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How Do I Get in the Zone?

Published: 11/10/2019

Author: Tony Colangelo

Jessie in Salt Lake City, UT writes:

“A couple of weeks ago, I had the best shoot of my life and I ended up with some great shots! The best part of it, though, was how I felt at the shoot because everything just seemed to click. I guess you could say I was in the zone. The problem is, since then, I’ve had several shoots but haven’t been able to get that feeling back. I know that top athletes talk about being in the zone a lot. Is there something I can do to get that feeling back?”

I think we've all experienced times when it seems everything we do at a shoot just seems to work out. As Jessie mentioned in his question, we hear this notion of "being in the zone" a lot from pro athletes. Sometimes, we even experience it ourselves when playing sports (i.e., we’re playing golf and for a few holes, we know all of our shots are headed right where we’re aiming.) The question becomes: “How do we get there?” Interestingly, this is a key area of study--particularly in the field of sports psychology. In my research into this area, I’ve found that great athletes don’t get into “the zone” simply by force of will. Instead, they institute a number of behaviors/beliefs and I’d like to share a few of them:

Intense Preparation. The best athletes are usually the first ones at practice and the last to leave, practicing new moves/techniques over and over again, hour after hour. Noted executive coach and sports psychologist, Dr. Mark Zubin, speaks about this point when he says: “You simply cannot be in 'the zone' if your preparation doesn’t warrant the level of desired performance. I often tell my clients you have to earn the right to be confident. You earn this right with proper preparation.” If I were to equate this to our world of real estate photography, I’d say that the best way to prepare is to learn as much as you can about a certain technique and practice it before applying it at an actual shoot. One of the ways we can bake this into our onsite workflow is by using a technique that I talk about near the end of my video tutorial on composition. Specifically, I share my habit of muttering three words to myself before I take each shot--a mantra, so to speak--with each of those words representing something I need to remember to make sure that I’ve executed all the things that I need to think through, before I actually press the trigger. For me, doing this is a way of effectively putting into play, what I'd been practicing.

Visualization.  This is something that all great athletes do. For example, every great golfer in the world uses a “pre-shot routine” that allows them to be present and focused on the shot at hand. You’ll see them standing well behind their golf ball and visualizing the trajectory and flight of their ball before they hit it. In other words, they paint a picture in their mind of the result they want. In coming up with an example of applying this to our work, I thought about how Scott Hargis, in his Lighting for Real Estate Photography video, talks about the importance of noting the ambient light before positioning our off-camera flash(es). Taking an ambient shot allows us to visualize where we need to place our flashes. Then, taking a test shot with those flashes in place, prompts us to make adjustments in power-levels that hopefully will move the shot closer to the way we ultimately want it to look like.

Getting out of Your Own Way! As I said earlier in my golf example, all great golfers have a pre-shot routine in which they devote time to visualizing a successful result. Taking the time to think about a positive result also has the benefit of taking time away from worrying about a negative result on their next shot. Indeed, you don't need to be a psychologist to know that focusing on the negative takes energy away from our ability to focus on producing our best results. This is what I mean by the term, "getting in your own way". Yes, it's normal to worry or get anxious if we're thrown a curve ball at a shoot but here's the thing: Great athletes/performers acknowledge nerves and anxiety but they don’t focus on it, nor do they allow it to dictate what they’re trying to do. Mike Kelley, in a recent article noted this when he said: “There have been countless times in my career where I’ve literally asked my assistant ‘why in the world are they hiring me for this job?’ I felt totally unqualified to create images of such important projects...” The point I want to make is that, in those moments of self-doubt, Mike recognized his fears, accepted them (perhaps even normalized them!) but then understood that if he ruminated on them, that mindset would get in the way of achieving his desired results.

Jessie, the last point I want to make is this: Being "in the zone" is great but it’s a rare phenomenon. So, do yourself a favor and try doing the things that are noted above (as they’ll help you to be a better photographer, anyway)--but--don’t put undue pressure on yourself by expecting to be in the zone at every single shoot.

Please feel free to share a story about a time when you’ve been in the zone. Thanks!

Tony Colangelo is a residential and commercial photographer, as well as a photography coach, based in Victoria, BC, Canada. He is a long-time contributor to PFRE and is the creator of The Art & Science of Great Composition tutorial series.

6 comments on “How Do I Get in the Zone?”

  1. @TonyColangelo I think your "origin story" helped me understand the really great perspective you bring on the "human condition" of aspiring RE photographers such as myself. The guidance the PFRE site provides via the give-and-take of questions, answers and comments is invaluable!

  2. @ Bill Baughman ... If you're referring to the recent post, entitled 'What Is Your Origin Story?', that wonderful article was written by PFRE contributor, Jordan Powers, so credit should go to him. 🙂

  3. The only time I remember not being "in the zone" was when I was shooting electronic equipment, all in beige boxes, all with red digital read outs and all shot either on location or in my studio. I thought I would go mad. I finally decided to do some travel articles for travel magazines that got me away from commercial photography and renewed my love affair with photography. But with RE photography, and no other photography have I ever felt I was not in the zone. But I have a feeling that the "zone" is different for everyone; each with a different sense of what is their zone. For me, generally, just doing any photography puts me in my zone. I love what I do and each shoot is that enough different (except for those beige boxes) that it calls on my ingenuity to pull rabbits out of the zone hat and bring back the goodies to a satisfied client. My greatest, and I think most interesting, challenges are not the high end properties where you basically just aim your camera and press the shutter (OK that is over simplified I know), but those less than interesting properties that do not stand out either esthetically, artistically, architecturally and certainly not for interior design.

    These are houses and properties where you have to balance making them look as good as you can while not misrepresenting them. Often they are fixer-uppers, houses of the elderly who have migrated to a care home and have left a house with worn carpets with furniture impression, way out of date kitchens and bathrooms and bedrooms with faded paint and wall papers except where picture frames once hung and where Venetian blinds sag and don't work. In those cases, I have to see what the house and property could be with the right imagination, some remodeling, new landscaping and perhaps an addition. So I have to frame my shots to show its potential. I have had 40 acre ranches where forest fires had taken most of its good points to a little house I shot the other day where the owner had had to move to assisted care and for years had not been able to care for his yard that had been filled with all sorts of little Japanese styled micro-areas, an empty coy pond, citrus trees, broken up cement patio areas, a front yard suffering from drought and a 1940's interior. Fortunately the agent had had it painted inside with bright white new paint that covered up a lot of what would have been sad visuals.

    This sort of thing really puts me in my own zone since I have to use all the tools in my mental tool box to make the property look as good as it can and show the spaces where a buyer can write their own imprint in their mind's eye. A few months ago I shot a house that had been "improved" by an owner/builder in the most hideous taste with many illegal modifications and structures. So a challenge to make it look as good as it can look under those circumstances, much of which is achieved by the graphic design of the camera angles and lighting and twilight shots. Great properties become so ho-hum in comparison even if they are the ones you want on your internet portfolio.

    Interestingly, many of my clients use less expensive photographers to take the middle of the road, well kept properties photo coverages and pay me more for the poor properties that need that extra care even if my prices are harder to manage with the smaller commissions. Even though I personally tend to cringe at the photo results, they are grateful that the property looks appealing enough to get buyers to give them a call. And yet when they see the property, it looks like the photos and since they have those images already seared into their mind's eye, they tend to start off with that as their first impression and making adjustments for what the property actually is becomes a very small leap.

    Our job is to create that first impression and it can be a great challenge. So if you are not "in the zone" perhaps you need to expand your self expectations and expectations for any job. See its unique challenges to challenge your skills. My clients tend to take for granted that a great property will show great photo results, but really appreciate good shots of poor properties that can be hard to move.

  4. I agree with all Tony had to say.

    I've found myself in "The Zone" many times. And I think it is mostlly due to an established routine I use on every photo shoot. I must say it only works if I am alone or whoever is with me is quite and does not ask me questions. It doesn't work every time, but it works often enough that I have really come to enjoy it. I just lose myself in my photography.

  5. In my own experience “the zone” occurs when the whole world fades away and leaves you to your task. No realtors or owners or time tables or…. You’ve turned off the music in your head (Jethro Tull) and are totally “focused” on the challenge at hand. A challenge that you understand how to meet (preparation). It happens all to rarely.
    I suspect Jessie that you haven’t been back “in” because of your subject matter. I’ve never been in the zone when shooting a poorly styled and/or cluttered space. It only happens when you are pumped up about what you are creating.
    Try this the next time you are faced with a less than stunning home. Pretend it belongs to Selma Hayek and she has just told you how excited she is about seeing your work!
    P.S. Get a better set of darts. You can’t enter the zone with those silly plastic and brass things.
    P.P.S. If Jessie is female substitute Brad Pitt or whoever.

  6. Being in the Zone is not all that difficult for me, BUT one primary element is to make sure there are no distractions. If I'm shooting a home and there's a homeowner, realtor, or family member there while I shoot, I find it very difficult to get into "the Zone". Possibly this harkens back to earlier days when I was painting and drawing. But if I have no distractions, I find it much easier to concentrate on what I'm doing and the Zone just happens magically for me...

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