Learn From The Masters: Steve McCurry
Ah, here we are. Steve McCurry—one of the most iconic travel photographers. Sure, he stirred up the world of photography with a little controversy but you can’t deny his images breathe pure desire to explore. If there’s one thing ‘wrong’ with them, is that they might look too perfect sometimes—and I’m not referring to the Photoshop ‘scandal’.
A lot of his photos convert the world into some kind of fairy tale. It’s like you’re looking at a still of a historic movie. I don’t mind that at all. A travel photographer is a storyteller and he’s one of the best. Steve McCurry wants to show people how he sees the world. When I look at his photos, I can feel that he genuinely loves traveling and exploring and that takes his photos to another level.
Composition and light
I’ve learned a few things from looking at his work. McCurry’s compositions are simple and clean. He has a classic take on composition and framing but in his case, it’s very well done. It makes it easy to enjoy every photo he has ever taken. The scenes he captures are genuinely beautiful.
He’s also very consistent in using light. You’ll rarely see a photo from him taken in bright sunlight. He always shoots in morning or evening light or on an overcast day. I also try to use that kind of light when I take photos. It just looks a lot better than lights and hard shadows.
By always using the same light, your photos will have a consistent look. It becomes part of your style and it’s very important in keeping your portfolio consistent.
People and daily life
Steve McCurry doesn’t look for spectacular sights or places. Most of his work shows regular people doing their daily business. It’s what defines a culture and a country. Travel photography is about capturing those people in their environment.
A mistake a lot of travel photographers make is that they want every photo to be more spectacular and amazing as the last one. Don’t be that photographer. Look for stories and emotions in daily life. That’s where you’ll find the best photographs.
Related • Your Photos Don’t Have to Be Spectacular
It’s also why travel photography and street photography go hand in hand. The streets are filled with scenes to capture and McCurry is the best in showing the beauty of an ordinary street scene.
My Steve McCurry photo
Every episode of ‘Learn from the Masters’ I try to find one of my own photos that shows the influence of the photographer I’m writing about. For Steve McCurry, I didn’t have to dig deep. We both love India so it was an easy pick.
When I saw the light in Old Delhi Train Station in India last year, I immediately thought about this photo from Steve McCurry—also shot in Old Delhi by the way.
It just popped in my head. The only thing missing was a subject—until I saw a guy running across the platforms. Maybe his train was about to leave? Here’s my photo.
Anyway, it’s a photo that shows I’m inspired and influenced by McCurry’s work. What do you think?
Books by Steve McCurry
Steve McCurry has published over a dozen books all showing how he sees the stunning world we live in. I could recommend all of them but maybe the last one is the best to start with.
Steve McCurry: A Life in Pictures
A Life in Pictures is the biggest and most comprehensive book on his work. It’s the one you need if you want a summary of his work and life. It brings together all of McCurry's travels, from India and Pakistan to the 1991 Gulf War and 9/11.
It includes personal notes from his adventures and reflections from many of his friends and colleagues.
Steve McCurry was born in Pennsylvania and studied film at Pennsylvania State University. After that, he started working for a local newspaper. After several years of freelance work, McCurry made his first trip to India. He explored the subcontinent with nothing more than a bag of clothes and a camera. Since then, his camera has become his favourite travel companion and never leaves without it.
Several months later he found himself crossing the border into Pakistan. He met a group of refugees from Afghanistan and they smuggled him into their country. The country was closing down to all western journalists because of the Russian Invasion but McCurry brought the world the first images of the conflict in Afghanistan.
Steve McCurry has won some prestigious awards, including the Robert Capa Gold Medal, National Press Photographers Award, and four first prize awards from the World Press Photo contest.
Steve McCurry has been traveling the world with stunning images as a result. His work spans conflicts, vanishing cultures and ancient traditions. You might know him for his most famous photo: the ‘Afghan Girl’ that became one of the most famous magazine covers for National Geographic.