How to become an exceptional photographer: tips from the world’s greatest lensmen

Steve McCurry on his working methods, Timothy Allen on breaking into the business, Art Wolfe on finding a ‘new spin’. The world’s best photographers let you in on the secrets that set them apart

8 mins

How to get a unique shot - by Steve McCurry

Steve McCurry (Ekaterina Savtsova)

Steve McCurry (Ekaterina Savtsova)

The best way to approach a place is to get there, check into a hotel or friend’s house, and just walk around. Check out the vibe on the street. You have to have an open mind. Without any thought about photography, walk around and see what interests you. It could be anything. It doesn’t need to be a site or a monument. It can just be life on the street. 

Talk to strangers. See where it takes you. Get lost in the city and see what you respond to. Rather than set out to take photographs with preconceived ideas, it’s better to start with: “I’m here. I’m alive. I’m in a great place. I’m going to have some interesting experiences, see something different, meet some new people and see what makes this place tick.”

Go somewhere new. There are all these monuments everyone goes to, so go to a neighbourhood no one else is going to, a place where people are living their lives.

You have to go to a country and understand that you need more than a monk in saffron robes. You need to have some story in a picture. It’s simple to say, “I’m going to go to India and photograph someone in a turban.” It’s just not enough. You have to show what life is like, how people relate to each other, human stories. 

It’s also important to look at pictures and understand what precedes you. You’ve got to go beyond the obvious.

Colour is necessary for me because it’s life. The world isn’t in black and white. It makes far more sense to photograph the world as it is. But a good colour picture should work just as well if you convert it to black and white. I never want a picture to rely solely on colour. 

For me, the art of photography and telling a story are one and the same. It’s just an intuitive reaction to what’s in front of me. I’m not saying, “How can I make this beautiful?” We all see things in different ways. We all have different sensitivities to things like shape and form and light. It’s how you photograph: you tell a story and put a vision out there of what you’re trying to portray. 


Steve McCurry is an American photographer for National Geographic, a member of Magnum Photos and recipient of the Robert Capa Gold Medal and the British Royal Photographic Society’s lifetime achievement award. For more on Steve’s photography, see Follow him at

Breaking into the business - by Timothy Allen

Timothy Allen (Patrick Murphy)

Timothy Allen (Patrick Murphy)

Be enthusiastic: For my first ever job for a newspaper, my portfolio that I showed the picture editor was nothing special but I was super-enthusiastic and I know that’s why I got the break. If they rang me at 6am on a Sunday morning and asked me to go on a job, I’d just say ‘yes’. That’s what employers want.

Work for someone else: Working at a newspaper was brilliant training for the ability to deliver pictures, even if the situation isn’t what you expected. I recommend working for yourself, once you’ve got money and some notoriety. When you’re starting out, it’s good to work for someone else. You need money and it also authenticates your feelings of being a photographer. It annoys me when I hear someone say they’re a photographer and they’ve just decided it and haven’t really proved themselves yet. You need to get your Badge of Honour by working for other people, respected people, before you call yourself that.

Get paid: The culture of free images isn’t one I like. I always advise my students to stand their ground on things like getting paid for their photos. It’s difficult. When I started working, I was earning good money at a newspaper. Over the years, the industry has crashed and burned.

Know your value: One thing I’ve always done in my career is stood strong on what my value is. In the past, I turned a lot of work down because I didn’t consider it well enough paid. It’s hard to do that, but it works in the long term. If you sell yourself short, that’s the level you’ll be at, according to my experience. You have to evaluate it. How much work will I do? Do I bother? Yes or no?

Show what you can do: You don’t necessarily need to pitch to newspapers. Newspapers are going to pay you hardly anything for your story anyway. You’re better off shooting an amazing story and putting it out there. Because of the Internet, people will find you, if it’s good enough. 

Become a brand: When I started, personal brands or names didn’t exist. Now, our names are a brand. If people associate your name and brand with high quality, they come to you. It’s also about how much you’re known, how much reach you have across the Internet and your social media numbers. I can survive off my name in photography.

Diversify: These days, I wouldn’t advise people to try to make a living from just travel photography. There isn’t enough advertising money work in newspapers and magazines. I’d love to be just a photographer but everyone I know has diversified. People do still want me for photography but it tends to be advertisers. People mainly come to me now for consulting, public speaking, for inspiring or influencing people…. It’s very lucrative if you can position yourself as someone with marketable qualities. People will want to associate with you.


Timothy Allen is a British photographer and filmmaker, known for his work on the BBC’s Human Planet and for twice winning Travel Photographer of the Year. Find out more about Timothy’s photography at Follow Timothy at

Finding a ‘new spin’ - by Art Wolfe

Art Wolfe (Christopher Lund)

Art Wolfe (Christopher Lund)

The ‘new spin’ is always the challenge. How do you shoot something old with a new perspective? The training I initially had in art and graphic design has always provided something to fall back on, so I can move forward with a new idea.  

Taking great photos is a lifelong passion and journey. It’s not like you’ll receive success in the first year. I’ve been doing this for 40 years and I can’t wait to get out the door to take the next shot. That’s the magic. I need to keep myself really engaged and enthusiastic. You have to keep your photos from being blasé or redundant.

The first and foremost thing is to get out there and take a lot of pictures. If you’re constantly taking pictures, you can’t help but get better. If you are into anything, whether it’s cooking, writing or photography, the more time and effort you put into it, the better you become.

A lot of professional photographers also teach, so that’s another way of really improving your work: going to lectures and seminars.

For me, the thing I love most is to surprise my audience, whether I’m photographing wildlife or culture. It’s entertaining them, inspiring them, uplifting them. All that is part of being a photographer.

When I’m photographing people, I’m looking for somebody who has something unique about them. I photographed old ladies recently when I went to Tanzania; I had the idea of finding chiseled old people, the more wrinkles, the better.  

I’m always looking for people who make me happy looking at them. They could be, for example, the strangest people that I can find at the Kumbh Mela in India, like sadhus and snake charmers. I don’t want to find somebody who looks like they came straight out of Hollywood. I’m looking for personality. ‘Culture shock’ stimulates the imagination and that’s the best thing that can happen to a photographer.


Art Wolfe is an award-winning American photographer, also seen in TV programmes, including Travels To The Edge and Tales By Light. For more on Art’s photography, see Follow him at

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