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Get Into The Photo Zone

It’s taken me two years and some convincing from my son Aaron and his friend Sofya (both scratch golfers) to write this blog. I want to share my thoughts on a subject that is hard to verbalize – getting into the zone and being in a space where your mind and body are in sync.

I grew up playing sports and at one point was very serious about wanting to make the US Ski Team. I won’t get into the complicated point system of amateur ski racing, but suffice it to say I was a good season or two from knocking on the door of the US Development Team. Then a series of knee injuries began, followed by several knee surgeries. Finally, I had a very well-respected surgeon at Stanford tell me he saved enough of my knee so I could function in life but my ski racing days were over.

Of course, being 22 and stubborn, I rehabbed, ignored my surgeon’s advice and turned to a professional circuit where I raced against ex-Olympians and other pros. My first race, a dual slalom with 8-foot jumps, showed me what I fool I was. On the second of four jumps, my knee gave way and I ended up going head first into a tree (back in those days, no one wore a helmet). When I came to, I refused to be carted off the hill in a sled and staggered down the hill in front of my colleagues like a drunk. To say I was heartbroken was an understatement, but that was in another life.

Stormy Sky, Snake River Overlook, Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming.
 Sony α7R II, Sony 24-70mm f/2.8 G Master lens. 1/13-sec., f/11,ISO 100. Breakthrough Polarizer.

We all have our ups and downs and I was taught to come away with something positive from every experience. Back then, I wasn’t sure what that was, but looking back now and seeing how my life unfolded, I had learned a lot from all my coaches and fellow competitors. I had learned how to get myself into a zone and how to sync my mind and body to a state of what the experts call “flow.”

Eventually I went back to college and got my degree in journalism with an emphasis on photojournalism. I found I could marry my love of sport with my love of photography.

I believe my advantage over others was (and still is) my ability to work hard and to get myself in the zone when I am with my camera.

I went on to do some work with Sports Illustrated, the NBA, MLB and the San Jose Sharks (where I’m co-team photographer with Rocky Widner who is an awesome shooter).

Lessons From A Monday Night Football Game

Some years ago, The New York Times wanted a photographer to cover a Monday Night Football game between the San Francisco 49ers and the NY Giants (both undefeated) billed as “The Clash of the Titans.” One of my editors at SI passed along my name and I was hired.

It was typical back then for me to arrive at the stadium three hours before kickoff. I remember feeling unusually edgy while hanging out with my colleagues at Candlestick Park. I knew part of my edginess was nerves – I had never worked on assignment for The Times and I wanted to prove they made a good decision.

Kickoff rolled around and I still wasn’t calm. This caused me to get out-of-sync with what normally came easy to me. What settles me down is to do some deep breathing exercises with my eyes closed – which I did at the first TV timeout. I also said some prayers and asked for calmness to come over me. I guess God was a football fan that night. We came back out of the break and I started to find a rhythm where the action actually seemed to go in slow-motion. I was making images and made a key image of a diving catch that put the Giants on the board. In short, I was locked-in – I was in The Zone.

Fortunately, I stayed that way for the remainder of the game and ended up with a large image on page one and also two images on page one of the Sports section– with a few more inside. The Giants had won with a last-minute field goal and it was all there – right in front of me – all I had to do was press the shutter – it all seemed so easy.

How The Zone Works In Landscape Photography

Back when I was making a living as a sports photographer, landscape photography was my escape. It allowed me the opportunity to create without the pressure of being on a deadline or trying to please editors – I only wanted to please myself. Then one day, I got thinking about The Zone and thought I would apply it to a shoot I was doing around the area where I live, the southern Santa Clara Valley. It starts again with the cleansing breaths and then I add some favorite soothing music to the mix as I’m driving.

All this gets my mind into a creative state which is a good place to be for any photographer. As much as I love shooting with others, I often do my best work when I’m alone. I’m free to get into my creative state with no distractions. From there, it’s a feel thing. I begin to read the light and pay attention to my emotional connections (and excitement) of what I am seeing. To get into The Zone, it’s paramount that one knows their camera intimately. You don’t want to be fighting a technical issue when the moment is happening. Think of the camera & lens as nothing more than an extension of you. Cameras don’t make the photographer, your eyes, mind, and emotions do. The camera & lens are just a conduit. Great images are made with all sorts of cameras every day. Having said that, I do make my living with my images, so top-of-the-line gear is a must and I have turned that part of the process over to Sony cameras and lenses.

Practice, Practice, Practice!

None of this stuff just happens, it takes practice. Years and years of practice. It’s a slow process, but it’s a process and if you want to make progress, you must stay disciplined. People at the top of any field aren’t just blessed with some magic power. They do have a gift (talent), but only through blood, sweat and tears do they achieve success. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve thought about quitting and doing something else with my life. I’m blessed to have the love and support of my family and I’m blessed that I pray every day. I believe firmly that God gave me this gift but I also realized that a gift is not enough. Hard work on a daily basis had to be applied by me. I believe this is what I was meant to do with my life and to honor God, I create and show off his beauty. I know many of you have different beliefs and I am not trying to push mine onto you (I fully respect the beliefs of others), I’m just describing who I am.

On-average, I shoot five days per week, 52 weeks per year, and I’m going on year 41 as a working pro. I’m still learning daily. I have a love of learning and yes, I’m incredibly fortunate to be making a career with my camera. And I couldn’t be where I am today without that constant practice.

Make it part of your daily routine to spend some time with your camera. Get to know it so well that you can use it blindfolded. Then, get to work on improving your vision. Shooting is a great way to improve your vision. Study art. The web is filled with great imagery, but when was the last time you were actually in a gallery? Make this a part of your life.

Five Steps To Get Yourself Into The Zone

Can you get yourself in the Zone? Yes, I firmly believe you can, but like anything, you have to work at it. My advice is to start by dealing with whatever is bothering you in life. Mend those relationships and associate yourself with positive people. Your mind has to be in a relaxed state when you try to create. If you are worried about the argument you just had with your spouse, you are not in a good spot.

Second, before you go out to shoot, slow yourself down. As I mentioned, music works great for me. Whatever you do to put yourself in a relaxed state, do it!

Third, stay in the moment. My wife Beri, has taught me this and I’m so grateful. Nature will unfold as it’s meant to, just like life. I’m a control freak and I’m working hard to stop that. If you fill your mind with preconceived thoughts about a potential scene, you will miss the beauty of anything that wasn’t what you had imagined it to be, so empty your mind and be receptive. I know a lot of landscape photographers search the web to get an idea about a place they’re photographing. I don’t. I want to experience a new location with no preconceived imagery bouncing around in my brain. I want the joy of seeing something with fresh eyes and respond the way I want to. I don’t want to re-create another photographer’s image.

Fourth, take some time to really get a sense of where you are and what’s connecting with your emotions. Don’t be so quick to put a camera to your eye. Arrive early and ease into the picture-making process. Only when I feel a connection to the scene do I allow myself to shoot.

Finally, block out all distractions. If you have a chatty friend, kindly ask him or her to not talk – you need time to concentrate. Remember to take some cleansing breathes and lock-in on what’s moving you. Don’t pay a bit of attention to what others are shooting. Work your own scene and express your own feelings. Your images are nothing more than a physical representation of what you’re seeing in your mind and feeling in your heart. We want to share our experiences with others via our images. That’s what makes this all worthwhile.

If you can get to this spot, you’re in The Zone, time and space will become meaningless and the magic won’t stop until the light fades. It’s a cool experience and I hope all of you get there and learn what it takes to get there often.


My son Aaron is pursuing a degree in Psychology at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff. He read this post and wrote me the following note: “What you are talking about is ‘mindfulness’ when you are shooting. That’s when you try to empty your thoughts and not think of anything in particular. That’s essentially the basis of meditation.”

He went on to say, “I’ve recently learned about the importance of feeling and expressing gratitude. That, combined with deep breathing can trigger flow as well. It’s basically manually triggering your ‘feel good’ chemicals in your brain, which is going to lead to clear thoughts and synced motor function.”

Final Thoughts

Do I get in The Zone all the time? No, not even close. Tiger Woods calls this his B-game and one has to learn how to make compelling imagery even when their A-game is not there. One way I teach my students to do this is by verbalizing what is exciting about the scene they are seeing. Perhaps the scene has potential and one just has to stay patient and wait for the right light to arrive.

If you’re struggling to find The Zone, go to your Plan B and verbalize three descriptive words about what is moving you about the scene in front of you. Once you have your words, build an image around those thoughts and have some fun in the process!

Don Smith is a Sony Artisan Of Imagery. See more about him here.


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