In the zone, or not. Train the mind.

F2 Powerboat crash

Sportsmen and women aim to get "in the zone". The importance of the mind in so many forms of performance is now properly appreciated. Being in the zone is about freeing the mind to let the "muscle memory" from the hours of practice deliver the desired performance.

It is not just athletes that benefit from "the zone" but also all kinds of other performers such as musicians and I suggest it also applies to photographers.

Just as one cannot think yourself through a golf swing or a tennis serve, the same is true for many forms of photography. For news, sports, street and even child or wedding photographers one has to rely on instinct to capture the best moment. One has to allow the subconscious to deliver. As a result of the many hours of training the subconscious mind knows what to do so the secret is to stop the conscious mind from getting in the way. It is not a new idea, it goes back at least to the 1970s when the "inner game" was a discussion topic in many sports. It is now much better understood and the lessons more widely applied in many aspects of life; the concepts of "mindfulness" is just another manifestation of the same thinking.

Over the holiday period I have been reflecting on when I most enjoy my photograph. Not surprisingly I found it coincides with when I do my best photography. I realised that I am at my best when I get "into the zone" to BE a photographer.

Being a photographer; in the zone

I most often find myself in the zone when shooting subjects over which I have no control; typically street photography, sport and news events. Sometimes it can happen in other situations such as when shooting travel but it is much rarer and less intense an experience. I am not a natural studio or set piece photographer. When it is going well I find several things happen:

  • I have a sense of heightened awareness, pictures are everywhere. Surprisingly I can find myself in an almost euphoric state where I am both relaxed and focussed. While being focussed on the action in front of me and acting instinctively I am still aware of my surroundings I can think about less immediate, more considered decisions, for example, do I need to change position to get a different angle to tell the story? But I am still taking pictures of the action as it unfolds.
  • I just let the subconscious take control, my photography becomes more instinctive and, perhaps surprisingly, more accurate in its framing and composition.
  • Seeing the picture and taking it just flows naturally. There is no time, or indeed need, for the conscious mind to act. The heightened awareness means I see picture opportunities almost before they happen. It is not extra-sensory but rather that I am just subconsciously aware of all the small details that will influence what will happen—as Sherlock Holmes says to Doctor Watson in Scandal in Bohemia: "You see, but you do not observe". The subconscious can observe if one does not allow thinking to get in the way.

For example I was standing with another experienced and well equipped sports photographer who missed some dramatic action completely but I got the picture at the head of this article. I just KNEW something was about to happen. It was not even a sport with which I was particularly familiar. It was part of  a short burst (one of the few sequences I shot that day).

When I am in the zone and working at my best I have a fabulous feeling of wellbeing, calm with a sense of euphoria. At its best and most intense it can almost be an "out of body experience". At such times I would not want to be anywhere else or doing anything different. I just revel in BEING a photographer.

Doing photography, outside the zone

Of course, it often does not happen or at least not as fully. At the point I cannot just BE a photographer I have to work hard at DOING photography. Many things can stop me getting into the zone, my mood, worries about other matters, tiredness or photography not being the foremost purpose at the time, when it is just a fill in, perhaps between other work.

  • Just doing photography becomes hard work and is no fun. Sometimes working at it, or events themselves, lead to a better state of mind but all too often it would be better to simply do something other than trying to find and take pictures.
  • At its worst when I am just doing photography I struggle to see any pictures, or even the possibility of pictures. Even when I try to force it nothing quite works, I even start to miss the composition or the exposure. My conscious mind gets in the way of those thousands of hours of practice over many years. At best I am consciously competent and the results are ordinary, it can be much worse…
  • To continue the sporting analogies it is just like an out of form batsman in cricket, it is a case of plugging away and "batting" oneself back into form; just stick around and work at spending time at the crease. It is often said that "class" is permanent, "form" is temporary. Stick at it and the downturn in form will be reversed. But you cannot get back to form without trying to perform; perhaps practicing mindfulness or other mental exercises may help. The loss of form is down to the conscious mind getting in the way.
  • If all else fails I go somewhere else, look for some different opportunities or as a last resource I take a break and hope that I can come back fresh. But it is not an excuse just to give up.

Recognising state of mind and working with it, being mindful, is key to producing successful work. One can work at improving the mind's performance and it will bring great benefit especially once the technical skills are second nature.

Train the mind and the body

However al lthis only properly applies to those who are at the top of their game, those who are "unconsciously competent". It has been discovered, originally amongst violinists at the Berlin Academy, that the top performers, the future concert soloists, had put in an average of 10,000 hours of deliberate, disciplined practice on top of their innate talent. I have been around elite sports people for much of my life and I see a difference of approach between the stars and the merely good. The stars not only train hard but they spend much of the rest of their time thinking about their sport, their technique. They are constantly rehearsing their skills in their mind so that when they have to perform they just have to let their subconscious mind take control—they relax and visualise a perfect performance to get themselves "in the zone".

There is also a need to prepare for a photography session. To know what you want from it and why you are there. In that way one can create the framework in which the subconscious can deliver the performance one needs. What form that preparation takes will depend on one's needs and the specific circumstances—it is the area of my photography that is least well developed and I will be actively working on improving my preparation during 2016.

In addition, as part of my new approach is the discipline of practicing diligently and mindfully to create more opportunities to get in the zone. And then when I am in that heightened state to milk it for all it is worth. When the moments come I will make the most being "in the zone.


No Avatar
John Allison Jones (not verified) on Mon, 04/01/2016 - 17:03

I believe you are talking about  "Mindfullness" - techniques of cognitive therapy quietly gathering momentum in all kinds of areas

Thanks for the article


No Avatar
Martin P Wilson on Mon, 11/01/2016 - 09:23

I started with the idea of the Inner Game, a big thing in sport in the 1970s. I applied when I was a serious yaracing sailor. It was the start of training the mind as well as the body for sport.


In recent years I have been practicing meditation and mindfulness for stress management, mental health and wellbeing in general. I recognised what you recognised and but wanted to focus on the experience. The 'in the zone' experience has always come naturally to me since I focussed on the inner game in my eilte sporting days. So I guess with my development of mindfullness skills in recent years I just get into that state earlier and perhaps deeper.


All the best





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