The Navy SEAL Technique All Photographers Should Be Doing

The Navy SEAL Technique All Photographers Should Be Doing

Many parallels can be drawn between being in the military and being a photographer. Both have their high pressured moments and require extreme concentration at times. Here's one technique that the Navy SEALs have adopted that photographers should too.

It doesn't matter what area of the industry you work in, being a professional photographer requires a lot of physical and mental capacity. Just like a well-maintained engine, things have to be firing on all cylinders if you want the elements in front and behind of the camera to align for that "perfect picture." You could have the best gear that money can buy and the most amazing team of collaborators with you, but if things are not optimal within yourself then achieving your potential becomes a whole lot harder.

One area I think many of us photographers neglect is those inner personal traits that are essential characteristics for being a good photographer. The ability to cope under pressure, think quickly, and stay mentally focused are just a few areas that can't be "fixed in post" after the shoot. Everything stems from the person behind the camera. No matter how many megapixels you have can ever compensate for those personal shortcomings.

The good news is that those attributes mentioned above can be dramatically improved thanks to a basic breathing exercise that can be easily learned. There are many breathing techniques out there, but the one used and championed by former Navy SEAL commander Mark Divine translates over to the world of photography incredibly well. Divine calls this exercise "box breathing" and was developed during his military career and taught to many would-be Navy SEAL recruits over the years. Box breathing is used to reduce stress, calm the body, and focus the mind. I'm sure most photographers wouldn't mind having some extra helpings of those things just before an important shoot right?

How to Do Box Breathing

Box breathing got its name as the four equal stages of this exercise resemble the shape of a box.

The exercise goes like this:

  1. Seal your lips and inhale through your nose for five seconds.
  2. Hold the breath in your lungs for a count of five.
  3. Exhale through the mouth for a count of five.
  4. Pause for a count of five.

Repeat as many times as you like. I find even 5 cycles is enough to give me a welcomed burst of focus and a feeling of calmness washing over me. Throughout this exercise I try to keep my posture upright and relaxed. I also find it useful to close my eyes too.

This is Devine demonstrating the technique.

If you find holding your breath for five seconds challenging, to begin with, try counting for two or three seconds instead. With some practice you should find your lung capacity improving over time. In many ways, the duration is not as important as the action itself. The slowing down and focusing of the mind is the main aim of this exercise and if done correctly, it should make you feel physically calmer with a much more focused and alert mind.

Best Times to Do This Exercise

Caught in the act. This is a frame from a time-lapse of me doing my breathing exercises before the chaos of the shoot began.

I've been doing a similar breathing exercise to box breathing for over a decade now and have always done it just before the start of a shoot and sometimes during the day if things have been a little crazy. If I'm ever in need of a boost of calm and alertness it's easy enough to disappear for a moment and do some breathing exercises. Nipping to the restroom or sitting in my car are two places you can easily escape to for a few minutes if needs be.

One great way to sneakily get in some private box breathing is to find a quiet spot and put your phone to your ear. Not only will most people not disturb you while you're "making a call" but they won't question why you have your eyes closed or seem to be staring at a blank wall. I'm also not averse to doing breathing exercises while I'm editing my work at home. Staring at a screen for hours on end can be taxing on your concentration so anything that can help with that is more than welcome. I think you'd be surprised how much more productive you are when you take some "breathing breaks" in between edits.

Box Breathing in 2020

Breathing exercises have been around for thousands of years and while technology isn't required to take advantage of these techniques, it can help a busy photographer on the go. I have an audio file of the breathing exercise on my phone and laptop which I can easily pull up and play in my ear to help quickly get my breathing in sync. You might think counting to 4 wouldn't require any help but I find having something to listen to helps me to stay focused on the task. There are also lots of box breathing videos on YouTube that you could easily use to help with this. If I have headphones at hand I will use them while listening to the audio file as they can help block out distracting background sounds.

Is It Worth Photographers Getting Into Breathing Exercises?

For those that haven't twigged yet, box breathing is a form of meditation and is something many people turn their nose up at. There are many proven benefits to the use of meditation so why wouldn't photographers want to get in on that? I find being more alert on a shoot means I'm less likely to miss any important details and I'm sure the stress-reducing qualities can't be a bad thing for my health. I also find after a chaotic shoot that breathing exercises help me to quickly switch off in the evening. The great thing about embracing a technique like this is that it takes no space in your kit bag, costs nothing to do, and takes little time to complete. If I was to offer you a pill that could safely reduce stress, lengthen attention span, and improve sleep then I'm sure many photographers would jump at the chance to take such a thing. Keep your money in your wallets and count to five on your own instead. If it's good enough for Navy SEALS in combat situations then it's well worth photographers using it too.

Do you do any rituals before, during, or after a shoot to help you stay alert? Is meditation already a part of your life as a photographer? We'd love to hear from you in the comments below.

Lead image by ArmyAmber via Pixabay, used under Creative Commons.

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71 Comments

Previous comments
Mark Bucher's picture

SEALS aren't photographers. They use cameras during the performance of their' duties, but their' primary duty is far from being a photographer. There are military photographers. That is their primary duty. I know, I was one of them for 24 years.

Paul Parker's picture

Hi Mark, did you learn breathing exercises during your service?

Mark Bucher's picture

I learned breathing techniques while shooting a camera as a young troop, from the rifle training given to us by the Army.

Paul Parker's picture

oh great. Hope they are still coming in handy... : )

J W's picture

Title says “Navy SEAL technique”, but the image is of a Soldier. 22 years in the Army and I’ve never been shown or used a technique overtly called anything Navy SEAL...

Paul Parker's picture

While it may have not been branded as Navy SEAL did you learn any breathing exercises during your service?

Daris Fox's picture

It's basic rifleman/marksman technique for any soldier as well as firing positions, which are often directly transferable to cameras. You can argue for any person who shoots will have learned. I've even seen snooker/pool players practice breathing techniques.

Paul Parker's picture

That a good point you make. It reminds me that my neighbor does archery and follows some breathing exercises too. Be intreing to know what other sports use them too...

J W's picture

Yes. Breathing is an essential part of marksmanship. But SEALS hardly have a patent on that. BreathIng control was part of military marksmanship training long before the SEAL organization existed.

Travis Pinney's picture

Box breathing is also a good method to steady yourself if you're overly shaky and are shooting something that needs more precision. I use this method when I'm at the shooting range with a long range rifle, it helps to reduce muzzle sway/scope sway, the same technique can be applied to a camera, instead of a scope and trigger, it's a lens and shutter release. Shoot during the holds/pauses

Paul Parker's picture

Thanks for the insight Travis. You know I've never really connected my breathing exercises to being able to shoot better hand held but it must help. I mostly use flash and fast shutter speeds but now I come to think of it on the occasoins I need use slow suhtter speeds hand held I've been pleased with the results. The breathing must be helping... : )

Jim Bolen's picture

I've been doing breathing exercises for years when I shoot handheld. It really does help.

Paul Parker's picture

So great to hear so many photographers already using breathing exercises... : )

Les Sucettes's picture

So this is about a breathing technique. Fine...

Calling it Navy Seals techniques is really putting forward the wrong "picture" — I thought you were advertising sneaking up on people or self defence because you behaved like a prick and someone attacks you.

the seals are probably the wrong analogy entirely - unless you are talking wildlife photography ... where indeed you have to sneak up to your subject.

If you are talking street, or any other photography the best technique is to be calm, friendly and to blend in, in a friendly way. Not in a navy seals way!

Paul Parker's picture

Self-defense is an important skill to learn for sure but breathing exercises for photographers are important too.

Box breathing is used by the SEAL's and for many people who don't like the concept of meditation may be more open to the same thing if it's packaged up differently.

I think we all should learn some kind of breathing exercise for life. I know I get a lot out of it.

Thanks for your thoughts : )

Fernando Corrales's picture

you must try Wim Hof breathing technic...

Paul Parker's picture

Wim Hof has been on my radar for a long time but I haven't delveped very deeplying into it at all. I plan to change that. Thanks for the suggestion Fernando!

Maat Chu's picture

I heard that holding your breathe can cause you to shake. I do breathing all the time when I'm out. What I do is take a medium slow breathe in and release it slowly for the length it takes me to compose the shot and press the shutter when I feel like I'm shaking the least. I'm getting really good at handholding down to 1/4 of a second with no vibration compensation and learning that 1/13 is my favorite shutter speed for still life in most cases.. just yesterday I took this even further and realized that while I'm holding very still I will fall or just lean slowly in one direction usually back and that stops any shaking and focuses all the body movement in one direction so it's not jittery all over and shaky while trying to hold still.

Paul Parker's picture

thats impressive! sounds like you really have it worked out. Being able to shoot at those speeds is super handy for sure...

C H's picture

I've learned that technique from the movie Zombieland...since then I use it when working with slower shutterspeeds.

Paul Parker's picture

haven't seen the movie but I'm glad breathing exercises are working for you. It's great to hear so many photographers already using them in their practise... : )

Ry Rodney's picture

The comparison between a soldier and a photographer is absurd and quite insulting to soldiers. I have been soldier for 18 years and a photographer for a better part of 25 years and there is NO comparison in the stress endured or situational anxiety of that of a photographer. Complete crap.

dean wilson's picture

There is a big difference between careers that use bi-pods and tripods.

Paul Parker's picture

With all due respect, what areas of the photography industry have you professionally worked in? I'm seeing landscape and kids stuff on your profile which is obviously light-years away from the stresses of active military service.

While I appreciate nothing compares to dodging bullets, there are plenty of areas in the photography industry which are incredibly high pressured. Documenting riots, conflict photography, travel photography in dangerous countries, medical photography during complex surgery, crime scene photography in a place where law enforcement is not welcome, shooting in physically extreme conditions, shooting with or around wild animals, documenting diseases like ebola/covid19, you should try shooting with a $10m work of art where one false move could destroy your career in an instance! These may not be as stressful as combat but they are still stressful and require some of the skills/qualities that are needed in the military.

Lawrence Jones's picture

When I need steady, I use the same techniques for the camera I use for a rifle. Always have. I'm really surprised more don't the physics is not all that different.

dean wilson's picture

So...you're saying for 300 meter shot you aim your camera the same as you would a rifle to account for gravity? Oh wait...this is about breathing techniques.

Lawrence Jones's picture

Don't be stupid.

Paul Parker's picture

It's great to hear you're making the most of the skill Lawrence. Photographers on here seem to fall into two camps, those who use it, and those who don't. More should for sure... : )

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