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.