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

Michael Yearout's picture

I learned that technique of breathing when I first started yoga. I does work very well.

Paul Parker's picture

As much as I love my breathing exercises I'm still to embrace yoga. I have no reason why I haven't tried it yet I just haven't. I really should fit it into my life and the flexibility I hear it brings can't be bad for photographers either!

Do you have any recommendations or starting points for yoga?

Ryan Brenizer's picture

Extremely standard meditative breathing technique but still good advice as incredibly helpful. I am not crunchy at all but have doubled down on meditation during pandemic and I highly recommend even short sessions. A study even showed recently that a month of meditation produces changes in the brain you can see on an MRI

Paul Parker's picture

It's really great to hear other photographers are already doing breathing exercises. I wasn't sure what I would find when I wrote this piece.

Do you have any recomendations for any advanced breathing tecnhnicques which some of our readers may like to try?

Paul Parker's picture

The MRI study you mention sounds fascinating too. I will have to investigate that further. Thanks!

Robert Bell's picture

I used to be a coffee and cigarettes man when I needed a hit but that was many years ago. It's not a good cycle to be in. After some surgery I got into breathing methods to help with lung capacity. Do them every morning and night. Never really thought about them being meditation but I guess they are.

Paul Parker's picture

It doesn't matter what you call it as long as it works for you that is the main thing. :)

Alfonse Diantonio's picture

Good for you to change bad habits into good ones! An inspiration

Alfonse Diantonio's picture

Your so welcome friend!

Richard Twigg's picture

How is the soldier in the first image taking a picture with his hands like that? Or doing anything with the camera other than just looking through it?

Ryan Mense's picture

The image has been flipped

Brad Smith's picture

yea, we would never expect an image to accurately depict what the headline says on fstoppers, right?

Travis Pinney's picture

the image is mirrored, look at the Airborne patch on his arm, you can also see that the terminal/memory card side is facing outward and his hand is actually on the shutter release

Wayne Johnson's picture

If the image IS flipped then (based on the patch) we are looking at the left shoulder of an Army soldier assigned to the 25th Infantry Division. Not a Seal. Not even in the Navy!

Daris Fox's picture

This is also helpful/interesting from the Pentax groups:

https://www.pentaxforums.com/reviews/long-exposure-handhelds/introductio...

Paul Parker's picture

This is an excellent point Daris, thanks for the heads up.

Timothy Gasper's picture

This is nothing new. It is centuries old as taught in the Shaolin Temples and elsewhere. I taught this to all my students during Shaolin, Tai Chi, Qi Gung and Yoga. Also taught to Special Forces in Vietnam War for mind relaxation and focus.

Alfonse Diantonio's picture

You know what they say: nothing new under the sun! And if it isn’t broken, don’t dedicate it!

Paul Parker's picture

I'd love to hear any recommendations for our readers about other breathing exercises you think might be useful to our comunity Timothy?

Timothy Gasper's picture

Well that would be a rather lengthy dissertation. The first exercise taught at our Shaolin school is called Yi Jin Jing. It was designed to bring longation of oxygen to be dispersed to the sinews and tendons and other important parts of the body so it will be well stretched and strengthened. The exercise has 9 positions where each position is held for 9 breath counts. It was developed by Boddhidharma who migrated from Northern India to the Temple in Northern China. After finding the monks rather lethargic and out of shape, he resigned himself to a cave for x amount of time and came out with 2 sets of exercises.....Yi Jin Jing and Xi Shui Jing. They became the foundations of what would later become Shaolin kung fu. Kung fu itself doesn't neccessarily have anything in particular with martial arts. The term kung fu means a high proficiency of skill at any given task. When spoken together with kung fu wu shu...it then refers to martial arts. Wu shu meaning martial arts.

Paul Parker's picture

This is fascinating, I feel like I'm only just getting started on my journey. I will investigate this more. Many thanks!

Jason Parnell-Brookes's picture

Great article! I regularly retain my breath at crucial moments when shooting to keep a steady hand, especially when shooting slow shutter speeds handheld. Pranayama yoga breath is very similar, and Wim Hof does a great job at expanding on this technique.

Paul Parker's picture

Great to hear so many photographers already using this. I always here about Wim Hof but haven't actually investiagted his teachings. Time to change that... : )

super steel_'s picture

flip the image back

sam w's picture

I never learned the technique, but I found that breathing purposefully as I frame a shot that I can take sharper photos with the long lenses, or more often, slow shutter speed handheld.

Paul Parker's picture

Great to hear so many photographers already using similar techniques. Every little helps...

dean wilson's picture

Actually the image is not flipped. This is a beta left-handed version Nikon developed for the Airborne Seals Team of soldier seaman. Semper Fi, Coastie and Aim High.

dean wilson's picture

Perhaps I should have added..."to Infinity and beyond" so also reference the United States Space Force?

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