A lot of historical war photographs I've seen are capable of recording the subject in sharp detail despite the subject being in blazingly fast motion, at the same time having little to no depth of field.

From what I've been taught, taking such a picture would need low shutter speed, high ISO, and a very small aperture. But this should have produced a lot of noise and grain, yet I cannot spot any on most war photographs.

The one underneath, for example, showed roughly 6 bullet traces, assume it's M1919 then the exposure time would be somewhere around 1/10 of a second. But the rest of the plane is crystal clear and sharp with no blurring at all:

Night Gunerry, saw this one in my school library's photo collection

The following also shows very little motion blur, the carrier and aircraft are both clear and sharp:

Image from twitter.com/WarshipPorn/status/1497731352732516356/photo/1

How did they manage to do this? Is that a camera thing or some magical technique?

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    \$\begingroup\$ This is pretty much two separate questions. The circumstances of the first and second photos are completely different, thus the answer to "why they were possible" is completely different for each. The first photo is a staged photo in which the plane was on the ground and not moving. The second photo was taken from another aircraft travelling parallel and at the same speed to the one pictured. Two totally different questions which will lead to two totally different answers. \$\endgroup\$
    – Michael C
    Commented Feb 27, 2022 at 22:19
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    \$\begingroup\$ @MichaelC now that I have learned what happened, have to say you are right. But to sort of self-justify: before getting the answers I thought they were using the same principle. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Feb 28, 2022 at 19:57
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    \$\begingroup\$ Could you track back and first explain what that "exposure rule" meant? \$\endgroup\$ Commented Feb 28, 2022 at 21:11
  • \$\begingroup\$ If anyone is confused by the OP's statement of "would need low shutter speed", I think they mean a fast shutter speed, which if you think about it numerically, is technically a "low" number (a positive number closer to zero than "higher" shutter speeds). Most of us don't refer to it that way, but it's technically and mathematically accurate. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Mar 1, 2022 at 0:41
  • \$\begingroup\$ @RockPaperLz-MaskitorCasket You are correct, that probably has something to do with my computer background... \$\endgroup\$ Commented Mar 1, 2022 at 2:03

3 Answers 3


First about depth-of-field: The two examples you posted, and many war pictures, are of objects at or near infinity (Latin: as far as the eye can see). The light waves from objects at infinity arrive as parallel rays. This occurs if the object is about 1000 focal lengths distance. Suppose you mount a 50mm lens, infinity is likely 50 X 1000 = 50,000mm = 164 feet. In other words, mount a 50mm, set focus to infinity, all objects 164 feet distant and further will be in critical focus.

Further, manually setting your camera’s focus at a distance called “hyperfocal” works best. This distance is about 1000 times the diameter of the iris (aperture). Suppose a 50mm camera set to f/8 is used. The diameter of the iris is 6.25mm. This is derived by dividing the focal length by the f-number. Multiply this diameter by 1000 = hyperfocal distance. In this case, 6,259mm = 20½ feet. Manually focus this camera, set to f/8 to 20 feet, the span of depth-of-field is one-half the hyperfocal to infinity. This hyperfocal distance is the magic distance used to pre-set the lens. Such a setting yields the maximum depth-of-field span that reached infinity.

As to shutter speed and moving objects: The direction of travel of a subject is the key factor. If the object is moving directly away or towards the camera, the shutter speed that does the trick is surprisingly slow. If the object is moving across the line of sight, a super-fast shutter will be needed. Oblique angles of travel require something in between. Practice is required to make shutter speed assessments.

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    \$\begingroup\$ The second example has the ship and plane moving across the line of sight. Your point on everything being far away is very good. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Feb 27, 2022 at 3:03
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    \$\begingroup\$ The second shot of an aircraft and carrier was taken from another aircraft in a parallel flight path. Likely, the speed of the two aircraft is about the same allowing for a less than super-fast shutter. Also, the carrier is distant, Distant object in motion image OK with slower shutter. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Feb 27, 2022 at 3:10
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    \$\begingroup\$ The formula for hyperfocal distance is wrong... or oversimplified. The size of the image area (applicable Circle of Confusion) is also a significant factor. The modern formula is H = F² ÷ CoC(f#). Although I use a much simpler formula than either of those to guestimate the HFD. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Feb 27, 2022 at 12:51
  • \$\begingroup\$ The formula, iris diameter multiplied by 1000 for the hyperfocal distance works because this whole thing is subjective based on unknowns such as image contrast, image illumination, acuity of observer, degree of magnification, etc. Anyway, with a modern phone calculator, it's easy to do the math in the field - and it works well in most cases. Try it, you will like it! \$\endgroup\$ Commented Feb 27, 2022 at 15:37
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    \$\begingroup\$ infinity (Latin as far as the eye can see) infinitas ("unlimitedness") comes from in- ("not") + finis ("end") + -tas ("-ness"). Nothing to do with eyes. \$\endgroup\$
    – Dmiters
    Commented Feb 28, 2022 at 1:48

For the first photo:

You just happened to pick a staged photo...

This is the image with text, note the artificial bright lighting coming from high above, near the cameras position?:

enter image description here

This is the aircraft with flexible gunnery training mount:

enter image description here

Here are other staged shots, showing off powered up aircraft firing tracer rounds (the landing gear was likely painted out as this was used for a published advertising campaign, the aircraft, a P-63 Kingcobra, was one of those based at Harlingen flexible gunnery school):

enter image description here

So really the camera was likely a 4x5 field camera based on the information regarding the photographer known to be at the location doing night shoots with tracer for publication.

In a staged situation then, a sharp and well exposed photograph is able to be produced without the same worries if it had been during an actual flight.

Note how some of the angles are incredibly dangerous if they were actually taken during flight, and how all control surfaces are neutral.

Harlingen Army Airfield opened in July 1941 and was used by the United States Army Air Forces (AAF) as a training base during World War II.

It was assigned to the AAF Gulf Coast Training Center as a flexible gunnery school.

Training was conducted both in the air and on the ground and used a variety of aircraft, including AT-6 Texans, B-34 Lexingtons, and P-63 Kingcobras.

For ground-based training, a number of facilities were available, including the moving target ranges and a number of gunnery simulators.

There were a number of photoshoots carried out at Harlingen showing the students going through their training.

UNITED STATES - 1943 APRIL 07: Instructors and students at the Harlingen Army Gunnery School watch the crossfire of tracer bullets from .50-caliber machine gun turrets bounce off targets. (Photo by Joseph Costa/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)

enter image description here

Note the sharpness despite the likely shutter speed?

Joseph Costa was founder of the National Press Photographers Association, executive editor of the National press photographer.

He was known for using 4x5 field camera during this period in time, switching to 35mm rangefinder later in his career. He was also known for experimenting with lighting and flash photography.

The staged photoshoots, using the same AT-6 Texan as featured in the OP's photo (based at Harlingen flexible gunnery school), dated 1942-3, went on to be featured in publications such as:

Harlingen – Hags – Army Gunnery School

The Harlingen Texas Army Gunnery School (HAGS) operated during WWII in south Texas. The book is designed more for families to let them know what the training is like at HAGS and how well the men are treated. A variety of planes were used at HAGS and the gunners were cross-trained to be radiomen or engineers. The gunners were trained to be "flexible gunners" which means they could move their barrels in any direction in which the enemy approaches.

Here are other shots from the shoots, shot around a AT-6 Texan and a B-34 Lexington, note the use of artificial lighting:

enter image description here

Blurb: The Men Behind the triggers of the Army Air Forces ……. Army Air Force Soldiers here are training to live in glass houses and still throw stuff more dangerous than stones. At this school in the near-tropical Rio Grande Valley, where a Gulf breeze mixes orange blossom scents with powder smells, soldiers learn to sit in plexiglass bomber blisters and keep would-be attackers at arm’s length while pilots and bombardiers do their jobs undisturbed. The brand of shooting taught here is known as “flexible gunnery.” That means the gunner swings his barrels around in any direction from which the enemy approaches.

Further work:

enter image description here

The image on the right is using similar exposure as the tracers images to get the arc.


Night gunnery practice, note again the high placed bright artificial light directed down.

enter image description here

This was either Tyndall or Harlingen.

At the time it was rumored movie star Clark Gable was doing gunnery training at Harlingen when he was actually at Tyndall.

enter image description here

Bad picture reproduction but it seems Harlingen was the optimal place to shoot the shooters shooting tracers:

enter image description here

  • \$\begingroup\$ This does not answer the question as I read it. The question is about how they got a sharp picture with good exposure, not about how you get aimed in the right direction and focused to get a good shot. The rangefinder has real advantages for aiming and focusing, but its exposure characteristics are just like an SLR. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Feb 27, 2022 at 3:01
  • \$\begingroup\$ @RossMillikan changed my answer... I did misread, and so deleted the info regarding Rangefinders, though they were the standard choice for conflict photographers for many years, and later augmented by SLRs with the better tele reach... \$\endgroup\$ Commented Feb 27, 2022 at 5:36
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    \$\begingroup\$ I probably clicked accept too early, and I want you to know that your answer is super helpful (even the one before edit)! I apparently have been distracted by the photography and forgot everything about how a plane flies... Thank you for all the effort you put into this answer! \$\endgroup\$ Commented Feb 28, 2022 at 19:51
  • \$\begingroup\$ @AmarthGûl np :) \$\endgroup\$ Commented Feb 28, 2022 at 21:06
  • \$\begingroup\$ Just a minor point: 4x5 cameras are not generally roll-fed which makes multiple exposures on a single film trivial. These night shots may have been double exposures: one shot without lights, just tracers, and one shot with lights and tracers. Similar to in-camera lighting effects used for product shots. \$\endgroup\$
    – Yorik
    Commented Mar 1, 2022 at 20:09

A lot of it was the choice of camera. The usual "press camera" of the 30's, 40's and 50's was a Speed Graphic or similar with a 4" by 5" focal plane. The enlargement required to make a print was much less than for 35 mm, so photographers could use faster film without having grain visible in the print. That, in turn, permitted faster shutter speeds, all other things being equal.


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