10 things we can learn from famous photographers of the past

10 things we can learn from famous photographers of the past

There is no shortage of photography tips out there, but some of the best ones can be found by studying the old masters. Here the photo management and Canon Project1709 experts at Photoventure have put together ten crucial photography tips that have never gone out of date.

10 things we can learn from famous photographers of the past

Julia Margaret Cameron’s portraits were often ridiculed in her day, and now they’re celebrated.

1. You don’t need full frame

Galen Rowell, David Bailey, John Blakemore and Henri Cartier-Bresson are just a handful of photographers who shunned the big medium format cameras in favour of nifty little 35mm ones, and proved that it’s the eye behind the viewfinder that counts.

2. Everyone has doubts

Even famous photographers get disappointed when looking at their work. As Elliott Erwitt said: “It’s generally rather depressing to look at my contacts – one always has great expectations, and they’re not always fulfilled.” If you are lucky enough to get a chance to look through a famous photographer’s contact sheet, you will see that they too tried many things that didn’t work. The key is to persevere and hold out for the good ones.

3. Your best telephoto lens is your feet

Or, as Robert Capa put it: “if your photos aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.” Some of the best street photography of the past was taken with a 50mm lens which gives a perspective similar to that of human vision, and forces the photographer to move instead of zooming.

4. Smile

Street photography is fun, but not if the pedestrian you just caught yawning next to an energy drink advert, or the woman who looks exactly like her dog, get offended by your intrusion and start chasing you down the street demanding that you delete your killer snap. Garry Winogrand had a very simple trick to avoid upsetting his subjects: he would make quick, personal contact with the people he photographed, smiling and nodding at them after he had taken his picture.

5. Believe in your work

… even if others don’t. Julia Margaret Cameron’s closely cropped, soft-focus portraits were often ridiculed in her day, and now they’re considered to be some of the finest in the early history of photography.

6. Keep clicking

“Your first 10,000 photographs are your worst,” said Henri Cartier-Bresson, and that was in the days of film, when reaching 10,000 would have cost a fortune in film and darkroom equipment. Now there are no such set-backs, so you have no excuse not to pass the 10K mark.

7. Rules

… are only there to help you along, not to be followed religiously. In fact, many photographers have carved out a niche by breaking a rule. As Ansel Adams said: “There are no rules for good photographs, there are only good photographs.”

8. Don’t have favourites

Asking a successful photographer which image is their favourite will rarely bring out a straight-forward reply, and there is a good reason for that: if you focus too much on your past achievements, you will not give 100 per cent of yourself to your current projects. Perhaps Imogen Cunningham put it best: ”Which of my photographs is my favourite? The one I’m going to take tomorrow.”

9. Embrace new media

… if it enhances your story. Photojournalist Tim Hetherington, who lost his life covering the 2011 Libyan civil war, told his stories with multi-screen installations, fly-poster exhibitions and handheld device downloads, and won numerous awards. In his own words: “I’m very open to any visual conceits and any possibilities at my disposal to better explain to people the ideas I’m exploring.”

10. Get lucky

No matter how many rules you learn, how many you break, how well you know your camera and how many photographs you’ve taken, you can’t always control the way things turn out. Sometimes you need to be patient for that perfect moment to arrive, and sometimes you’ve just got to accept that, as Henri Cartier-Bresson admitted, “of course it’s all luck.”


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