5 Tips from Photojournalist Steve McCurry

How far can a single photograph take your reputation and career? That’s a great question for photojournalist Steve McCurry, whose masterpiece “Afghan Girl” is perhaps one of the most recognizable snapshots of the past three decades.

[lquote]If you wait, people will forget your camera and the soul will drift up into view.[/lquote]

Now he’s shot the 40th annual Pirelli calendar for the year 2013 with a cast that includes model Karlie Kloss, a very different undertaking from his usual subjects in National Geographic. He has shot eighteen stories and seven covers for the latter publication, and his career hasn’t been without the occasional plane crash, near-drowning, robbery or imprisonment.

Here are 5 tips for portrait photographers, derived from various interviews with the man who’s seen just about everything from behind a camera lens.

1. Love what you do

“Basically I think you have to follow your instincts. It is a fortune for me to work as a photographer and cover topics I am interested in…Every time I travel to different parts of this world I get my inspiration for my work.”

“Being a photographer has been an enormous amount of fun. I have had the wonderful opportunity of visiting the amazing places I have shot in. I can’t imagine a better way to spend your time and life than exploring this amazing planet. I have always been very competitive and hardworking and I am completely obsessed with my work and love what I do.”

“I’ll never get to the point where I feel I’ve done everything. This is something I will do until I drop. So, take a vacation? A vacation from what?”

2. Don’t be afraid to go digital

“Perhaps old habits are hard to break, but my experience is that the majority of my colleagues, regardless of age, have switched over. The quality has never been better. You can work in extremely low light situations, for example.”

3. Keep on going

“At this point in my career I am happy to be finally able to pick and choose my assignments and I feel that all the hard work and hardships I had to go through when I first started has paid off.”

4. Let spontaneity work its magic

“I seldom have a plan, and I feel that the times that have been the most fun and productive have been those where I literally just get up and wander around looking for situations and subjects to shoot. Its amazing how things just magically happen and pictures ‘reveal themselves.'”

“Even the portraits I’ve done before, they’ve never been put together. It’s always about waiting, watching, being ready.”

5. Establish trust with your subjects

“The challenge is to convince them within 15 seconds to be my subject. Respect is essential to establishing that trust.”

“When the picture’s just about color, I don’t think it really goes very far. I think it really needs to say something about a person or give some insight into their life or how their life is different than mine.”

“Most of my images are grounded in people. I look for the unguarded moment, the essential soul peeking out, experience etched on a person’s face. I try to convey what it is like to be that person, a person caught in a broader landscape, that you could call the human condition.”


Having been a photographer for nearly four decades, McCurry is a goldmine of photography knowledge. Read more interviews with him at Fotoflock, UTNE Reader, the Leica Camera Blog and The Guardian. You can take a look at even more of his work on his official website.

Photographers, this one’s for you – which famous photographer has most inspired your own career?

Photo credit: Steve McCurry/Ahmet Sel