Any athlete, performer, musician, artist, and even a stock broker knows what its like to hit the “zone”. Its the point during a performance when all technical mechanics fly out the window and the performer enters a state of zen. Their mind, body and equipment all work together in a ethereal cohesive unison. Its as if all the components are not separate units working with or controlling each other. They are one single body. Really, its not something that can be explained. But when you are in the zone, you know you are hitting a certain elevated sense of self awareness as well as awareness of all things around you. You don’t need to think about physically “doing” your performance or activity, it just happens.
I’ve had the pleasure of truly being in the zone a few times while riding my mountain bike. I remember those times because I was screaming down a singletrack trail, jumping over logs, dodging rocks, flowing through s-turns at very high speeds. The kind of riding that requires a considerable level of skill and focus. The kind of riding that if that skill and focus slips, it would result in a mangled face, broken back or even death in certain circumstances. But when I hit that zone, I was riding faster and harder than I ever, yet my lines were as smooth as I ever could have ever wished for. And the funny things is…all I was thinking about was my girlfriend, a photo project, or a friend I had seen earlier in the day. Mentally, I wasn’t even mountain biking. I wasn’t thinking, OH A ROCK…slow down or STEEP TURN…apply rear break and apply force on frame with left thigh while leaning back. Those were actions that had been ingrained in my mind and body. I had done them thousands of times before so when it was time for those decisions to be made in fractions of a second, my mind, body and equipment did what it was supposed to do…intuitively. And in certain cases, my body and mind allowed me to go to another place consciously while it operated a mountain bike on a fast, technical trail subconsciously. That’s the true zone!
Over the last 25 years, I have conditioned my body to work with a bike. I know how a bike is going to react in most circumstances. I know what my reaction times are as well as my threshold of pain and abuse. Over many years of riding, I have pushed my limits and I know where they are.
At this point, you’re asking, OK dude, this is a photo blog, what’s your point?
My point is, while in a photo shoot, no matter what kind it may be, you will create your best work when you enter that zone. When your mind is not encumbered with technical issues or mechanics, it is allowed to break free and truly create. When you are not thinking about lighting ratios or menu steps, you enter a special connection with your subjects. If you know what your limitations are, you can perform right up to that threshold without thinking about it. This is only achieved by practice, practice, practice! That practice is the repetition of actions and process. Those are the same actions you will encounter again and again on shoots. You will solve problems before they arise because you’ve already experienced them in practice.
A great analogy is when Payton Manning is 17 points down in the 4th quarter with 5:38 on the clock, is he is thinking, “Oh shit, I wonder what I should try now.”
He has run that exact scenario over and over and over and over again in his head and in practice. When the defense sets up a scheme, he is intuitively looking for receivers that are going to match up well with that type of defensive package. His first, second and third options were decided before he ever handled the ball. He’s already planned for what obstacles the defense is going to present him with, so he can concentrate on delivering perfect passes to his receivers. Each action working unison with the next to get a result. He’s in the zone.
All shoots will have their issues and problems. It might be a demanding client, a blown strobe or model who didn’t show up because “her boyfriend didn’t understand her feelings that morning”. Whatever it might be, we are paid to do a job. If we can’t do that, then we aren’t professionals. My job is solving problems. If I solve all the problems, then the job is done. With practice, you will be prepared for potential problems and think about all the possible obstacles beforehand. You will be ready to handle most scenarios that come your way with less anxiety or distraction. Big problems will become minor inconveniences with manageable solutions.
And when that happens, you get to enter the zone.