A Breath-Holding Exercise for Water Photographers

By April 19, 2010December 1st, 2022Photography, Wisdom

I finish my swim workouts with a few minutes of active breathholding exercises which I feel make me a better waterman and a better photographer. Photographers working in or under the water must often deal with chaotic, stressful or just plain physically demanding situations. I have found that being able to better control my heartrate and breathing in such situations really helps me to keep my focus and hopefully come away with a photograph I am proud of. I thought about this today during my swim (just a few minutes ago) and decided to jot this down while I had some clarity of thought, before all that highly oxygenated blood that is buzzing through my brain departs for my belly when I eat lunch.

The Prelude: After a full swim workout, one’s heart is tick-tick-ticking away with optimal performance, and one’s body is piqued and in a elevated state. That is a perfect time to practice relaxation and breath control. My swim today is an example. I swam, pulled and kicked about 2800 yards, which took me about 45-50 minutes. My hunch is that my heart rate neared its peak after about 8 minutes or so, and that it stayed there through the rest of the swim. After about 12 minutes I really felt “in the zone”, and I stayed there the rest of the way. By the time I finished my heart and breathing were really going. Being able to have some control over them at that point is similar to being able to control them in a stressful situation in the ocean.

The Exercise: Once I’m done with my workout, I hang motionless on the side of the pool and relax for about 2 minutes, staring at the tiles on the edge of the pool. I try to mentally eliminate any distrations and concentrate on lowering my breathing and heart rates. It sounds funny but I honestly feel that I can lower my heartrate just by thinking about it. After a couple minutes of relaxing this way, I will then swim a series of five to eight breathhold cycles (25 yards out, turn, 25 yards back). I will swim out, turn, and swim as far back as is comfortable underwater before rising for a first breath. I then swim the remainder of the cycle slowly on the surface, as relaxed as possible and breathing deeply and easily. I think about my heartrate the whole time, focusing on keeping it slow and easy, and on keeping my entire body relaxed and streamlined. I should stress that I try to remain comfortable doing this. I do not want to push the breath holding too far while swimming underwater, for fear of blacking out and drowning.

Bubble ring

Bubble ring.
Image ID: 06998

I first came up with this technique about 14 years ago, in preparation for a photography assignment where I had keep up with world class swimmers and wild dolphins in open water. These expeditions were repeated about 6 times, plus Skip and I had a series of whale filming and photography shoots during those years as well, so once I started these breathholding exercises I just never stopped. I have kept them essentially unchanged since 1998. I carry out this exercise at the end of all of my swim workouts. While some days I feel and swim better than others, just about every time I practice it I find that on each successive breathhold cycle I can swim further underwater than the cycle before. The entire exercise takes about 8 minutes to complete. My heart rate feels lower each cycle, and my breathing definitely relaxes and slows during the course of the exercise. By the time I get out of the pool, I am very relaxed.

The Payoff: This exercise has a direct application when I am in the water shooting photos. Whether I am in large surf, strong currents, surrounded by a lot of animals, getting bumped or inspected by some big or gnarly animals, or am just in some generally stressful situation, as a result of my pool exercises I am better able to regain my focus, guide my body into a more relaxed state, lower my breathing and heartrate, function more efficiently and with fewer errors, and increase my margin of safely. All of these things also increase the odds that I will emerge from the situation with a good photograph.

Plus it helps you blow good bubble rings underwater.

About Phil Colla

I am a natural history photographer. I enjoy making compelling images in the ocean, on land, and in the air. I have maintained the Natural History Photography blog since 2005 and my searchable Natural History Photography Library since 1997. Here are some tear sheets and behind the scenes views. Thanks for looking!