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The Masters Tell Us How to Make Photographs

The photographers who came before us left a rich legacy of instructions for bettering our craft. Here are some of their suggestions.

When you have to lug around a large view camera like Edward Weston did, you, too, might say “Anything more than 500 yards from the car just isn’t photogenic.” What I hear in this is the maxim “Don’t shoot when you are tired. It shuts down the connection between your eye and your brain.”

Weston is just one of the great photographers who continue to educate us as cameras and photographic media change. Their words are timeless and worth heeding.

What is our art about? There are many views:

  • A photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you the less you know. Diane Arbus
  • Photography is not about the thing photographed. It is about how that thing looks photographed. Garry Winogrand
  • The camera makes everyone a tourist in other people’s reality, and eventually in one’s own. Susan Sontag

“The camera doesn’t make a bit of difference. All of them can record what you are seeing. But, you have to SEE.” said Ernest Haas. Couple this with Edward Steichen’s observation that “A portrait is not made in the camera but on either side of it.” It’s not so much about the camera as it is about the photographer and his subject. My best photographs happen because I am watching the world with a little mind to the instrument that I am using to capture it. “The camera’s only job is to get out of the way of making photographs,” said Kevin Rockwell.

“I always thought good photos were like good jokes,” says an unknown master. “If you have to explain it, it just isn’t that good.” Ansel Adams, considered by many to be the Michaelangelo of modern photography, added “There is nothing worse than a brilliant image of a fuzzy concept.” Be clear about what you are creating as you create it.

How can we better our craft?

  • Best wide-angle lens? Two steps backward. Look for the ‘ah-ha’. Ernest Haas
  • If I saw something in my viewfinder that looked familiar to me, I would do something to shake it up. Garry Winogrand
  • If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough. Robert Capa

Keep at it. Every photographer here has or had negatives he/she had to toss. As Henri Cartier-Bresson observed “Your first 10,000 photographs are your worst.” Pile up the numbers and remember to SEE. There is no shame in stopping for a moment and setting the frame – even Garry Winogrand did it as he racked up thousands of impromptu snapshots with his Leica. Then you can revel like Imogen Cunningham did when she said “Which of my photographs is my favorite? The one I’m going to take tomorrow.”

(Title photo: Edward Weston by Tina Modotti. 1923. Additional photos: Henri Cartier-Bresson, Edward Steichen, Robert Capa, Ansel Adams, Diane Arbus. All photos courtesy Wikipedia.)

written by emperornorton


  1. laurasulilly


    Ah, weill, only over 9,000 bad photos to go through till I finally get to my good ones :)

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  2. superlighter


    I love this article!

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  3. guanatos


    I'm sooo saving this one for the future!!! thanks for sharing

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  4. hewzay


    great article!

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  5. lighthouseblues


    Yes, great article, thanks for sharing!

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  6. ctjam82


    great article!

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  7. cpolpa


    great article!

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  8. larrymcdowell


    Thanks you for recomended this article! It's a very interesting point of view, I would like to collaborate with a phrase of the teacher Minor White: "I am always mentally photographing everything as practice. "

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  9. linusbm


    This is great!

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  10. clare_eee


    I have a long~~~~ long~~~~~~~~~~ way to go... :) I'll keep at it!

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  11. antea


    Oh great article!!! ^_^

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  12. paytenpurdy


    super helpful article, thank you!!!

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  13. ayer



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  14. mscagli1


    So true...

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