Life, Photography

Three ways to take better photographs when you’re tired and stressed

We knew it would be crowded and loud and bright. We expected to be overwhelmed. Yet when we arrived there, we were disappointed. It was just giant televisions. And it was exhausting.

You’ve seen vintage photos of Times Square, I’m sure: neon and incandescent signs lining Broadway, lighting the street as if it were daytime. Coca-Cola! Gordon’s gin! Camel cigarettes! Admiral televisions! Canadian Club! I don’t know why I expected it to still be that way in this age of giant screens.

Times Square

We reached Times Square after a full day in the city. After a cruise on the Hudson River, we had walked from Chelsea Pier all the way to to the World Trade Center, and from there to the Brooklyn Bridge. We took a crowded, jostling subway back to Midtown. And then as night fell in Times Square, we couldn’t tune out the screens’ always-in-motion subjects. They kept tweaking our peripheral vision, making us turn to look. It kept us disoriented, and sapped what little energy we had left.

Times Square

It shows in my confused photography. The noise, both visual and aural, was too much for me, and I couldn’t clearly think about my shots. So I just vaguely aimed the camera and hoped for the best.

Times Square

And then, there was this guy. The fellow in the bright green jacket, sitting. Looking serene. As if none of this were happening around him.

Times Square

I didn’t actually notice him until I processed these shots at home. (If I had, I might have put him in a more interesting place in the frame.) But then I remembered: I know how to do this. But I couldn’t practice it because I went in too tired after a highly stimulating day walking around Manhattan. I was carried away in the excitement of an otherwise great day and had pushed too far. I couldn’t focus internally, so it was no wonder I couldn’t focus my shots.

So here, then, is how to stay fresh and able to focus when surrounded by chaos — whether with your camera or just in your own head as you do anything.

Learn your limits — and how to work with them. What happens in your body when you are about to cross into overtired and overstressed? For me, one tell is pressure at my temples. Another is an empty, blank feeling. A third is that I talk less and less with people around me, as if I’m conserving energy. When you recognize your warnings, pause to refresh.

Also, learn to recognize situations when you tend to tap out. Early in my career I went to a lot of conferences. At first, the high stimulation wore me out each day by late afternoon, and I had nothing left for the evening, when the important networking happened. So I started not signing up for anything during the last afternoon session. I went back to my quiet hotel room and read and napped. This refilled my tank enough that I could network the evening away.

Check in with yourself from time to time. Under normal circumstances it’s easier to read yourself and know when you’ve had enough. But in an unfamiliar setting or on a very exciting day, it’s easy lose touch with yourself. So pause from time to time to scan your thoughts and your body to learn how you’re feeling.

It had been a very long day with a lot more walking than we are used to — at least five miles! We had stopped for a rest a couple times, once at a little historic church near the WTC (photos in a blog post to come!) and once at a Starbucks. Those would have been great times to take a minute to scan my mind and body and see how I was doing.

Dip into your energy reserve with easy mindfulness techniques. Even when you’re tired and stressed, you can do some quick, simple things to find a little internal calm and a little extra energy that can carry you through.

Many mindfulness techniques take a lot of practice to do well. Fortunately, there are a few you can do anywhere you are with little or no practice. My favorite is to stand still where I am, take a few deep breaths, and raise the corners of my mouth into a thin half-smile. This lifts your mood a little. At the same time, I use a technique called “willing hands” — I let my arms hang straight down at my sides while deliberately turning my unclenched hands so the palms face forward. This helps you accept the reality you’re in and be calm in it, even when it’s overwhelming. This might sound silly to you — it did to me when I first learned it — but when I tried it, I found it worked immediately. I stand there like that for just a couple minutes, which is usually enough to let me focus and think again.

And then I get on with taking more photographs!

Canon PowerShot S95, shot raw, processed in Photoshop.

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5 thoughts on “Three ways to take better photographs when you’re tired and stressed

  1. Great post Jim! I echo your sentiments, even as a native New Yorker. Times Square may get the attention, but it’s a bit over-rated once you’re there. It’s just a big hang out spot with huge TV screens advertising stuff :-)

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