My wife used to work for an arts non-profit that had an annual event at Lincoln Center. A board member brought in actors, musicians, writers, artists 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.
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.
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.
As the world has been crumbling apart, I haven’t done much 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 stupid. Like, really, really stupid.
And that feeling is what kills creativity. It’s awful. You’re doing a thing that seems rad and then you look down at yourself when the project is still raw and an inner critic arrives to tear you down when you’re at your most vulnerable.
So I was fed up and about to pack it in when I remembered the tip about holding your breath.
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.
As I focused on it, 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 head.
I had to remember how to breathe to make this one work.
Embrace the absurdity.