Steve McCurry Masterclass – A Photography Workshop in Malaysia

Steve McCurry's most famous "Afghan Girl" photo - A stunning and powerful portrait of an unknown Afghan refugee that evokes the emotion that tells a thousand stories. And that is without the utterance of a single word! Steve is seen here explaining the details of the photographs to the attendees of the workshop. (inset: the cover pages of both the issues of the National Geographic magazine that featured the Afghan girl.)

It’s very rare that an international acclaimed photographer with the experience and caliber of Steve McCurry visits and conducts classes in a country like Malaysia. So when the opportunity presents itself, I for one, jump at the chance to meet this very accomplished photographer. We have to thank Epson Malaysia for bringing and staging Steve’s masterpieces at the Islamic Arts Museum of Malaysia. The exhibition opens on the 8th of January and ends on the 8th of April 2010 and it features Steve’s travel through the Muslim World. It’s aptly themed as: A Common Faith. Any self-respecting photographers should really take a look at the excellent photographs presented in this exhibition. I learned a lot just from viewing his collection of photographs at the exhibition.

Although Steve is not really a polished presenter like those Wall Street’s lawyers or Stock Brokers; but when he speaks of his photographs, you can really see his passion and connection with the subjects in his photographs. After spending nearly 2 hours with Steve and listening to his presentation I could summarize a few of his main techniques that he often deploys when composing and completing his often tough assignments. Below are some of the techniques that I managed to gleaned from his presentation directly or indirectly (via reading between the lines). I might not be right on all the techniques but you should get the points.

  1. Steve McCurry is the opposite of Joe McNally – he hardly uses a flash on his assignment. (Of all the great photographs showcased by him during his lecture, there is only 1 photograph that was taken with the flash unit – and that was because it was 9pm at night and without much available light.)
  2. He hardly uses fill light on his subject.
  3. He would stay away from bright sunlight, especially for portrait photography and prefer to stay under the shades or indoor. He reckons that his subjects will squint under bright daylight. I noticed that all his great portraits of people have their eyes wide-open and you could see some light reflection in their eyes. It’s very mesmerizing to stare into their eyes and now I guess I know some of his secret.
  4. He seldom uses the manual exposure mode nowadays, preferring to use program mode instead. His rationale – the latest digital camera can make exposure decision much faster than the human’s brain, especially during the transition from bright daylight to shadowy subjects.
  5. He insists that the different timing of the day will produce a vastly different results even with the same subjects. So he will revisit the same subjects times and times again at different timing of the day and different day of the months just to capture that elusive ‘perfect’ photographs.
  6. He uses mostly the 24-70mm lens in his work as he believes that is the the most comfortable distance to work with the subjects and preferring not to work with ultra-wide angle or ‘fish-eye’ lenses as he regards them as very gimmickry and viewer tends to get bored with the photos after a few similar shots. The distortions caused by ultra-wide angle lenses also cause the viewers to zoom in on the flaws of the lenses instead of focusing on the merit and emotion of the photographs.
  7. He is a master of composition in his art of photography. And his main technique is using juxtaposing or ‘to place side-by-side for comparison and contrast’ in most of his great photographs. I could see numerous examples of his photograph that uses this technique and he really is a grand master. Juxtaposing is not easy and it takes great effort and a keen eye for composition to come up with great work of art. This part is the hardest to learn and I believe it takes years of experience and a talent for photography to excel in this department. The more I learned… the more I realized….. that I don’t really know much about photography.
  8. He believes in getting down and dirty to get the best images. He gave numerous example of how he endured heavy rain, hostile fire, 3-day in the flood, etc., to get those great images. So if you prefer to travel in luxury…. forget about great photography….
  9. Patience is the key to getting great photographs. If you are at a great location with great background…. you should stay put and wait for great subjects or people to appear or to pass in front of you for a really great photograph.
  10. He believes in ‘early bird catches the worm’. Wake up early and get to your location early when other are still sleeping and you will be duly rewarded.

I will add more if there are any more points that comes to my mind later. Since I don’t have a habit of taking notes, I might have missed out some other important points during the presentation. But rest assured, I have most of them down already.

Steve explaining the merit of the Bamiyan Buddha's image and the circumstances in which he took the photograph.

The composition of the Sri Lankan's fishermen in action is quite exquisite and unique.

An example of juxtaposing. The patience to wait for the train to pass by in front of the Taj Mahal really pays off for Steve.

Another example of juxtaposing when the old lady was slowly walking past the bullock cart.

A candid photo of a group of naked men in India.

He wakes up very early to capture this great photograph.

Juxtaposing between the triangle of the Angkor Wat in the background and the 3 monks in the foreground.

This man is everywhere. This great photo was shot during 9-11.

Steve pointing out the distinctive marks that confirm this "middle age lady" as the Afghan refugee girl that was featured in the June 1985 edition of the National Geographic Magazine. She was found 17 years later. It was the distinctive mark on the bridge of her nose and her captivating eyes that confirmed her as the Afghan Girl.

The introduction of Steve McCurry Photographic Exhibition entitled: A Common Faith.

A view of Steve McCurry extensive travel map.

Tourists admiring Steve's photographic works at the Islamic Arts Museum.

A close up of the famous Afghan Girl at the exhibition.

This is really a great composition and I just can't stop looking at it.

Truly and distinctively Steve McCurry's signature piece. It's so lifelike and the cold stare is so powerful as if she is about to burst into tears.

The man himself at the Islamic Arts Museum in Malaysia.

Steve demonstrating his prowess in making an indoor portrait shot. Seen here is a fellow workshop attendee taking a shot of Steve making the shot while I took a shot of the fellow attendee taking a shot of Steve making the shot.

An autograph by the master photographer himself. Something to cherish forever!


  1. eddiechan says:

    thanks for sharing

  2. Thanks for sharing for this great exhibition…. Always dream to see his artworks….

  3. Hi Dave.

    I am Andrew from Epson. Glad to have met you during the event. Excellent post. This is one of the best yet simple summaries of Steve’s techniques that I have come across. Fans and photo enthusiasts like you that make us feel good about the hard work involved in organizing the event.

    I used to be a semi-pro photographer and I really like your photos and comments from both an observers and a technicl viewpoint.

    Keep it up. You have a new RSS follower. 🙂


    • Andrew,
      Glad to have met you too and a big thank you for bringing such world class photography talent to Malaysia. We can appreciate the difficulty in organizing such exhibition cum education event that involve famous professional photographer that have very hectic working schedule. Kudos to you and Epson for the success of this event. I for one, am looking forward for more of such events from Epson in the near future. Please keep us posted and once again: Thank you.


  4. Davie,
    The post was truly informative. Thank you.


  5. Thank you for sharing about Steve and his exhibition, he is a very interesting person.
    We met one day in Warsaw, Poland, during the National Geographic show.
    Best wishes 🙂

  6. Hi Dave, this was very informative, and you have very neatly summed up Steve McCurry’s technique and genius.
    I will just take the liberty to correct one of your captions about the “Afghan Girl” picture, where McCurry shows how he recognized her 17 years later. Alas, in 2002, when this second picture was taken, she was not “a middle age lady”, but was probably 30 years old, if not younger (she doesn’t know her exact age). Life has not been kind to her, it is very sad, and it probably hasn’t improved since.
    I remember seeing this cover on my dad’s National Geographic, when I was 10 myself, about the girl’s age. I didn’t know any English back then, could not read the article, and had no idea about Afghanistan or wars or refugees. But those eyes stayed with me all this time. 15 years later, I got my own subscription. When I received the April 2002 issue, I wept as if I had found a long lost friend.
    I dug up the historic June 1985 issue from my father’s archive, and now I own both, side by side. How Steve found her again, how she survived through everything, that’s an incredible story. That’s the power of photographs, thank you Steve!

    • RedGirl,
      Thank you so much for correcting me. Sometimes pictures do lie and if you don’t check the fact, you will get the facts wrong. I am guilty of that. Life must be hard on her, looking so much older than her actual probable age.

      In a way I am also fascinated by your own story, where you stated “…when I was 10 myself, …… I didn’t know any English back then, could not read the article……..” and “15 years later, …… as if I had found a long lost friend.”

      I love your story too. It’s as if you had your very own personal journey with the famous “Afghan Girl”. Thank you for sharing. For someone who did not know English when she was 10, your written English now is excellent!

      Yes, thank you Steve and thank you RedGirl!

  7. A powerful, unforgettable photo..i can still remember it from the day i first saw the National Geographic cover from the early ’80s. Really a photographic, Afghan version of Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. A haunting, stuck-to-your brain photograph.

  8. thx for sharing this tips for Mc Steve who is my model on my way to photography. is my website ,u can visit if u have time.
    one thing i noticed from steve great photos like afganistan girl, that these photos may be shot by film camera body. (because i saw she took the film out in his studio from some video) . and most of the photos are not postprocessed i think. meanwhile i insist that digital photos have to be postprocessed .


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