This article was previously published in the National Tactical Officers Association (NTOA) publication, Tactical Edge, in the August 2021 issue
When most people think of what police snipers do, they usually think about precision rifle shooting. And they would be right. Snipers are highly trained at accurately shooting precision rifles from great distances. The ability to provide immediate lethal force protection for their team, undercover agents, other law enforcement officers and even innocent civilians is a crucial skill for police snipers. But that is not the only thing that snipers do.
The most overlooked capability of a well-trained sniper is the ability to perform thorough reconnaissance and surveillance (R&S). This invaluable part of a law enforcement sniper’s job is about gathering information for the team. This may occur during a tactical operation when the snipers are observing and reporting all the information they can collect while looking through the magnified optics on their rifles. But information collection also often occurs before the operation even begins, when the snipers conduct close target reconnaissance of an operational area as part of the mission planning process. While not as “Hollywood” as taking that 500-yard shot, this function may actually be more valuable and important.
It is critical that snipers have the ability to capture useful information on both suspects and targets. One of the best ways to do this is by taking clear, focused, high-resolution photographs which can provide details of suspects, including facial features, tattoos and even weapons, tools or equipment they might be carrying. These photos can also document vehicles, including license plates and other unique identifying marks. And, of course, these photos can also document significant details about target locations, including doors, windows, locks, fences, gates, lighting and security devices.
Reconnaissance vs. Surveillance
The words “reconnaissance” and “surveillance” are often used interchangeably. While there is a lot of overlap between these two types of operations, there is a definite difference and each has its own unique requirements when it comes to photography.
Reconnaissance, or “recce” (pronounced “reki”) for short, is the active collection of information on a target. An example is when operators collect information on a stationary target prior to a mission. The operators are actively driving the timing and conduct of the operation. Typically, in a “recce” (sometimes also referred to as a sniper “creep”) the team will insert during hours of darkness toward a target that is typically stationary and possibly at very long range. Understanding low light and long range photography are critical for these types of operations.
Surveillance is the passive collection of information where the target of the mission dictates the situation. An example is when operators collect information as they follow a suspect to identify a stash house. The suspect is driving the timing and direction of this activity while the operators passively collect information. Depending on the situation in surveillance, operators might have to keep their equipment more low-key and better concealed. Operators typically working out of a vehicle will need to pass a cursory inspection by passersby so they don’t get compromised. Understanding the shutter speed, aperture and ISO balance are critical when surveilling a moving target.
During the summer of 2020, the snipers from ATF Special Response Team (SRT) spent two weeks training at Reveille Peak Ranch in Burnet, TX, along with snipers from Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) SRT and the Texas Department of Public Safety. These teams have trained together several times over the years and have become trusted friends and partners.
Since information collection is such a vital part of the SRT sniper program, the curriculum was recently restructured. In addition to shooting from distances out to 1,100 yards, the snipers also received classes on R&S photography taught by ATF Technical Surveillance Specialist (TSS) Shawn Rodgers. Rodgers is a former U.S. Marine with Marine Special Operations Command who served as an instructor at the Marine Technical Surveillance Course. He previously worked for ATF’s Technical Operations Branch but now works primarily with the SRT program.
Each day, before heading to different rifle ranges to shoot, the snipers attended a section of Rodgers’ class on R&S photography that covered the use of digital single lens reflex (DSLR) cameras along with photography basics, including: shutter speed, aperture, F-stop, depth of field, ISO, metering, focusing and various camera settings.
The students were required to complete practical exercises to demonstrate their ability to adjust the camera and lens settings for different purposes. For example, students learned to manually adjust the equipment for subjects that were in either bright light or low light, and that were either moving or stationary.
Three primary factors which influence the need for a DSLR camera when obtaining operational photos are movement, darkness and distance. If a subject is moving, in darkness or at great distance, then using a DSLR camera properly can help maximize information collection.
If your subject, whether it be a person or a vehicle, is in motion, then stop or freeze the movement by controlling the shutter speed of the camera. The better you can freeze the action, the better you can recognize clear details in the photo. This may be important for recognizing or identifying people’s faces or even their tattoos or other distinguishing marks. These people may be simply walking around their property, but they might also be driving a vehicle and, therefore, traveling at much faster speeds. You may also need to identify license plates or other markings on the vehicles themselves.
A vehicle and its driver that are traveling at a modest 35mph are actually moving at over 51 feet per second. Many of the better known DSLR camera brands available today have shutter speeds as fast as 1/4000 of a second and several are even as fast as 1/8000 of a second which, given enough ambient light, is more than quick enough to capture fast-moving vehicles.
If you are likely to be photographing moving subjects, you would place your camera into “Shutter Priority” to quickly adjust the shutter speed for fast photos. However, pushing your shutter speed faster is not practical or even possible in some low-light conditions, so you must learn different techniques for capturing movement with slower than normal shutter speeds, such as the ambush or planning techniques.
The ambush technique is trying to get to a position in which your target is moving either directly towards or away from you, allowing you to slow your shutter speed and still capture usable information. The easiest way to imagine this technique is if you are at a T intersection of a driveway. You would want to position yourself looking directly down the driveway so as vehicles leave or arrive, they are moving directly towards or away from you.
The planning technique is another low-light technique in which you position yourself parallel to the direction of travel and try to match the speed of the target and pan along with it. This takes a lot of practice, but you use shutter speeds as low as 1/15 of a second and still capture usable information on a car moving 60mph! The downside is that you will be moving the camera, so you will need to plan your hide accordingly.
Training with your camera using different shutter speeds is also very valuable. It will give you the experience to know approximately what shutter speed you need to capture subjects moving at different speeds under certain lighting conditions. Just as snipers train with their precision rifles to shoot targets moving at different speeds at various distances, they should also train with their cameras to practice capturing clear, crisp images of moving photo subjects.
Another common situation for R&S teams is having to gather information in low light conditions. When sniper teams perform pre-operational surveillance missions, it is most often at night. Unfortunately, night vision equipment typically does not provide the level of detail or clarity needed. Therefore, the only way to gather the necessary detail in a photograph is to use a long exposure.
The ability to take these long exposure, low-light photos is a valuable skill for snipers. Some target locations are in remote, rural areas. For the tactical team to gain enough valuable information about these targets prior to the operation, the snipers will often have to perform a recce or “creep.” These are missions in which a small team covertly maneuvers close to the target solely to gather valuable information for operational planning. This information may include the number and location of doors and windows on a structure; the number and type of vehicles present and their license plates; indications of dogs or other animals; indications that children may be present at the location; and any security measures, booby-traps or other fortifications.
While this can be done in darkness, the lack of ambient light makes it difficult to take clear, quality photos of the target structures for later analysis. To overcome the darkness, surveillance teams will need to use long exposures (leaving the camera shutter open for long periods) to gather enough light to make a clear image.
To take long exposure photos, set the camera into the B (short for Bulb) setting, which will allow the photographer to leave the shutter open for as long as needed. In most nighttime conditions, these photos can be created by leaving the shutter open for 2-4 minutes per image. Another important aspect to this type of photography is that the camera must be stationary during the entire long exposure. The camera should be mounted on a tripod (or immobilized on another fixed surface) for these photos.
The products of these long exposure shots can be amazing. Even in pitch darkness, if the shutter is left open long enough to let in enough light, the result can be a clear photo that looks as if it was taken during daylight. The most challenging targets for this type of R&S, are those that have multiple types of lighting from structures or overhead lights. When there is a broad range of lighting conditions around the same target, adjustments will have to be made for both the bright and dark areas.
For example, the target may be a rural home with a bright porch light right above the door and no moon that night. The mission is to photograph the approach to show any potential obstacles as well as obtain information on the type of door the team will need to breach.
In this case, the photo of the approach will have to be exposed based on the darkness in the yard itself. This will allow for plenty of detail of the yard and any obstacles in front of the house, but it will likely cause the area around the door where the porch light is on to be washed out (essentially white with no detail available at all).
Conversely, to capture the information for the breacher, you would then set your exposure for the bright area around the doorway. This picture will give you very detailed information on the doorway but everything else will be dark and unusable.
Below: Example of Long Exposure Showing Different Levels of Lighting
The 2 Below: Photo taken from over 300 yards away. Long Exposures allow more light to interact with the camera making the subject visible even at low light. Settings: ISO-2500, F-stop f/5, Exposure Time: 126 Seconds
The 2 Below: Photo taken from 125 Yards. Settings: ISO 8000, F-Stop f/4.5, Exposure Time: 180 Seconds
All Photos Presented above in Darkness Section were taken at 10PM, the camera was secured to a tripod and on top of an observation tower. Notice the detail even at absolute darkness.
Surveillance photographs are usually taken covertly and, therefore, usually have to be taken from a significant distance. Although smartphone cameras have improved tremendously in recent years, for taking detailed photos from long distances, there is simply no comparison between the quality of an image from a smartphone compared to one from a DSLR camera.
The DSLR produces significantly clearer images, which can be magnified and enhanced to reveal extraordinary detail. This is due to the difference between “optical zoom” and “digital zoom.”
Optical zoom is achieved by using the mechanical movement within your camera’s lens. Digital zoom is simply achieved by the cropping and enlarging of an image once it has been captured by the sensor on the digital camera.
The more optical zoom (like with a larger telephoto lens), the farther away the photographer can be from the subject and still capture a clear, quality photo. It produces the same level of clarity in the photo, but it’s as if the photographer was much closer to the subject. With digital zoom, the photographer isn’t getting any closer; they are just enlarging the original image that was taken from the same original distance. This enlargement can result in highly pixelated images with little information value.
This difference in zoom capability is critically important during R&S because the photographer usually cannot get too close to the subject without their presence and intention being compromised. Nonetheless, the entire reason for taking these types of photographs is to collect information — and that means being able to see significant detail in the image.
The two example photos in this article were taken at the same time. It was dusk, and the photographer was 75 yards away from the subject vehicle. The photos labeled as “Optical Zoom” were taken using a DSLR camera with a telephoto lens. The photos labeled “Digital Zoom” were taken using a smartphone.
As you can see, even in the original photos, the DSLR is able to zoom in farther and capture a clearer image. However, the difference in quality becomes even more apparent when the photos are enlarged to show only the vehicle’s license plate. The image from the camera, with its optical zoom, is crystal clear. The image from the smart phone is unreadable and of no value for informational purposes.
Photos on the left were taken with Optical Zoom Camera with telephoto lens. Right photos were taken with Digital Zoom (Smart Phone).
An additional benefit that is typically overlooked is the video recording capability of newer DSLR or mirrorless cameras. This could be used to your advantage in an over-watch position during undercover meetings or takedowns. If your informant or undercover is using a wire to transmit their audio, using a cable adapter to run that audio feed into the microphone port on the camera will give you an HD video of the meeting and the audio track on the video will be the audio feed that was broadcast over the wire.
Another benefit of this setup is the ability to change out the lens. If the hide has to be set up 400 meters away, then you can put an 800mm lens on the camera and you will still have HD video of the meeting or takedown. Newer DSLR cameras can film at 1080 resolution and some can even record at 8k resolution.
Left: Student at R&S Photography training rakes a photo of a target location over 300 yards away. Camera secured to tripod and is using a 400mm telephoto lens.
Above: Photo surveillance kits assigned to each ATF SRT. Each kit contains 2 x DSLR, various lenses, tripod, spotting scope, remote shutter release and other assorted camera equipment.
Quality photographic equipment and photography training are worthwhile investments for any sniper team that performs R&S missions. Good photography skills can greatly benefit tactical teams.
In an age where agencies and departments are trying to replace people on the ground with technology (e.g. unmanned aircraft systems), no technology can replace R&S personnel on the ground. They capture information that cannot be collected by any method other than a human. Conducing R&S on a target can provide atmospherics such as smells, sounds and ground cover. Overhead imagery collected by aerial platforms doesn’t show the topography of the area; which areas can support an armored vehicle; or the thickness of the underbrush, etc.
R&S photography training allows the team to more safely and thoroughly conduct pre-operational surveillance, especially of targets that are difficult to reach or observe. The information derived from these photos is incredibly valuable, and the better the information is, the better the team can prepare its operational plan. Thorough and detailed mission planning leads to a safer operation for everyone involved: law enforcement, the suspects, and members of the public. To paraphrase the old saying, “If a picture is worth a thousand words, then how many words is an 8K video worth?”
A Note about Smartphones
There are a few apps now available for smart phones that enable them to do things that, until recently, could only be accomplished with a more sophisticated camera like a DSLR. For example, some apps help set faster shutter speeds into your smartphone camera to take very fast images of moving subjects. Other apps help set slow shutter speeds in order to take long exposure photos of subjects in low light.
However, the one feature that still cannot be replicated by a smart phone is a high-quality optical zoom lens. Good lenses and optical zoom capability allow the DSLR to take photos from much farther away from the subject and to produce much sharper images that can be enhanced with greater detail.
This overall combination of abilities – shutter control, aperture control and quality zoom lens – makes the DSLR the better tool by far for conducting surveillance photography.
Jim has been a Special Agent with ATF since 1998. He was a member of the ATF Special Response Team from 2001-2018 and served as an operator, sniper, tactical unit leader and deputy team commander. He then spent two yea
rs as a Branch Chief in Special Operations Division at ATF Headquarters. He is currently assigned as the Public Information Officer for ATF Special Operations Division.
Jim can be contacted at: James.Balthazar@atf.gov
Shawn joined ATF in 2016. Prior to ATF, he served eight years in the U.S. Marine Corps, with four years under Marine Special Operations Command (MARSOC). After leaving the military, Shawn spent six years as a contractor with DOD including three years as an instructor at the Marine Technical Surveillance Course (MTSC) within MARSOC. He is currently assigned as the Program Manager of UAS, counter-UAS (cUAS) and the Tactical Reconnaissance Program.
Shawn can be contacted at: Shawn.Rodgers@atf.gov