Recently I had the great pleasure of being accepted as a scholarship student (under 30) for the Magnum workshop in Provincetown, Massachusetts with David Alan Harvey. Unfortunately David got stuck in Paris en route, so the first two days I spent with Costa Manos. And I’m glad I did, I learned so much from his decades of experience (he has been in Magnum for over 50 years).
So based on my two days with him, I wanted to distill some wisdom he shared during the workshop. Here I go:
1. Learn how to make a good photo
One of the things that surprised me the most during the workshop was how he didn’t recommend most students to work on a project during the week. His reasoning was this: “What’s the point of working on a project when you don’t even know how to make a [good] photo?”
So during the first day, he showed us his best images– analyzed the composition, the form, the backgrounds, and essentially how to make a “good” photograph. Some tips:
a) Avoid tunnel vision
As street photographers, we tend to just focus on what is in the center of the frame (and disregard the background). Costa suggested us to not fall victim to tunnel vision, and to focus on the background while we were shooting. The background is just as important as the foreground.
I also see that a lot of beginner street photographers make the mistake of just looking for an interesting subject, putting them smack dab in the middle of the frame, and have a messy background (ugly trees, white cars, poles sticking out of the subjects’ heads).
So don’t fall victim to tunnel vision– be diligent to have clean backgrounds that add to the “sense of place” of a photograph.
b) Every square inch counts
Similar to the previous point, Costa emphasized that every square inch of the frame was of upmost important. So he stressed to us: fill the frame with information (subject, foreground, background, “decisive moment”, interesting gestures) which make a strong image.
c) See all the way to the edges and corners
Furthermore, when you’re shooting– Costa suggested for us to focus on the edges and corners of the frame.
During his critique session, he would criticize students who had chopped off limbs, fingers, hands, and legs at the edges of the frame. He is a big proponent of not cropping (more on that later)– so he is very diligent about his edges when shooting.
d) Seek complexity and information
Costa told us that he dreams of images. He sees images in his mind when he’s lying in bed– and when he’s out on the streets, he’s looking for these situations.
He wants subjects in the foreground, the mid ground, the background– interesting interactions, a sense of place, bright colors, lovely light– and a sense of energy and life.
Some of Costa’ best images are the ones where he fills the frame full of information, yet it is simple and doesnt have overlapping figures.
e) Don’t overlap your figures
I think this needs its own point. During critique sessions, he stressed to us to not have overlapping figures. To have a little bit of separation (or white space) helped bring out the figures more from the background.
So in practicality, when you are photographing a group of people– make sure no heads, limbs, or body parts overlap with one another.
f) Don’t crop
Costa Manos (at the time of this writing) is 79 years old, and has been part of Magnum for over 50 years. He is from the Henri Cartier-Bresson school of “not cropping”. Even when Costa would print his photos, he would put a black border around his image showing that each print was the “full frame”.
His reasoning for not cropping was this: cropping makes you a lazy photographer, and doesn’t encourage you to move your feet while shooting.
Personally I can attest to this as well– I used to be a “crop-a-holic” and crop every single photo I took. This made me lazy when I shot in the streets, because I would just tell myself: “Oh, I can just crop that later”. I haven’t dropped any of my photos the last 3 years, and I can say it has made me a much better framer when shooting on the streets.
Constantine says a little bit of cropping is okay (around 1–3% around the edges) as a lot of rangefinders aren’t accurate. However he encourages his students to try to keep the full frame whenever possible.
2. Shoot the hell out of “interesting situations”
Costa mentions a “situation” as a scene in which you might possibly get an interesting photo. I have also heard this as called “the pregnant moment” by other photographers.
Constantine Manos isn’t the type of photographer who shoots a photograph of everything. Rather, he just looks for a few “interesting situations” and then takes a lot of photos of that. For Costa, he says he might see (and photograph) around 6 situations a day when out on the streets.
I quite liked this philosoohy– because as you become more experienced in street photography, not that many “situations” will interest you. But once you find those interesting situations (that might yield a good photograph)– work the hell out of them. Don’t just take 1–2 photos; take 10, 20, 30, 40, or even 50 photos of that scene if possible.
So to sum up: photograph fewer situations, but when you find interesting situations – shoot the hell out of them.
3. Photography books are a “book of poems”
Costa mentioned that each photograph has a life of its own– and each photograph is like a poem. And a photography book is a “book of poems”. He told us that “…each poem is a separate thing, but together– they all hold together.”
Furthermore, through his photography– he is trying to create a “perfect poem”. He also thinks that cropping an image (excessively) is like removing a comma from a poem– which will destroy it.
He also said in a poem, it is the small details that make it beautiful. The same in photos – he is looking for small details which make a photo beautiful (like even a small foot in a corner of an edge in a photo).
I see there are a lot of photographers who are inspired through literature (and poetry) in their photography. Even David Alan Harvey says that whenever he is about to go photograph a place (let’s say Mexico), he reads fiction literature about the place to gain inspiration.
So see your photos as poems. Make them beautiful. And when working on a photo-book, see how you can make a “book of poems”.
4. Ask questions (and don’t provide answers) in your photos
Constantine Manos was quite adamant that people shouldn’t put fancy captions in their photos. He recommended to just include the location and date in a photograph. Any more information is superfluous and not necessary. Manos believes that a photo should be able to stand on its own (without a detailed caption).
Furthermore, he feels that he doesn’t like captions in a photograph because he likes his photos to ask more questions (rather than providing answers).
For example, there is one photo he took with a boy lying down next to a bunch of crosses. He purposefully doesn’t tell the story behind the photo– because he doesn’t want to ruin the surprise for the viewer.
So as a takeaway point, keep your photos open-ended. Don’t spoil the story for your viewer. Add some intrigue and mystery to your photos. Don’t make them too obvious to decode or understand. This will make them much more engaging, interesting and memorable.
5. Street photography is (and should) be difficult
Constantine Manos doesn’t like to use the phrase, “street photography”– rather he uses the phrase, “photography in the public domain”.
Costa isn’t interested in photos that don’t have people in them. He doesn’t find landscapes, flowers, or photos of animals interesting. He is looking for human beings, and for life.
One of his biggest lessons was that street photography was hard– and should be hard. He said the following in class:
“Shooting people is more beautiful, because it is more difficult.”
This also goes in line with the philosophy that the best street photographs are often the ones that are the most difficult to photograph. The more difficult it is to photograph a scene, the less likely someone can replicate the same photograph.
Photos that are easy to take:
- Photos of homeless people (just on the ground)
- Photos of the back of people’s heads
- Photos of people on their phones
- Photos of people (shot on a telephoto)
- Photos shot from the hip
It is not necessarily true that the best street photographs have to be difficult to take. However you want your photos to not be easily replicable– and unique.
6. Seek complexity
As mentioned earlier, Costa is looking for photos that are complex. He categorizes two types of complexity:
a) Physical complexity
In the frame, physical complexity is a lot of things happening. For example, having a lot of bodies, people, dogs, cats, etc. Physical complexity in a photograph fills the frame, doesn’t have overlaps, has an interesting foreground, middle ground, and background.
b) Psychological complexity
Psychological complexity in a photograph is having intrigue or a strange thing happening in a frame. Psychologically complex images could have simple compositions as well.
When you have psychologically complex images, you often have people interacting with one another or the environment. You can ask yourself, “What is happening between the people in the frame? What is the situation? How is the relationship between the people– what does their facial features and bodily gestures show?”
For psychologically complex images: focus on the eyes and the hands (they show a lot of nonverbal communication).
7. How to get close to people (and interact with them)
Costa is a pretty shy guy who likes to stay in the shadows when photographing (similar to Henri Cartier-Bresson). These are some tips he gave when it came to getting close to subjects (without having them notice you):
- Don’t move abruptly, a hunter doesn’t jerk around and is smooth when hunting.
- Don’t make eye contact with your subjects (and they won’t notice you).
- Pretend like you’re photographing something behind somebody.
Furthermore, there are cases when people will catch you taking their photo. In those circumstances, people might ask you, “What are you doing?” To respond to that, Costa says: “I’m just a photographer having a nice time.”
There are other circumstances where Costa will approach a stranger and ask them, “May I take your picture?” And if people say yes, he says, “Pretend like I’m not here.”
Sometimes when he takes photos of people (or kids)– he will point at the eye of the kid, and tell them to look elsewhere.
8. Don’t have people looking into the lens
In the workshop, Costa says he prefers to be “…the observer, not the observed.”
He told us in class, “Never take a picture of anyone looking at the camera, or else the photo is destroyed.”
If you look at Costas photos, because nobody is looking into the lens – you feel like a observer looking into the photo. The photos also feel more “candid”.
However I don’t completely agree with this point by Costa. Some of the best photos in history were taken with the subjects looking straight into the lens. I feel that “eyes are the windows to the soul”– and eye connection can create a more emotional connection and bond with your subject.
But once again, this is how Costa shoots– and it works well with him.
9. Print your photos
Costa believes that, “…a photograph doesn’t exist, until it is printed.”
I think in today’s digital age, we rarely print photos. I remember as a kid and my family and I would go on holiday– we would bring along a disposable camera and take a bunch of photos, then get them processed and printed as small 4×6 images. I remember the excitement and joy of holding the physical object, the photograph, and thinking: “This is real, this exists.”
Nowadays with Facebook, we rarely get the physicality of a photograph. We see them through our blue screens, but never hold photographs anymore. We don’t feel the tactility of photographs, we don’t feel the texture of the paper, we don’t have a personal relationship with a photograph.
Even though Constantine Manos now shoots digital (he shoots with a new Leica M and Sony a7), he still prints his photos. He still believes in the power of the print. This is what he said about the importance of the print (in the Magnum print exhibition show in Provincetown):
“There are still photographers who believe that a photograph does not exist until it is a print. There remains in their memory the experience of working in a darkroom and recalling the magic of seeing an image gradually appear on a piece of paper in a tray of liquid; all this lit by a warm golden light.
If processed and stored properly this print can last for generations. It becomes archival; it becomes vintage. It becomes a treasure to be put in a fine box between soft acid-free tissues. It can be framed and hung in a favorite spot, to become an object of daily pleasure and comfort. It is a real object we can hold in our hands, not a negative or an image floating around in space and stored in cold machines.
Whether captured on film or captured digitally, this print, this object, reflects the craft and skill and pride of its maker. Its quality is a reflection of the skill and art of its making.
Let us sign it with our name as an expression of pride and accomplishment– whether we have made it ourselves or have entrusted it’s making to a skilled artisan. Let us be collectors and guardians of these beautiful artifacts. Let us celebrate the print.”
- Constantine Manos, September 2014
Prints don’t need to be fancy or expensive. Personally, I get a lot of my prints done at Costco in the states. It doesn’t cost you an arm and a leg (I think a 12×18 is less than $5) and the prints look pretty good (Fujifilm paper). Sure they aren’t as good as professional lab prints, but I still think that it is better to make a print than not make one at all.
Prints make beautiful presents too. There is nothing more exciting than giving a print to a friend, a fellow photographer, or family– and having them be amazed and grateful. They get excited in thinking where they are going to frame it or put it in their home (or office).
Also I know a lot of photographers who edit and sequence their photography projects and books with small 4×6 prints. You can just put them all down on the ground, and rearrange, edit, and sequence them accordingly. There is something about playing around with physical objects which help you be more creative.
Another option is to put your small 4×6 prints on a metal board (with magnets) or on a corkboard with tape or tacks. And keep them hanging them for a long time. The photos that you begin to hate looking at over and over again, you take them off. Then the photos that you really like tend to grow on you over time. They are like oil rising to the top of water.
Also for great prints over the Internet, I have used mmpix.com with great results.
If possible, I also recommend everyone trying to print in the darkroom once. Take a local community college course on how to make black and white darkroom prints. It is something truly extraordinary and magical.
10. How and when he shoots on the streets
At the end of the day– you want to photograph what you like. Constantine Manos said this in class:
“I like to go to places and situations where there is a lot of people, activity– on their feet and moving around. I like going to faires, the Daytona beach bike festival, Coney Island, and Venice beach.
Costa is also selective when he decides to go out and shoot. He doesn’t shoot all day– he only shoots when the light is good.
For example, from 8-11am there is nothing generally happening. People aren’t generally out and about in the morning.
However he likes to start shooting at around 3-6pm, when there are a lot of people and the light starts to get good. He will shoot for around 2-3 hours, when a lot of people are moving around (and there are other Poole with cameras too).
Costa also likes to go back to places that he likes. For example, if he finds a wall he likes, he will go back to it over and over again. He describes himself like a dog going to the same post and peeing.
Costa will also go back to those places, look for even better situations, and see if he could improve on photos he has already taken.
He shared in class: “Work hard, remember places, and go back until you get a good photo.”
11. Keep it simple with equipment
Costa is a big fan of the “one lens, one camera” philosophy. He beliefs that a 35mm lens is the ideal focal length for street photography (as it is close to what our human eye sees) and has shot with a Leica his entire career. He said, “One camera, one lens, hung from the wrist.” He thinks that 28mm tends to be too wide, and 50mm to be too zoomed in.
12. On pacing yourself
Costa gave some good advice during the workshop: pace yourself. He said, “…Don’t drive yourself [too hard]. If you’re tired, sit down. If you’re not enjoying it [photographing], you’re doing something wrong. Photography should always be a pleasurable search for something wonderful.”
13. Don’t be “suckered by the exotic”
Often when we are traveling, we get “suckered by the exotic”. What that means is that the first time we go to India, everything looks so colorful and interesting. We try to replicate photos that look like Steve McCurry and National Geographic.
However in those circumstances, Costa says we are getting suckered by thinking just because things look unique and different– we automatically think they are interesting. For example, I don’t think I have ever seen a photo of a street performer or old Chinese person in Chinatown that made a truly interesting or unique photograph.
Costa explains in detail:
“It is not enough to just photograph what something looks like. We need to make it into something that is unique, a surprise. Photography has been used forever to show what things look like, like when photographers photographed objects and landscapes.”
I’m starting to paraphrase now:
“But landscapes are boring. People only photograph what landscapes look like, they are generic. I call this the “big and boring manifesto”– people are fascinated by detail and sizes of photos. This is a fad. Those photos become big bucks– commodities for galleries. People make editions for $10,000 a piece. They are boring cityscapes– big and sharp. Pictures should be interesting, new, and not the same old boring landscape and flowers.”
So as a takeaway point– don’t think that just by traveling to India or somewhere exotic, you will make good photos. I think the best photos are the ones in your own backyard– in which you take “boring” situations and make them interesting.
14. Photos are ideas
Costa shared the importance of ideas in photography (I’m going to paraphrase below):
“Ideas are very important and underrated in photography. A photograph, like a written text or a short story, is an idea. A photograph is an idea. A visual idea. It doesn’t need any words. But it is an idea– a visual idea. If you see something, a good photograph is the expression of an idea. This doesn’t require captions and explanations. A photo should make a statement.”
Costa is also very much against “conceptual photography”– in which the idea is more important than the photograph. He doesn’t like too much verbiage about visual things. He said something like, “Too much thinking in a photo isn’t good. You want visual thinking in photos, not ’word thinking’”.
15. On taste and photography
During a critique session, Costa shares his views on taste and photography (and is very candid about it, pun intended):
“There is so much bad everything. Bad art, bad photography. I don’t want to sound like a snob, but 95% of the public doesn’t have any taste. That is a reality. Taste is having a discerning appreciation of anything. Food, wine, photography, art. Different people have more discerning taste in food than art. But it is a very small percent. So there is a lot of garbage floating around, people patting each other on the back. A lot of boring stuff.”
So how does a photographer build better “taste” in their artistic sensibilities? Easy, look at great art (and avoid bad art).
If you want to be a beer connoisseur, you don’t drink bud light and coors light. You drink specialty micro-brews. If you want to be a coffee connoisseur, you don’t drink Starbucks, you have good espressos in hipster cafes. If you want to be a foodie, you don’t eat Mcdonalds and Burger King. You eat at highly-reviewed restaurants (my tip, anything with over 200 reviews on yelp with a 4.5 rating or above is generally good).
So with photography, I say avoid 99% of Flickr, Instagram, Flickr, and Facebook like the plague. 99% of the work on the Internet (probably more like 99.99%) is bad photography. There is a lot of noise out there, and not that much signal.
For me personally, I rarely look at photos on the web anymore. I only trust my photography books, or contemporary photographers who are creating truly exceptional work.
If you look at the work of the masters (and spend a lot of time on the Magnum website)– you will learn what makes a great photograph by osmosis. You will simply absorb great photography. You need to consume great images to aspire to make great photos. And once you build up your taste and palette, you can no longer look at bad photos (kind of like how I can’t drink bad coffee anymore in gas stations).
16. Avoid bad situations
In street photography, we want to try to put ourselves in good situations– where we have the ability to make a good photograph. But sometimes in the streets, there are situations where no matter what you do– you just can’t make a good photograph. This is what Costa said during a critique of a student photos (when the light was very harsh, and the background was very busy):
“You put yourself into a difficult situation. So you already have a few strikes against yourself. Don’t put yourself in a position that will be difficult. Don’t even bother taking photos when Mother Nature isn’t on your side. You can’t fight Mother Nature, so don’t even bother. Don’t start the game with to strikes against you.”
“You don’t want to photograph black and white people in the sun, and people in a white sky. No matter what you do, you can’t fix it.”
So when it comes to street photography, know that there are some times of the day that you won’t get good light: which is generally mid-day sun. The light tends to be harsh.
Instead if you want good light, put yourself in the right situation. The only time to get really good light is during sunrise and sunset. As a side note, using a flash helps open up opportunities for shooting at different times during the day. And even Costa Manos was a big fan of digital cameras that could shoot late at night (with ISO 3200+, as in the old days, they were only limited to ISO 200 color film).
17. Make your photos sharp
Costa is a big fan of shooting with a deep-depth-of-field (f8-f16) and with a fast shutter speed (1/250th of a second or faster). He prefers “absolutely sharp” photos (and dislikes bokeh).
During a critique with one student, he called the photo as “damaged information”– that because she shot wide-open at f2 (into a bright sun), technically the photo was poor. He suggested exposing for the highlights, so you won’t have blown highlights.
18. Be specific
In another critique, Costa recommended the student to “…avoid capturing two photos in one. Just focus on one scene”.
So if you see two scenes happening in a photo– just focus on one.
19. Don’t spread yourself too thin
One big takeaway I got from Costa was the importance of not spreading yourself too thin in your photography– to stick with one style, and not have too much inspiration from others.
For example, he is a big proponent of one camera and one lens. This helps simplify our equipment, and gives us a consistent style and look. For his “American color” series– he only shot on Kodachrome 64 color slide film as well.
He also recommends students to gain a lot of inspiration from other photographers– but mentions how it is a fine balance. If you spend too much time looking at too many other photographers, you spread yourself and your inspiration too thin. It is better to be inspired by a few photographers, know their work really well, and own all their books– rather than trying to get to know every single photographer.
20. Make photos that will last
My last takeaway from Costa was to make “photos with an infinite life”. He told us, “…the better the photo, the longer it will last. We will see it over and over again, and it will enter our memory bank.”
He also challenged us to ask ourselves, “how rare is the moment? Will the photos exist 50 years from now?”
And ultimately– the process and search of photos is as fun as the final product. So remember, have fun and enjoy the journey.
Here is a list of interesting quotes Costa shared during the workshop:
- “Photos should be perfect.”
- “Follow your instincts.”
- “Be careful of putting things in the center, unless there is a reason.”
- “I’m hungry for more information around the edges of the frame.”
- “The camera doesn’t have the versatility of the human eye.”
- “You can crop people at the waist, thighs, can’t cut at the shins. Can’t cut off feet. Can cut off head in certain situations.”
- “You can’t find something unless you know what you’re looking for.”
- “Photos should make a statement.”
- “Negative space can be used positively.”
- “The best way to edit (select) digital photos is to throw away most of it.”
- “If your not enjoying photography, you’re doing something wrong.”
- “Watch out for fluorescent lights, they are nightmares.”
- “Dead space eats away from th photo. It’s like cancer.”
- “I don’t really like verticals, I would only shoot a vertical if someone was on a ladder.”
- “The subject of the picture should be the picture. Not the subject matter.”
- “The best way to take a bad picture is to take it. Ask yourself: ’Why am I pushing the button?’ You want to get rid of the clutter before putting it into the machine.”
Books by Costa
Constantine Manos has done many books in his lifetime, but the ones I recommend are the following:
The body of work that got him into magnum. Beautiful black and white imagery, classic compositions that are strong, and powerful emotions. A must have.
His first body of color photography. Currently out of print, but definitely get it if you can.
I think this book actually has stronger images than American color, as it is a more mature body of work. This is the book I recommend everyone to get (between the both).
Costa is also teaching a workshop at the upcoming Miami street photography festival 2014. I highly recommend it to everybody.
Learn from more masters
If you want to continue your learning, I recommend reading more of the masters below:
- Alec Soth
- Alex Webb
- Anders Petersen
- Andre Kertesz
- Bruce Davidson
- Bruce Gilden
- Constantine Manos
- Daido Moriyama
- David Alan Harvey (Part 1) / David Alan Harvey (Part 2)
- David Hurn
- Diane Arbus
- Elliott Erwitt
- Eugene Atget
- Eugene Smith
- Garry Winogrand
- Helen Levitt
- Henri Cartier-Bresson
- Jacob Aue Sobol
- Jeff Mermelstein
- Joel Meyerowitz
- Joel Sternfeld
- Josef Koudelka
- Lee Friedlander
- Magnum Contact Sheets
- Magnum Photographers
- Mark Cohen
- Martin Parr
- Richard Avedon
- Richard Kalvar
- Robert Capa
- Robert Frank
- Saul Leiter
- Stephen Shore
- The History of Street Photography
- Tony Ray-Jones
- Trent Parke
- Vivian Maier
- Walker Evans
- William Eggleston
- William Klein
- Zoe Strauss