27 Inspiring Photography Tips From Steve McCurry

There’s a saying that success leaves clues. One of the best ways to improve your photography skills is to study the greats. For me, and a countless number of other photography enthusiasts, Steve McCurry is a legend. He’s a National Geographic and Magnum photographer, but most people know him for one of the most iconic images of our time, the Afghan girl. He’s much more than a single photo though.

I wanted to get into the head of McCurry find out more about the process behind his product. As far as I know, he doesn’t give any classes or blog about how to make better images. He said he prefers to do what he does best – take photos – and let other people teach. I’ve put together a collection of videos he was in to create my own virtual Steve McCurry Masterclass. He gives some great practical tips. But more importantly, you see that he is a highly passionate individual with a strong sense of purpose and lust for life.

First, have a look at this video if you aren’t familiar with his work. Leica put it together for his 2011 Leica Hall of Fame award. Oddly enough, it seems like he always shoots Nikon.

27 Photography Tips According To McCurry

1. Follow your passion. “One of the most important points that I always remind myself when doing a story or being in a location is to look for situations and be involved in things that you care about, stories that have meaning to you.”

2. Expect great photos in unexpected places. “One of the most important lessons I’ve learned is some of the great pictures happen along the journey and not necessarily at your destination.”

3. Get out and shoot. “Find the story and then attack it…Too much preparation can lead to procrastination. You need to keep shooting. That’s the main objective.”

4. Don’t give up on an image. “One key to finding the right situation, the right light, the right moment, is to go back time and time again until you feel you’ve really gotten the best you can out of that situation.”

5. Knock on doors. You might need to go inside a stranger’s home to get the best shot. Get outside your comfort zone. “It all depends on how you relate to people, and how you develop connection with people and bring them into your process, and have them believe on what you’re doing, and kind of wonderful things happen from that.”

6. Say Hello. “I always try and give people respect instead of running up and putting my camera in their face.” And treat your subjects as equals.

7. Tell an interesting story. “The important thing is to say something that’s going to matter, something that will change my viewpoint about the world, something I can learn from.”

8. Be in the moment. “I like to walk around silently and just observe what is happening around me…to just be out there alone and just explore and discover and have an adventure with it.”

9. Get a guide (translator or fixer) when you’re in a foreign country. “Then you are more free. If you are alone, you can’t gauge what people are thinking.” And your guide can help keep you out of trouble.

10-15. Persevere. Study the greats. Experiment. Choose your subjects wisely. Respect people’s privacy. This was a short video he made for Epson printers. His advice starts at the 4 minute mark.

16-24. Follow the rules of composition but don’t be afraid to break them. Rule of Thirds. Leading Lines. Diagonals. Framing. Figure to Ground. Fill the Frame. Center Dominant Eye. Patterns and Repetition. Symmetry. “Enjoy yourself. Photograph in your own way and your own style.”

25. Go to places that call to you. “I think the joy of photographing in India is you never quite know what’s waiting for you around the next corner. There’s always the unexpected. There’s always something which can completely be delightful, something which can be horrifying, something which you’ve never seen before, something wonderful, something ancient, something profound, something always ready to strike you in the face.”

26. All good things must come to an end. The Last Roll of Kodachrome is a short doc that follows Steve as he shoots the final 36 frames of Kodachrome film. He gives a bunch of great photography tips as he shoots everyone from Robert De Niro in New York to nomadic snake charmers in India.

27. Don’t just take photos. Leave a legacy. Search for the Afghan Girl is an excellent Nat Geo documentary about Steve’s search for Sharbat Gula, the subject of his 1984 cover photo.

Bonus: I can’t end without mentioning this article from photographer Marius Vieth: 7 Secrets to Success I Learned From Meeting Steve McCurry. He met Steve at a conference and was able to ask him a few questions. He gives some solid advice.

(Cover photo of Steve by John Ramspott via CC.)

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Author: Pete DeMarco

Pete DeMarco is an award-winning travel photographer. His passion for helping people transform their photography shows through in the expert advice he shares. His work has been featured in National Geographic Traveler, CNN, and as a staff writer for Digital Photography School.