Hard Focus, Soft Focus or No Focus: The process of using visual data to shoot moving targets

Feb 8, 2024 | Shooting Tips | 0 comments

Author:  Mark Roberts, Retired Firearms Safety Instructor / Provincial Range Officer (Ontario)

In my previous two articles, I mentioned the predictive process all brains, large or small, feeble or robust; use to manage data various senses retrieve and deliver to the brain. In this last part, I will attempt to explain how and why this relates to visual data and the shooting solutions we form to hit moving targets.

While it may not seem like a ‘method’ to directly increase your scores, it may help you, or in conjunction with a coach, to evaluate how your brain requires vital information from the external world to formulate shooting solutions, transform them into muscle movement, and thus fulfill that prediction back out in reality. How your brain can be tricked, starved or strained with either too little or too much data that can lead to the point of missing targets; even if your mount and other physical factors are down pat.

2D, 3D and the fourth dimension of time.

The story of two eyes, side by side on the front of the head being synonymous with a predator, while the prey may have them on each side of their heads is an old one. The former provides a binocular, harmonized view to a single point, while the latter provides a 360 degree view to spot those who may be exercising that singular view to catch and eat you.

From the predator’s perspective, each of their eyes captures a slightly different image even though they are just a few centimeters apart. These two distinct images are transmitted to the brain where they are compared. The difference is translated into a conceptual, third dimensional, single image that provides distance and relative location against the fore and background. (Stereoscopes, viewmasters and even optical rangefinders work under this principle to mimic and in the case of the rangefinder, provide a hard data set for the range. In essence, these devices are early examples of artificial intelligence where natural phenomena found in biology and physics are replicated externally). The prey does not require this additional calculation, as peripheral visual data simply triggers the brain to fight or flight reactions (even though they may triangulate the location of sounds using the same method with their ears).

Of course in shooting, distance is only one factor we require to formulate a shooting solution. We need speed and direction too, so I will introduce another archaic AI device called the movie camera to help explain how we calculate that in a two dimensional format while adding a ‘time’ factor which fulfills all the visual attributes required to accurately assess a target.

In a blink of an eye

Static photos/paintings contain 2D data and yet can simulate a 3D ‘feel’ by leveraging a learned, or intrinsic data of blurred, detoned background and layered imagery of near things blocking the outline of fa things. When the brain sees this image, it has no additional views to compare it with, so it remains static, and wholly interesting based on aesthetic rendering. If we were to add a second picture, taken a few cm apart from the first, and viewed in a device that visually blended the two, that third dimension would be simulated. If we were to change the attributes of the first photo slightly and place it next to it, our brains would begin to compare the slight changes and thus introduce some semblance of movement and time. If we were to present successive photos with successive changes we would blend those singular photos into a fluid movement that would begin to resemble an animated movie. It appears presenting slightly changing, still pictures at a rate of 24 per second mimics the brain’s processing speed of moving scenes in reality and this is why most movie cameras and projectors are geared at that speed. Walt Disney was one of the first animators to use a multiplane camera to capture and simulate this optical processing of distance and movement.

Keeping that in mind, when we view a moving target, the eyes are creating two still photos at a rate the brain can process. Not only does it need to compare the left and right aspects, but it needs to compare where the target was in conjunction with where it is. What is in front and what is behind it as it flies. This visual stitching is essential for the brain to then calculate where the target will be. Along with the line, this is where our brains are calculating ‘lead’ into our shooting solutions.

So we have covered how the eyes capture the image and how the brain processes that information, but we have not yet mentioned ‘focus’.

Not perfect, but good enough

Shooting coaches will often mention soft focus and hard focus in relation to where the target is in its flight line. The idea is to determine the introduction of the bird at an early location in the periphery prior to the kill location, and then as the bird approaches that area, the term hard focus is introduced just before and at the point of pulling the trigger. While this is a valid assessment, it’s not truly talking about eye focus from an acuity perspective, but an increase of speed in the eye/brain relationship to provide faster and thus, more accurate data to formulate the shooting solution. Of course light, contrast, glare etc all affect cognitive focus, the question begs to be asked of why not start with hard focus from the earliest point and dispense with the transition? The answer is not about ability, but rather biology, chemistry and physics. As remarkable as the eye and brain are, they are not flawless, because mother nature is rather miserly in her affections towards perfection and she often settles for ‘good enough’ to manage in the environments we find ourselves in. In short, we cannot maintain hard focus for anything more than a second or so, because we have increased the feedback cycle to a point where the brain cannot maintain that level of performance.

Returning to the movie camera comparison, slow motion is created by, not slowing the projector, but increasing the camera speed and playing it back at normal speed . This counterintuitive phenomenon indicates the enormous effort and resources (some high speed cameras capture over a thousand frames per second vs the brain’s norm of 24) and mother nature has not endowed us with such a luxury to receive, process and react upon that level of data. The best we can do is reserve our short spurt of ‘hard focus’ right before the moment we pull the trigger because to expend it too early will invariably stress the brain enough to dilute the focus, or vital data right when it’s needed. This ‘reservation’ is generally started in competitive shooters via pre shot routines, stoic demeanors and withdrawal from casual behavior as they enter the stand. We do not require full focus from the point of acquisition, but must apply it during that critical kill area when the gun nears the target. Think of a whale sending passive sonar pings in the depths as they search for food or obstacles. If a ping is returned, they may change from passive pings to active pings in a quicker cycle to gain as much information as possible from the obstacle even though the cognitive cost is greatly increased.

Intuitive vs deliberate shooting

I used to shoot skeet quite a bit back in my old club in Oshawa, Ont. I used a 28 ga and my average score was 23/25. Certainly not competitive, but I shot low-gun and intuitively with very little lateral gun movement (no swing). On each side of my style were the accomplished shooters that pre-mounted and the ‘hip shooter’. Both could out shoot me, but why?

Let’s make a quick trip back to the brain for a moment and try to understand the difference between deliberate and instinctive shooting.

I mentioned that all brains work on the predictive process where actions/reactions past are compared with current scenarios. We base our actions on that comparison, yet what if we don’t have anything to compare to or the comparison is not valid? The answer is relatively simple.

When we encounter a novel problem, and have no reference, we construct a predictive model and apply it in reality. This takes time, but is essential if the brain is to continue to form and act upon external stimuli. If the prediction works and provides the expected outcome, we package that up in a bundle and keep it handy in case of future, and immediate need. It’s like a restaurant that premakes a dish that is being consistently ordered because it saves time in the delivery. When we shoot intuitively, we are accessing that ‘package’ without the need to run it by our cortical centers for valuation, evaluation, cognitive modelling or the like. It’s a plug and play option.

When novel problems are presented however, we can either try a pre existing package in its entirety, modify it or construct a new one. The risks of reusing or re-purposing here are obvious and offer an insight into how and why bad habits are formed and maintained. Modifying, or making new packages to replace the old ones are the bane of shooting coaches as they attempt to de-program bad habits and reform good ones.

On the one hand, employing a pre-existing shooting package will allow us to shoot quickly, effortlessly and intuitively, but if the target is new or does not fall within the parameters of that package, we’ll miss. And we’ll try it again and again out of habit with the same result. Intuitive shooting can work well, feels good and looks great if your library is extensive enough to quickly access the packages required. If not, you will at least look stylish while missing the hard targets.

Deliberate shooting (pre-mount, defined lead methods, target lines etc.) all allow the brain the time to customize the shooting solution to novel targets, and this is why most top shooters elect to use this method. If your coach suggests you learn deliberate shooting over the seductively intuitive method, listen to them.

In conclusion, we as shooters should not dwell on the frailties of our eyes or brains, but exploit them to their natural limits. Use stress as a booster rocket of sorts to ignite that hard focus when it’s most needed and not as an excuse to give up. Ask a coach to help you with outlining these steps because having no focus may prevent you from self evaluating or accepting the advice of the coach. More fun and happiness in the game will follow.