57 Steve McCurry Quotes to Advance your Photography

If you’re looking for the best Steve McCurry quotes then you’ve come to the right place.

Below we have put together a list of 57 quotes from the legendary photographer that are guaranteed to both inspire you and advance your photography to the next level.

If you haven’t done so already, we recommend reading our Steve McCurry master profile article to learn more about his iconic documentary, portrait and travel photography, working methods, cameras and much more.

Steve McCurry Quotes

The photograph is an undeniably powerful medium. Free from the constraints of language, and harnessing the unique qualities of a single moment frozen in time.

A still photograph is something which you can always go back to. You can put it on your wall and look at it again and again. Because it is that frozen moment. I think it tends to burn into your psyche. It becomes ingrained in your mind. A powerful picture becomes iconic of a place or a time or a situation.

Most photographers have at some time recognized a composition, perhaps a poster or something on the wall, and waited for a person or animal or car to complete the picture. There are times when you recognize a design or a composition, and you work it; if you think it’s worth it, you’ll wait for as long as it takes.

I think life is too short not to be doing something which you really believe in. Whether you’re photographing for yourself, for your job, whether you photograph on the weekends or everyday or once in a while, the main point is having fun and to be exercising your curiosity and to be really in love with what you are doing.

Not every picture is brilliant! A writer might write something that ends up just staying in the notebook, and for a photographer… you photograph some things that you know are just as a record or something that you know isn’t brilliant, but you get the wheels moving. Am I going to wait for the perfect picture before I start shooting? Well, how many perfect pictures are there in a lifetime? Get out and start examining the world.

The definition of a great picture is one that stays with you, one that you can’t forget. It doesn’t have to be technically good at all.

Steve McCurry Quotes 1

McCurry on Documentary Photography

I think good documentary photography, on its highest level, gets into a realm where you’ve tapped into some archetype of human connection. You’ve struck a chord in people that has tremendous meaning beyond the event itself.

Pictures that are memorable, that stick in the mind, are the best pictures. Sometimes I’m looking at pictures and there’s nothing going on; there’s no emotion.

I strive for individual pictures that will burn in people’s memories.

A picture can express a universal humanism, or simply reveal a delicate and poignant truth by exposing a slice of life that might otherwise pass unnoticed.

My photos are just a whimsical, poetic look at this commonality of humanity.

I think it’s better for people just to interpret, to make up their own story, to imagine their own meaning of whatever picture. Sometimes there is an ambiguity to the picture. Sometimes there is no meaning at all! But you make up a meaning, your own interpretation, your own story, your own fantasy — which is maybe better than the actual reality. Sometimes there’s a moment you think you can see in a picture which maybe is not really there. But if you think it’s that way, then that’s okay.

For me, great pictures are about storytelling. I want to learn something from the picture or want it to evoke some kind of emotion. I want it to take me somewhere.

Travel and Photography

My life is shaped by the urgent need to wander and observe, and my camera is my passport.

If you want to be a photographer, first leave home.

There’s a contemplative or meditative quality to photography which I find to be a sort of peaceful state. I love being able to travel the world, experience different cultures and landscapes.

Travel and photography have always been intertwined. I think we have such a brief amount of time in this world that I can’t think of a better use of my time than to travel, to photograph the world, experience life in different places. To me, there’s nothing more important than that.

Related: The Best Travel Photography Quotes

You can’t get hung up on what you think your “real” destination is. The journey is just as important.

Some of the great pictures happen along the journey and not necessarily at your destination.

It was more about trying to find the essence of the place, what was unique. What was it about this place that made it intriguing? There’s no guarantee that you’re going to make good pictures just because you happen to be in an exotic location. The same rules of photography still apply: light and composition and a particular moment. You may be in an incredible place with an incredible story to tell, but you still have to craft it in a certain way.

You don’t need to spend six months or a year photographing everything that moves. You’re shooting stories, not novels. It’s better journalism and it needs more thought. For instance, you wouldn’t go to Brazil with the idea of shooting the whole country. You’d take less time and do a region, or maybe Rio.

Steve McCurry Quotes on Portraits

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.

You have to try to get people to be relaxed, to be comfortable, and try to find a particular moment in your conversation with that person that says something about their personality, their character. You never quite know how it’s going, you’re working so fast with all these variables swirling around, it becomes instinctive and you have to work from your gut, maybe thinking less and working more from your heart.

Usually, when I’m shooting portraits they’re short encounters, and you’re dealing with all sorts of obstacles. It could be a busy street, it could be light which isn’t ideal. I think you just have to keep probing and shooting and sometimes it doesn’t come together for whatever reason, but other times it does.

I think people, when you first encounter them, they try and put on a particular mask. I don’t want people to try and look a certain way. I want them to be completely natural and just themselves, without kinda grinning, or smiling, or putting on some kind of silly expression.

You never quite know when the best moment is going to reveal itself. You shoot and there’s a moment that you think is interesting, you keep working and you never quite know when you’ve got it. It’s a mysterious process, I think.

In a portrait, you want something of that person to reveal itself. Some portraits look too controlled. I like to see the naked personality; I want to see something that is real and something that is raw. You don’t see the hand of the photographer; you see the uniqueness of that person.

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

McCurry Quotes, Afghan Girl

The Afghan Girl Photograph

I spent about five minutes photographing her and then she quickly ran off to play with her friends. It was one of those cases, where all the elements of the picture came together in a magical way.

I can understand why it moves people: she’s mysterious, ambiguous. She’s beautiful, yet she’s troubled. She’s persevering, there’s a fortitude in her. She’s poor, but she’s not timid. It’s a picture you can come back to time and time again.

McCurry on his Working Process

As far as research goes, I don’t ever want to do too much of it because, if you go with too many preconceived notions, it can spoil things.

I try and set up my shooting day to be in a place where there is favorable light the whole day. In the morning, I might be outside. In late morning, I might be inside, so I’m always in a place where the light is working with me.

When I’m shooting for myself, I like to just walk out of the hotel in the morning and wander around enjoying the day, to get into the right frame of mind. Then, after a while, hopefully, I start to see things. Sometimes these magic moments happen and other times I can walk around all day and not see anything. In the end, you just have to average it out.

A lot of what I do is just wandering and observing. I might see someone on the street and feel there is some story written on his or her face.

We photographers say that we “take” a picture, and in a certain sense, that is true. We take something from people’s lives, but in doing so we tell their story.

Unconsciously, I think I watch for a look, an expression, features or nostalgia that can summarize or more accurately reveal life.

Use of Color

I think with color, the first point about color photography for me is not to let the color get in the way of telling your story. You don’t want someone looking at your picture and have the color be the main thing. I guess there are all sorts of styles and flavors of the month. A person has a set of rules, and someone else comes along and breaks them. It’s about whatever pleases you.

For me, I don’t want the picture to be about color, I want the picture to be about a particular story, about the personality, it’s got to be about the person and not the fact they’re wearing a bright red shirt with a red ribbon in their hair. That’s just me. Maybe someone else would see it completely different, but it’s more important to me to show the humanity of the person.

I think the way to identify a good color photograph is to ask yourself if you convert it to black and white does it still have interest? Does it still have value? If it’s a good picture, whether it’s been shot in color or in black and white, then it’s successful.

I’ve always worked in color. A lot of that is dictated by the marketplace. Certainly, the world’s in color. Color’s another dimension. A good color picture should be as graphic and have a sense of design the same way as a black-and-white picture. I also want some emotional content. I don’t want the picture to be only about color.

Steve McCurry Quotes on Equipment

[I have] virtually no interest in equipment – period. It’s not what motivates me. I don’t want to talk about gear. Any camera on sale today will give you wonderful results.

Manufacturers want to sell their cameras, and their ads are the same now as they were 30 or 40 years ago.

Just because people use Instagram and take cellphone pictures, it doesn’t mean the pictures are meaningful, anymore than a text someone sends a friend is great literature. Is it something that’s going to remain? Is it going to inspire us?

The unfortunate thing in life is that there is a lot of work involved, and often it’s tedious work. Some people buy a camera and wait around to get assignments. It’s wonderful they’re that naive. It’s like telling me you’ve got a first-aid kit so now you’re a brain surgeon. You have to find your own way.

The Life of a Photographer

When I left I was torn between stills and movie making and could have gone either way. What decided it was that I couldn’t get a job in the film industry, but did manage to get one on a newspaper. I’ve never regretted this decision.

I researched story ideas before I left and I hit the ground running. I was fascinated with the colour, vibrancy, culture, people, geography and the monsoons in India.

Every man, woman, and child has a camera, but that doesn’t mean they will make one meaningful picture. Around 99 percent of the images taken now are personal pictures. It’s consumed an enormous amount of my life to really develop a body of work. If you’re driven or compelled, you’ll do it, because it gives meaning.

There’s probably more photographers than the industry can sustain. But now you can literally build your own website. In a way you can say the same thing about writing – everyone can write, but the ones who have something to say rise to the surface. Virtually nobody wants to use the discipline required to write a book.

You put your work out there in the world and people respond to it in their own way. You can’t second-guess people, you know. People are going to respond and be drawn to certain music, certain movies and certain photographs and paintings. Nothing can be done.

In the end, you’re just judged on the work. People look at the work – a poem, photograph, sculpture, whatever – and they don’t think, ‘How many drafts went into this, was it edited, how long did it take, how many revisions?’ It’s just the work that matters – you put it on the table, and either it speaks to you or it doesn’t.

Steve McCurry’s Advice for Photographers

Look at the history of photography, go to a book store, look at some photography books. There’s so much incredible photography which has gone on in the last 50-75 years. You really need to know who some of these great photographers are.

You have to study their work. There’s a long, long list of wonderful work that we can all learn from and appreciate. I think some of these historical pictures we can actually even incorporate some of these techniques and ideas into our own work.

When a person is starting out they may not understand light or how most things will look like as a picture. I think the more experience you have, the more you start to see a scene or something on the street and understand how that’s going to photograph. That’s important, to understand what you’re looking at, how that’s going to look on a piece of paper.

Try and think outside the box. Don’t just photograph on a bright sunny day. Try and photograph at night in very low light. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Be experimental. Whatever kind of photography you do, I think you have to experiment and try different things and see what works best for you and your type of photography. There’s no one answer.

What is important to my work is the individual picture. I photograph stories on assignment, and of course, they have to be put together coherently. But what matters most is that each picture stands on its own, with its own place and feeling.

Find a subject that you’re passionate about. It could be anything. It could be literally landscape, it could be portraits, it could be photographing whatever interests you, whatever you have a passion for. I think you’ll make better pictures if you believe in the subject, if you believe in the stories. If you’re a storyteller, do what you believe in and you’ll get the biggest benefit out of that.

It’s important for you to spend your time photographing things that matter to you. You need to understand the things that have meaning to you, and not what others think is important for you.

Steve McCurry Quotes 3

What’s your Favorite Steve McCurry Quote?

Have a favorite Steve McCurry quote from the list? Let us know in the comment section below.

Don’t forget to bookmark this page, or print it out, and refer to it next time you need some inspiration. Also, don’t forget to share it with others through the usual channels (social media, forums, websites, etc).

If you would like to learn more about Steve McCurry’s photography, we recommend reading our Steve McCurry master profile article. To see more of McCurry’s incredible photos, then check out the image archive on Steve McCurry’s website.

Looking for more words of wisdom from master photographers? Check out the quotes section of Photogpedia for more great photography quotes.

More Quote Articles:


Founder of Photogpedia.com. Photography enthusiast, occasional filmmaker, part-time writer and full-time dreamer. Rediscovered photography in 2012 and have been trying to level up my photography skills since (I'm getting there) #chasingthecreative

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.