My wife used to work for an arts non-profit that had an annual event at Lincoln Center. A board member brought in celebrities who would read poems. I volunteered as support staff every year, which was cool because I got to meet some of my heroes, wander around backstage at Alice Tully Hall, and drink for free at the reception.
Towards the end of one evening I was talking to the event photographer about his job. I was getting into photography at the time and had a lot of questions about process. Shooting in low light, without a flash, is difficult for any photographer. And I knew from seeing his photos from past years that he was both really good at being discrete about using a flash and also able to take super clean shots without the flash in low light.
As an amateur, I take a lot of blurry pictures. When I’m doing the toy photography, I have learned that lighting and silver reflectors are almost always necessary, especially indoors. Toy photography is macro photography, so tripods are essential, too, especially if you want the shot to be crispy clean. But at the same time, you’re photographing a very still subject. Unless you’re doing a backdrop of bokeh explosions and sand and snow. Outdoors, I tend to just go with natural light. (You can also fix almost anything in Adobe Lightroom, tbh.)
Anyway… I asked the photographer about taking pictures in natural light, when the light is low, and you don’t have a tripod and you don’t want to use a flash. Or you can’t. How do you get a picture that isn’t a warm, blurry, under-exposed mess?
His advice was: Buy a light meter, which I still have not done. Take a lot of pictures, which was like okay. And the other bit of advice, which has stuck with me is: Hold your breath.
If you’re about to take a shot and you’re worried about it being blurry or that the lighting is going to suck—stop, find some stillness inside your body, hold your breath, and take the shot. It’s kinda zen, y’know.
A few evenings ago I wanted to take a picture of the Mandalorian and Baby Yoda in a canoe. I thought it would look cute and I could slap it up on Instagram and grab some dopamine-generating likes. Getting the water source right meant filling up an old baking pan with water and positioning it under the trees in my backyard to see what that did to the light. Then, getting the shot—and I was outside at dusk—meant watching the canoe bob around in the pool, fucking up the exposure or whatever and all that.
As the world has been crumbling apart, I haven’t done a lot of photography. These aren’t really the kind of times where I can spend an afternoon taking pictures of toys outside—life and kids and making money and all that. When I do work on a photo, I try to work fast. Keep the idea simple. Run through it quick. Avoid the neighbors. With the canoe and the Baby Yoda, I was working against losing the light, using a tripod wasn’t doing it, and the endeavor had begun to feel really stupid. Like, really stupid.
And that feeling is what kills creativity. It’s an out-of-body experience. You’re doing a thing that seems rad and then you look down at yourself when the project is still raw and it’s just like wha-a-a-at is happening? Go spend some time with your family. Get a real job, y’know.
So I was fed up and about to pack it it when I remembered the holding your breath tip.
The canoe listed about the baking pan filled with water under an oak tree in my backyard, and I held my breath and tried for the shot I wanted. The shot in my head that is impossible to get because that’s just impossible.
And as I controlled my breathing and focused, the composition began to get better. I realized I could get a good reflection of Baby Yoda in the water. That I could capture some nice color tones and bokeh. That I could get close to what I saw in my fucking mind, dude.
I had to remember how to breathe to make this one work.
Embrace the absurdity.