow-DOF lenses on a moving subject. The list of excuses goes on. Bottom line: I know I’m the weak link in the imaging process here; I’ll try to improve, but I also recognize my limits and won’t fall into the trap of thinking more MP will make for a better image. It won’t. In the studio however, that’s a totally different matter. MT


  1. Dear Ming,

    As this is my first comment let me express my gratitude for the wealth of information that you are sharing with your readers. Also I have purchased one of your videos and found it very useful.

    I would like to comment on your point 4: Focusing and relate my experience on the subject. I have used for some time now two AF cameras, a Canon 6D and a Canon 100D. Not knowing anything else I was happy with them until one day out of curiosity I purchased a film camera, an Olympus OM-2 n. It came as a revelation, or more appropriately as a shock, how easy and pleasant manual focus is, thanks to the bright and large viewfinder of the Olympus, compared to the limitations of the Canon’s autofocus systems. As you pointed out, a split-screen focusing screen helps tremendously, and I should add is also extremely precise. It is slower, as a matter of fact everything is slower on a manual focus film SLR, but in that case slow is good. Another focusing aid that I find important which I don’t think you mentioned in your article, is the depth-of-field preview button. Here again, I understood its use thanks to 40-years old technology. On the Canons, if you press the DoF button, it just gets darker and not much else. On the Olympus, it is obvious what will be in focus and what won’t be. I will not pretend that this alone, or anything for that matter, makes a better photographer out of me, but at least I feel in charge. As for manual focusing with these AF cameras, it just doesn’t work.

    As a result, I am now working more and more with film, not so much because of the film as a medium, but because the camera experience is so enjoyable. Since I am photographing not because it pays my bills but because I want to record my vision of the world, pleasure does make a difference. This experience will certainly influence my future choice of gear, as I will try to reproduce that practice in the digital world, but that is another topic.

    Thanks again.

  2. A. C. Dana says:

    It’s still hard to find settings recommendations for micro 4/3 cameras, so if you could remember to add them to your articles, it would be greatly appreciated.

  3. plevyadophy says:

    An excellent post, and I especially loved your gun analogy under the “Part one: Timing” section ( spray and pray machine gun -v- Magnum ) which I think is spot on and makes me think of the differences in the cameras I own and how it impacts on the ( varying ) level of concentration required to use the different devices.

    • Apply the Hassy V discipline to the X and you’ll probably see a big difference. I rarely spray these days, and only when I know there are simply too many variables to time (like on my last documentary assignment).

      • plevyadophy says:

        Hi Ming,

        Firstly, what do you regard as the threshold/tipping point, in terms of pixel density ( microns or pixels per mm ), at which point shot discipline has be more rigorous ( e.g. Going from shutter speeds of 1 x focal length to 2 x focal length )?

        Secondly, a few titbits:

        DPReview some time ago went from describing sensor pixel size solely in terms of microns to also describing pixel distribution as “pixels per mm”. I have long wondered whether this latter description is more useful.

        Leica guru Erwin Puts, once said that critical sharpness requires a shutter speed of at least around 1/200s on full frame.

        I had a strange/annoying/revealing experience some time ago. I was shooting/testing the old Canon 1D ( APS-H CCD, 4.1Mp, 11.5 microns, light AA filter, DSLR focal plane shutter and mirror with electronic first curtain kicking in at 1/250s ) and noticing how wonderfully sharp everything looked. I then shot the Sony R1 ( APS-C 1.7x CMOS, 10Mp, 5.49 micron pixel pitch, standard AA filter, in-lens shutter ) and nearly had a seizure coz images in comparison to the 1D looked so fuzzy that I thought the Sony R1 lens had become faulty ( in fact, so stark was the difference that I thought a lens element had come loose ). The funny thing was, that without the side-by-side testing I would never have noticed the “flaw” in the R1 because the images, when looked at in isolation, looked fine and the test scene is something I had been shooting for years. Anyway, after much angst and testing I recalled Erwin Puts’ advice and shot at much faster shutter speeds. Bingo! A marked improvement with any residual softness from the R1 I put down to the stronger AA filter that it has.

        I put this 1D -v- R1 experience down to two things: (1) although the R1 is a large-ish camera I suspected that it wasn’t large enough to dampen my hand tremor ( and that my hand tremor came about through complacency in that I regarded the camera as big so I was a little too sloppy in my hand holding technique; a puny camera would have made me have stability at the forefront of my mind ) and (2) given that I hadn’t made any particular effort to hold the Canon 1D better, the 1D’s vastly superior result was down to the lighter sensor AA filter and the camera’s huge body mass dampening any hand tremor. By the way, this side-by-side test shoot was done in daylight shooting buildings across the road from my home.

        I am now wondering whether the difference in the 1D -v- R1 performance was largely affected by the differences in pixel pitch too? Which brings us back nicely to my question at the beginning of this post.

        Thanks in advance.

        Warmest regards,

        • Pixel pitch (distance between adjacent microns) and pixels per mm is the same thing; one is the reciprocal of the other.

          Critical sharpness depends on pixel density and focal length; shake in absolute distance stays roughly the same, but increases in terms of percentage of the AOV as your FL increases and AOV contracts. You therefore need higher shutter speeds as your FL increases. I believe it’s roughy 1/2x-1/3x on the D800E from my experience. Thus, the same absolute amount of shake is less visible with wider lenses and larger pixel pitches (sharpness = shake is less than 1/2 pixel, so no edge blurring) and more visible with longer lenses and tighter pixel pitches.

          • plevyadophy says:

            In my 1D -v- R1 test I shot at roughly the same f.o.v. ( if my memory serves me correctly and I doubt I would do it any other way ).

            So as well as my suspicion re body mass and sloppy hand holding technique, do you think pixel density had a major part to play in the different sharpness results I got? By the way, what is the pixel pitch of the Nikon D800?

            • Definitely – many factors including body mass, shutter/ mirror design, hand holding technique etc. play into it beyond raw shutter speed and FOV alone.

              Pixel pitch of common sizes/resolutions is in this article. The D800E has 4.9 micron pixels.

              • plevyadophy says:

                Interesting that. 5.49 -v- 4.9 micron. So it seems that the R1 and the D800 pixel size are roughly in the same ball park. The irony of it is that because of its vastly superior image quality compared to other fixed lens cams of its generation, and body design, and not particularly high ISO ability combined with slow AF acquisition, many R1 fans fondly referred to it as a “mini Hasselblad”. Well, it now appears that, given its pixel pitch and need for faster shutter speeds than many of its users appreciated, there was another reason to think of it as a mini Hassy.

                And what I am getting from all of this is that now pretty much all digital cameras require the “2 x focal length” formula if they are not secured to a tripod or benefitting from a super duper Olympus-style image stabilisation system ( of course I am not considering moving subjects, which require fast shutter speeds no matter what the pixel pitch is ). Hmm, now I wonder; how would that affect sales of new cams if this need for faster shutter speeds or a tripod for everything was known to all potential camera buyers? 😉

                • Most buyers never scrutinise their images the way we do, and even if they did, I’m not sure they’d know what a technically good image should look like at 100%.

  4. Ming, Thanks for the reviews/articles I have enjoyed reading especially on the RX100/RX10. Regarding shot discipline, I am using a Sony RX10, would it be good to use a tripod just to establish some shot sharpness “reference” points even though I rarely use a tripod? Any other suggestions?

  5. Thanks again, Ming. Had a moment where I felt that everything became overwhelming: light, subject, balance, composition, PS, etc. Now shot discipline. but actually, shot discipline, I think, makes the process easier. There is something liberating in understanding the capacity – of the gear and the skill – and working within that understanding. I have a long plane ride ahead of me to go over all this before putting it all into practice once again. Happy Holidays!


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