Dry Firing

ParaOrdance P12 .45acp

Nikon D2h, Nikkor 85mm F1.4D @F14  14 secs  ISO 200


Analogies and Visualization

Anyone who has ever taken one of my workshops knows I'm big into analogies.  During the course of small talk I'll learn a bit about your background and other hobbies, and then as much as possible, but only as needed, will use analogies to help explain the more technical terms and theories of photography.  I do this because it works and it helps the client feel comfortable and did I mention it works?  Visualization is a powerful tool and analogies help us visualize.

What does that have to do with dry firing and just what the heck is dry firing anyway?  Any competitive or combat shooter will tell you dry firing is the process in which you take aim at a target, and while taking aim you slowly squeeze the trigger until it actually surprises you when the hammer falls.  But you do this without live ammo in the comfort of your living room, garage, or wherever is convenient.  Why would they do this?  Because dry firing isolates the process of releasing the trigger (pulling the trigger) from the often distracting other elements of shooting such as noise, recoil, and the resulting apprehension both of those can cause.  And it also teaches you to release the trigger as smoothly and with as little extraneous movement as possible.  Dry firing returns perhaps the biggest gain of any sort of practice or preparation.


Relating to Photography

Okay, so why is that important to me and how does it relate to photography?  This is a good question!  I wish it were possible, and many workshop students wish the same thing, that I could just 'tell' you how to properly hold the camera, release the shutter, and get tack sharp images every time.  Unfortunately this isn't the case.

Some things just take practice, and others take experience.  And no, practice and experience are not one and the same.  Practice is actually performing an action.  Experience is knowing when and how to perform the action.  Photography takes both practice and experience to obtain sharp images.


The Genesis of the Analogy

From the times my sons were 3-4 years old I'd take them on our shooting range (my home in Oregon had several marked and maintained shooting ranges) and helping them get comfortable in one of the classic shooting positions would speak softly in their ear "Brace solidly, push your arms into your chest/knees/ground firmly.  Place the front site on the targets center and focus on the front site, let the rear site go blurry.  Breath all the way in and release half your breath.  Slowly and steadily 'squeeze' (but don't pull or jerk) the trigger with the pad of your finger until the hammer falling and the shot firing surprises you."  At first this entire process takes a novice shooter perhaps 10 seconds.  An experienced shooter who has done this thousands of times mentally slows the process to a crawl and can complete the same action in just milliseconds, each step separate and liberate.  Total and complete control.


Teaching Matthew to shoot Rugar Mk II

Olympus C-5050  F4  1/400th  ISO 64


The analogy to photography is very much the same:

The focal length of the lens is analogous to the length of the barrel of the firearm, but reversed.  The shorter the barrel of a firearm the more difficult it "appears" to hold on target at longer distances.  With a camera the longer the focal length the more difficult it "appears" to hold on a subject at longer distances (and get clear pictures/hit the target).

The focal distance is analogous to shooting distance.  The more distant the target, or with photography the subject, the more difficult it is to hold on a subject at longer distances (and get clear pictures/hit the target).

There is no shutter speed in shooting, but the shorter the shutter speed the more difficult it is to get a clear picture.  And the necessary shutter speed for a clear picture changes with the focal length and focal distance.


Transferring the Analogy

During the course of a workshop a client might hear me softly reminding them: Brace solidly, pull your elbows into your chest, use that lamp post as a support, lean against that tree.

Look through the viewfinder and acquire your subject.  Look straight through the viewfinder until you don't notice you're looking through a camera and lens.

Breath in fully, and then let out half your breath and hold it.

Place the pad of your finger on the shutter release, and gently and slowly depress the shutter release until the sound of the shutter cycling surprises you.


ParaOrdance P14 .45acp Limited Class IPSC

Nikon D2h, Nikkor 85mm F1.4D @F11  10 secs  ISO 200


So What About Dry Firing?

Dry firing is simply practicing these techniques in a comfortable environment, when not distracted, when you have all the time in the world.  The more you practice bracing, breathing, and releasing the shutter, the better you'll become.  The slower the shutter speed you'll be able to get away with in a given situation and for a given focal length and focal distance.  The better you become at these techniques the more latitude you'll have with your shooting variables.

Not only will you get sharper images at normal shutter speeds, but you'll be able to shoot at much slower shutter speeds than ever before enabling you to get sharp images you otherwise wouldn't have,  or perhaps enabling you to use a lower ISO for better image quality.

Dry fire in your living room while watching TV, on your patio while ogling the next door neighbor, or even while being a passenger in a moving car.  With digital cameras you can actually use live ammo and see how you're doing.  These aren't images you'll want to keep, but they become invaluable in review.  The dry firing and image review is preparing you for when you make the additional effort of driving a few hours to a destination you want to photograph, spending a ton of money on an African Photo Safari, or perhaps when shooting your children's wedding.  Dry firing helps you prepare to be ready, and to be your best, when it counts.



To be good at anything most of us have to put in long hours of practice and gain valuable experience.  In a one to several day workshop I can show you how to practice and impart experience, but I can't make you shoot like a pro in only a few days.  Only tons of practice and proper training along the way will do that.

I occasionally get an email from a reader that asks "geez, how did you ever get that sharp of an image handheld at 300mm and 1/30th?  Or 20mm and 1/5th?"  All I can say is I didn't learn to do it overnight and there are no secret techniques.  It's having learned the proper techniques and practicing them over and over again.  A lot.

Dry Firing.  Give it a try.


Until next time..