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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Previous comments
Paul Parker's picture

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, war photography, 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!

Which areas of the photographic industry have you worked in professional capacity?

Paul Parker's picture

I'm glad you now agree that some areas of photography can be just as dangerous and taxing. Your initial comment grouped all photography together as needing much less mental and physical capacity than many other professions.

The art story is not as exciting as you would think but large amounts of pressure were present.

Which areas of the industry have you worked in a professional capacity?

Timothy Gasper's picture

As a former military member I completely agree with that. That being much MORE effective using proper breathing techniques would be for simply "clicking stuff with a camera"?

Paul Parker's picture

breathing techniques may help when shooting handheld if nothing else I guess. It's great to hear so many in the comments saying this is the case. :)

Sridhar Chilimuri's picture

Timely article. If by some misfortune you got infected with Covid these exercises are extremely useful upon recovery.

Paul Parker's picture

that's an excellent point! thanks for stopping by : )

Motti Bembaron's picture

Another army practice that can help photographer is a technique used by sharp shooters. If you shoot in slow shutter speed and still wants to be as still as possible don't just stop your breath.

Breath in slowly filling your lungs 3/4 then let it out slowly to about 3/4, hold and squeeze the shutter button.

Frederic Hore's picture

Like many of the commentators here, I too served in the military when I was younger, with the Canadian Armed Forces. Certainly the breathing techniques we were taught were fundamental during crisis situations, or when using the FNC1 rifle we were issued with, so were were poised and in control, especially for shooting targets 100 meters or more away.

These breathing techniques, have translated well into my own career as a photographer and photojournalist, especially when running to capture street protests, or as happened last fall, during the 500,000 strong Montreal Climate March which Greta Thunberg appeared at, and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau marched in. Being a hot day, and running quickly to get ahead of the procession to find opportune positions to get my shots, meant having to stop, breathe, focus, and recover for a couple of minutes, so I could then compose and photograph the changing scene in front of me.

I think every work has its own type of stress, where taking a moment to just stop, breathe and pace yourself, can have beneficial effects, and yes, meditative power too. It certainly has worked for me.

Stay safe and be well.
Cheers from Montréal.

Photo: Swedish climate activist and motivator Greta Thunberg at the Montreal Climate March, 27 September 2019. Photographed 50 feet back from the stage with a Nikon D700 and Nikkor 200-500 at 500mm. ©Frederic Hore. All Rights Reserved.

Paul Parker's picture

thank you for your insights Frederic and a great picture!

thanks for stopping by : )

pdbreske's picture

I'm glad that you've found something to help calm you when you're feeling stressed and I hope it can help other people, too, but please do not compare photography to being a SEAL or even any part of being in the military.* I was an Army pilot and I can tell you that every soldier I met was far and away better prepared to handle stress than just about every civilian I've encountered. You people have no idea what stress is. And before you go off and claim that your job is VERY stressful, imagine what your job would be like if you had to do it while being shot at. Or think about having to walk to your boss's desk not knowing if the trash can was about to explode and take your legs off.

Jesus, you people watch a few movies and you think you're Chesty Puller.

*It's okay to compare your job to being in the Air Force; everyone knows those people are pussies.**

**This is a joke. Calm the fuck down.