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A Photojournalist's Field Guide: Stacy Pearsall's Shooting Methodology

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Award-winning photojournalist Stacy Pearsall takes you through her shooting methodology, including her "What IFS" technique, mode, metering, light, color and the 10-frame methodology.
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A U.S. soldier returns fire on the enemy from a rooftop in Buhriz, Iraq.

Lens (mm): 55, ISO: 200, Aperture: 8, Shutter: 1/350, Program: Aperture Priority

There’s an old cliché that practice makes perfect, and as much as I despise adages, it’s especially true in photojournalism. Perhaps practice doesn’t always lead to perfection, but if you practice enough it becomes routine. For instance, as you prepare to take a picture, you have many decisions to make before releasing the shutter—such as lens selection, ISO, f-stop, shutter speed, and white balance. Each photographic scenario is different, which means you must adjust your settings to accommodate for the bright sun or perhaps a lightless room. As you practice more and more, this repetition helps permanently store the data so that when you need the information to be recalled on the fly, it’s nearly instantaneous. Eventually you’ll be able to walk into a situation and know—or at least be close to knowing—what your exposure needs to be. Approximations are not dead on, which is why I’m reluctant to shout the aforementioned cliché from the rooftops. But I’ll take a close estimate over an uneducated guess any day.

What IFS

Over the course of my career, I developed a shooting method I refer to as my “What IFS,” which stands for ISO, f-stop, and shutter speed. When making an exposure, I start with my ISO, and then I choose my depth of field, and finally, my shutter speed. There’s no rule that says you must approach exposures any particular way, and I’m not suggesting my way is the only line of attack, but it’s what works best for me. Whether or not you choose to adopt my process, you’ll find that having a routine exposure method is helpful.

Consistent exposures make assignments go so much easier and far less stressful. As a photojournalist, you’ll be required to operate under strenuous, often harsh, conditions. Reducing unnecessary stressors such as exposure will help free up energy better spent elsewhere (Figure 4.1).

Figure 4.1

Figure 4.1. U.S. Army Private 1st Class Daniel Williams sits inside an M2A2 Bradley Fighting Vehicle while convoying to Buhriz, Iraq, at approximately 4:45 in the morning.

Lens (mm): 55, ISO: 3200, Aperture: 2.8, Shutter: 1/13, Program: Manual

Step 1

Each scenario will pose a new challenge. It’s up to you to determine what your ISO setting should be, based on the available light. The darker the scene, the higher number ISO is required, and the brighter the scene, the lower the ISO. You should check ISO first because you want to set the foundation for the rest of your exposure by getting the most from your camera. If you’re in a very low-light situation and shoot on ISO 200, you’re not doing yourself any favors. You’ll be forced to slow down your shutter speed and risk getting blurry shots. You don’t want that. However, the trade-off is that a higher ISO may cause pixilation in your image. I’d rather have a pixilated, sharp image than a soft, unusable one (Figures 4.2 and 4.3).

Figure 4.2

Figure 4.2. Air Force Technical Sergeant John Mizelle walks to the rescue helicopter an hour outside of Pyongtaek City, Korea, during a pararescuemen exercise.

Lens (mm): 17, ISO: 800, Aperture: 16, Shutter: 1/500, Program: Manual

Figure 4.3

Figure 4.3. Example of dust spots at maximum depth of field.

Step 2

The reason I consider f-stop, or aperture, the second item on my list is due to its impact on my ability to take in more light, but also the crucial influence it has on depth of field. If you want less depth of field, then shoot for a smaller f-stop number like f/1.4 or f/2.8. If you want more depth, increase your f-stop accordingly. As you increase f-stop, however, you’ll simultaneously be decreasing your shutter speed. When your shutter speed slows, you open yourself to capturing motion in your frame, whether it’s your subject moving or you. In extreme cases, the motion blur can render your subject out of focus and therefore become an unpleasant, if not altogether useless, picture. So just keep that in mind that it’s a trade-off. Also, shooting with wider lenses can increase your depth of field without forfeiting shutter speed. Last, and perhaps the most important consideration, a higher f-stop will show things like dust spots, sand, hair, and dirt on your images.

Step 3

After you determine ISO and f-stop, you can set your shutter speed to make a proper exposure. I recommend that you meter for the highlights using Center or Spot Metering to figure out the most accurate setting. This approach will also ensure you have detail in your highlights. When you shoot with longer lenses, you may also want to be sure you have your shutter speed faster than the length of your lens. Nowadays, longer lenses have built-in Vibration Reduction (VR), which allows you to shoot a bit slower. But if you don’t have that technology, don’t chance it (Figures 4.4 and 4.5).

Figure 4.4

Figure 4.4. A U.S. Army soldier rests after conducting a foot patrol in Buhriz, Iraq.

Lens (mm): 45, ISO: 800, Aperture: 2.8, Shutter: 1/80, Program: Manual

Figure 4.5

Figure 4.5. During night field operations, a U.S. Army soldier stays low in her foxhole at Fort Jackson, South Carolina.

Lens (mm): 255, ISO: 200, Aperture: 2.8, Shutter: 1/500, Program: Aperture Priority

There are exceptions to the precedence of order. When shooting action, panning, or even showing the motion of the rotor blades on a helicopter, you’ll want to set your shutter speed first and equate your exposure with your f-stop. Whether f-stop or shutter speed comes before the other, ISO always comes first in my routine.

Multiframe burst

When you slow down your shutter speed, you increase the risk of picking up any motion. Try to eliminate motion within the camera by using these techniques. Set your camera to take multiframe bursts, slow your breaths, and when possible, anchor your body against something firm such as a wall or a tree. Be sure to tuck in your elbows, too. By having arm-to-body contact, you increase your stabilization. Your lens stabilization and focus hand should be under your lens, not over the top. This gives your lens and camera a more stable platform, decreases camera shake, and reduces the risk of dropping your camera because of sweaty or greasy hands.


If you happen to be shooting from an aircraft such as a helicopter or fixed-wing plane, the vibration may cause blur. Try not to let your body touch the aircraft’s frame. This will reduce the amount of shutter speed of vibration that passes through your body and transfers to your camera.

In motion

When you’re photographing helicopters or aircraft with propellers, it’s imperative that you show movement in the blades. If not, it will appear as though they’ll drop from the sky at any minute.

Shutter speed is the primary control for motion. A faster shutter speed is selected when attempting to freeze or stop a moving object. Let’s say a moving car requires a shutter speed of 1/1000 of a second to stop action; well, a person running on foot may only need a shutter speed of 1/500 to stop the movement. How fast you set your shutter speed will depend on how fast the subject is moving. Shutter speed can also be used to show an object’s motion by causing it to be blurry (sometimes referred to as motion blur). Select your shutter speed based on how fast your subject is moving and how you want to render it (Figure 4.6).

Figure 4.6

Figure 4.6. A Marine Corps CH-53 helicopter flies a routine patrol off the coast of Djibouti, Africa.

Lens (mm): 80, ISO: 200, Aperture: 25, Shutter: 1/200, Program: Manual

If the subject is stationary, nearly any speed is fine. If the subject is moving, you have creative options. You may choose to freeze motion so that your subject is stopped and appears clear and sharp. A fast shutter speed will do this: 1/250, 1/500, and higher. You may choose to blur the subject so it appears as a soft, undefined streak across the frame. A slow shutter speed will do this: 1/20, 1/15, or lower.

In the case of Figure 4.7, I wanted to demonstrate how quickly Iraqi soldiers moved through houses looking for enemy fighters. I knew that if I simply stopped the action, it would not convey the same movement than if I panned. By slowing down my shutter speed and moving with my subject, I gave him the appearance of forward momentum. The panning also gave me the bonus of blurring the distracting background. Now all of the attention is right where I want the viewer to look—at the soldier.

Figure 4.7

Figure 4.7. A soldier of the Iraqi Army clears a civilian’s house during combat operations in Tahrir, Iraq.

Lens (mm): 20, ISO: 800, Aperture: 2.8, Shutter: 1/8, Program: Aperture Priority

On assignments, you have to contend with camera motion and subject motion all the time. By virtue of our own heartbeats and breathing, hand-holding a camera will cause movement and could result in a blurry picture. You must then be mindful to use a shutter speed fast enough to prevent camera shake from ruining your picture. The general rule we’re taught in basic photography school is to shoot at 1/60 or faster. In my opinion, that’s not nearly fast enough.

In Figure 4.8, you can see that I’ve caught the soldier in midair as he attempted to breech the door. Unfortunately, his efforts did not yield any results, and he fell on his butt. After conducting my fair share of cordon and searches running from house to house, I learned that I needed to have my shutter speed as fast as the available light would allow. Like the soldier, I had many failed attempts at catching shots like this because my shutter speed wasn’t fast enough. I was running, breathing hard, and my subject was moving, so my results were consistently soft. I began to increase my ISO slightly, so I could obtain a faster shutter speed. I didn’t sacrifice the quality of the image with too high an ISO—just enough to give me an edge.

Figure 4.8

Figure 4.8. An Iraqi soldier makes a flying leap at a secured door while searching for enemy fighters during a cordon and search for insurgence and weapons caches in Chubinait, Iraq.

Lens (mm): 17, ISO: 400, Aperture: 2.8, Shutter: 1/1000, Program: Aperture Priority

Shutter speed is one of three major exposure components of IFS, and when it is adjusted to capture stop action or show motion blur, it can directly affect the exposure balance. In Figure 4.9, the glare of the desert sun bounced off the tan facades and sandy ground, making the entire scene extremely bright. I had the choice of compensating for the sun by increasing my shutter speed or f-stop number, and I’m not a big fan of shooting with smaller apertures. In this situation, I chose to increase my shutter speed and stop the action. If I wanted to achieve motion blur without adding more depth of field in this scenario, I could have used a neutral density filter; however, that was not the look I wanted to accomplish. Instead, I chose to stick with a higher shutter speed and let my aperture stay open.

Figure 4.9

Figure 4.9. A soldier from the Multi-Iraqi Transitional Team runs through the yard of a civilian’s house during a battle with al-Qaeda and Ansar al-Sunna forces during Operation Orange Justice in Buhriz, Iraq, in February 2007.

Lens (mm): 17, ISO: 400, Aperture: 5.6, Shutter: 1/2500, Program: Aperture Priority

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