Top photography tips from Steve McCurry

Steve McCurry (born 1950) is known mostly for his amazing portraits - especially for the famous “Afghan Girl” photo. He’s a member of Magnum Photos since 1986.

He studied film making, but as he couldn’t get a job in that area, he decided to devote himself to photography instead.

He chose photography for a couple of reasons:

First, he wanted to travel the world, and second, photography was more interesting than making movies. There’s no script in photography, as you can simply go out and start shooting - it’s very dynamic. It’s a solitary endeavor without much of post-production. Photography is so much fun for him: “you can walk out the door and start taking pictures,” he says.

Here are a few essential things you can learn from Steve McCurry

Push yourself

Walking up to people and asking them to take a portrait is not an easy task. However, if you want to do portraits of strangers, it needs to be done. You have to push yourself to do it. This is what Steve says as well. He doesn’t feel like doing it, but he says that he does push himself to do it.

Steve McCurry

E.g., the famous photo with the Indian man with the sewing machine - Steve described how he had to go to the water himself to take the picture. However, even though the water was really dirty and infested with leeches, he went in there as it was the only way to get a good photo.

He says he doesn’t want to have any regrets, so he does everything he can to get a good picture.

Even though he says that he’s a shy person, he’s still very bold. E.g., he sneaked illegally into Afghanistan in the ’80s to cover the events there, and he bought a one-way ticket to India without any guarantee that he’s going to make it (he was unknown at the time).

Steve says that he was fully committed to make it, to keep persisting and never to give up. To do whatever it takes.

“I have to be bold. I can’t be timid.”

Steve McCurry

According to McCurry, you can’t do the work on the highest possible level if you don’t fully commit.

Essentially, you can’t be lazy - great photos don’t make themselves for you - you have to make them. You have to take action to manifest your idea into an actual picture.

When Steve saw the Afghan girl in a schoolroom (which was actually a tent), he knew immediately that he absolutely has to take a portrait of that girl. However, he was afraid that if he asks, she might refuse.

He was smart - he did portraits of her classmates first, so she had no option but to want to be photographed as well. Nobody wants to be left out - especially the kids.

Steve McCurry, 1995

When he saw the hunched lady, he immediately knew that it was a good scene. He actually followed her, taking pictures and the lady noticed him. They started a conversation (probably with the help of a translator), and Steve found out the story behind her extremely bad luck in life.

Again, if he wouldn’t have been bold and jumped in, this photo would not exist. He says that “people are more than happy to be photographed if you approach them the right way.”

This connects street photography with its social aspect. It’s absolutely necessary to become good at socializing - this is inevitable in making photos at a high level. The only way to get good at this is to practice, of course.

Practice every day

In order to become good at photography, you need to practice every day meticulously. He says that it’s necessary to practice taking pictures as it’s necessary to practice e.g., an instrument.

In this context, he also talks about “closing the gap,” which means that if you’re new then what you thought you photographed is usually not the result. You are distracted by the smells, the noise of the scene while taking the picture, but once you get back to your room where everything is quiet, these smells and sounds are gone and what remains is just the still image. It might not be nearly as good as you thought.

McCurry encourages that over time, this “gap” will close in more and more as you start to understand yourself and your medium better.

Don’t hesitate, take the photo!

Steve McCurry

Sometimes there’s a particular scene where you doubt whether to take a photo of the person or not. Especially the moments e.g., where something terrible has happened or someone is crying.

McCurry says that he had moments where he felt horrible for taking the picture, yet he did it anyway as the story needed to be told. It was important.

Either way, these are the situations where you’ll be damned if you don’t take the shot and you’ll be damned if you do.

In these circumstances, it’s a better choice to take the photo than not to take the photo. You can always apologize and explain later why it was important to take the pictures.

I think if you start practicing taking photos without hesitation, it becomes a reflex.

Steve McCurry, 1993

E.g., the photo above - Steve says he did not even think about it as he instinctively raised the camera and took the picture.

The doorway

Steve McCurry

A small practical tip to end this article.

In case of harsh light, Steve recommends telling your subject to stand in front of the doorway, as then they can fully open their eyes. Eyes are very important in portraits as they tell a lot about the person. If you can't see the person, then you can't really “see” the person.