10 Things Magnum Photographer David Hurn Can Teach You About Street Photography

(Copyright: David Hurn/Magnum Photos/Magnum Photos)

I recently finished reading a book “On Being A Photographer” which is an amazing instructional book for aspiring photographers. The book was written by Bill Jay, in collaboration with Magnum photographer David Hurn. The book covers many different things, such as how to select a subject, how to work on a photography project, as well as how to edit and select your best images.

This article is going to be aimed at the top things I learned from reading the book. Now read on and see what you can learn from David Hurn and Bill Jay!

1. Photographers Are Awful Editors

"Copyright: David Hurn/Magnum Photos"

When I talk about editing, I mean the act of choosing your best images, not post-processing.

In the book, David Hurn discusses how photographers are often horrible editors of their own work. He brings to example W Eugene Smith and his Pittsburg Project. When working with magazines and publications, it was the editors that often chose his best shots.

Smith hated this control that his editors had over his work, so he embarked on an epic project on Pittsburg. The problem was that the project overwhelmed and consumed him, and he wasn’t able to edit the entire project efficiently.

He ended up taking tens of thousands of shots, and couldn’t edit down under a few thousand. Needless to say, it was a monumental failure and he couldn’t find anyone to publish the photos in “it’s true entirety”.

Therefore as a photographer, it is hard to edit your own work. The reason is that we often get too emotionally attached to our images, including our bad shots. It is always important to get a second opinion on your shots, because it is others who can help spot imperfections in our shots.

Sure we shouldn’t hand off all of the editing decisions to others. However if you are working on a project and have several hundred shots, try to edit down to around 20 or so images, and ask a photographer or editor you respect to help get down to those 10 or so final images.

2. Be Aware of “Pregnant Moments”

"Copyright: David Hurn/Magnum Photos"

David Hurn describes “pregnant moments” as “decisive moments” waiting to occur. This means if you are walking down the street and you see a man about to jump over a puddle by crouching down and bending his knees, you can anticipate that a “decisive moment” or him jumping over the puddle will occur in about two seconds.

If you see these pregnant moments about to occur, make sure to have your camera ready and be mindful of how you want to frame and time your shot. For example, if I see a man about to take a puff of a cigarette and want to capture the shot, I prefocus my camera to 1.2 meters, set my aperture and shutter speed accordingly and step toward him and get ready to snap the shot. Shooting with a 35mm focal length, I know that 1.2 meters framed vertically will approximately get the top of his head and around his waist in the shot. 2 meters (shot vertically) will roughly get a person’s full height in the shot (from the top of his head, to the bottom of his feet).

Also when you see the “pregnant moment”, don’t just snap one photo and walk on. Rather, take several shots, at subtlety different angles, and wait for small variations.

For example, if you see an elderly couple interacting, you might want to take a shot at eye level or crouching down, or stepping a bit to the left to make sure an ugly car isn’t in the background. You might also be patient for subtle variations. One second they may be making direct eye contact and you go “click”. They turn away from each other and you go “click”. You see them about to hold hands so you wait half a second. They then grab hands and you go “click”. They start walking away and then you know that there is nothing else to be shot.

If you look at the contact sheets of some of the most famous photographs taken in history, rarely is there only one shot of the event. For example, the shot of the kids In front of a broken wall – Henri Cartier-Bresson shot around 6 shots in the series. For Elliot erwitts famous shot of the two bulldogs (one looking like its owner) he shot an entire roll to get precisely the right angle – 36 shots. Even Ansel Adams shot around 10 shots for his famous “moon and half dome” shot.

But how many shots should you make when you see a “pregnant scene”? David Hurn says he personally makes roughly 6 shots for each scene.

3. Realize You Only Can Control Two Things As A Photographer

"Copyright: David Hurn/Magnum Photos"

According to David Hurn, there are only two things you can control as a photographer: position and timing.

Position is where you are standing when you see a scene, and whether you are crouching, standing, or from a high vantage point.

Timing is when you decide to click the shutter.

Therefore when you are shooting street photography, realize that there is so little that you can control as a photographer. As Alex Webb says, 99.9% of street photography is failure. Even though you may capture an amazing subject, most likely your background will be really cluttered and busy with random people or cars. The light may be poor. There may be a random pole in the scene that you can’t remove by position or framing.

Of course there are other things you can control, such as your aperture, shutter speed, focal length, etc. However at the end of the day, it is the position and the timing that makes the content of a photograph. Everything else might change the technical aspects or “effect” – which isn’t as important.

Therefore in order to master your positioning and timing, it is crucial to stick to one focal length you are comfortable with (I personally recommend either a 28mm or 35mm lens. 50mm is good too, but often too tight when shooting in large cities). By sticking to one focal length, you will be able to frame scenes in your head before even lifting the camera to your eye. I have shot with a 35mm focal length for roughly 5 years, which helps me focus less on my equipment and more on framing and composing my shot.

It is also really important to know your camera well. It isn’t important what camera you use, as well as you can handle it with precision. You can shoot with a dslr, rangefinder, iPhone, whatever. Just make sure you don’t miss decisive moments because of the limitations of your camera.

For example, if timing is crucial in street photography then you have to make sure that when you click the shutter, your camera will actually take a photograph. I know that some cameras out there have considerable shutter lag. If you know your camera has shutter lag, then compensate for it by shooting half a second earlier. If your camera has really poor autofocus, it may be a better idea to stick at f/8 and zone focus manually.

Also make sure that you turn off “auto power off” in your camera to make sure your camera isn’t off or sleeping when you decide to click the shutter. Oh yeah, and make sure to throw away all your lens caps in a box at home and use uv filters or lens hoods instead (there is nothing more frustrating than trying to take a photo to remember your lens cap is on).

4. The Most Memorable Shots Are Emotional

"Copyright: David Hurn/Magnum Photos"

There was one quote I loved by Bill Jay which he said, “For me, the best photos are those which go straight into the heart and blood, and take some time to reach the brain”.

As humans, we are emotional creatures. We connect with others and images often on emotional content. Think about all the cliched and popular images we remember. Typically they involve love (kissing), pain (starving children), or hope (people looking into the horizon).

A great photograph doesn’t have to be emotional to be memorable, but it helps.

There is an over-abundance of images on the Internet nowadays, and it is quite easy to quickly flip through them and not spend more than half a second to look at them. However if they have something in the image that we connect on an emotional level, we will take more time to inspect the image, and often find the small details which makes the photo a great image.

5. The Photographer Is Simply A “Subject Selector”

"Copyright: David Hurn/Magnum Photos"

A photograph is a reflection of the photographer. Meaning, we often take photos that interest us as photographers. As street photographers, we are drawn to people, as it shows our interest in humanity, society, and those around us.

David Hurn states that as photographers, we are simply “subject selectors”. This means that your style and philosophy of image-making is less dependent on whether you shoot digital vs film, color vs black and white, or sharp vs blurry images. It isn’t the fancy effects or camera that make the photographer, but the subject matter that the photographer decides to capture.

For example, if you look at the work of Elliott Erwitt, he has a profound ability to capture the humorous and ridiculous things in the world. He also likes taking photographs of dogs. We can easily see his personality shine through his images based on the moments and subjects he selects (he loves dogs too btw).

Therefore focus your photography on the subject matter you capture, and carefully think about what statement you are trying to say through your photos. Are you a graphic designer? Then perhaps you should create images that are focused on shapes, forms, and shadows. If you have done social work in the past, perhaps you should document either the homeless or those struggling. Are you a businessman and hate your job? Perhaps you should do a project on other businessmen who look quite miserable.

Focus less on the effects, but more on the subjects you capture. This is your mark as a photographer.

6. Be Interested In Your Bad Shots, Not Your Good Shots

"Copyright: David Hurn/Magnum Photos"

It is easy to fall in love with our good shots. However David Hurn recommends that we focus on our bad shots, not our good shots.

When you are looking and editing your images, don’t consider what makes the photo good, but what may be potentially distracting or what may make it fail. Is the light flat? Are there too many subjects in the background? Is your subject centered too far in the middle of the frame?

Many photographers I know who took film photography courses at school weren’t allowed to discard their bad shots, and had to turn in their full rolls to their professors. The professors would always be interested in their bad shots, and would discuss with them why the shots didn’t work. By understanding why your bad shots dont work, can you understand why your other shots are good.

7. Invest In A Pair Of Good Shoes

"Copyright: David Hurn/Magnum Photos"

Often times photographers obsess too much about their gear (camera, lens, etc) yet forget the piece of equipment that is the most essential, the shoes.

If you have a comfortable pair of shoes, then you can shoot for a long time without slowing down. Having a good pair of shoes will also give you the flexibility to run to get a certain shot, to crouch down, or even jump over fences or walls (if need be).

If there is rain or mud, it also helps to get a pair of shoes that is waterproof.

8. Shoot With A Project In Mind

"Copyright: David Hurn/Magnum Photos"

Although the tradition of street photography is wandering around public with no theme in mind, I highly encourage everyone who wants to take their photography more seriously to work on a project.

David Hurn mentions an account in which he met Garry Winogrand. When Winogrand died, he left thousands of undeveloped rolls of film. This caused people to believe that Winogrand would just randomly go out and snap anything that moved. However hurn mentions that in a conversation he had, Winogrand said that he would always go out and shoot with a project in mind. For example, Winogrand mentioned he was in airports a lot. He then started to work on his projects on airports. He also worked on many projects at the same time, and would shoot a lot to have many photos to consider.

9. Edit With Prints

"Copyright: David Hurn/Magnum Photos"

With digital, we spend all of our time editing (choosing our best images) via our computers, Lightroom, etc. However one thing that David Hurn mentions is that although we have the technology, there is still a merit in editing with prints.

If you edit with prints, the process is much more organic and natural. We can simply slide around prints on a table, group them together, or remove the shots that are no good.

For example James Natchway, a war photographer, would often post up small 4×6 prints on a wall, and look at them constantly for months on end. The shots that were really good, he would keep, and the weaker shots he would eventually discard.

So what does this mean for us? If you are trying to compile a portfolio of your best 20 shots or so, it is a good idea to print out a ton of your best shots 4×6, and arrange them on a table. Keep your best shots, and remove your weakest shots.

If you are working on a project, start grouping images together that work, and even sequence them in order. For example, when Robert Frank was working on “The Americans” he grouped his images into several categories, some of them being “cars”, “political rallies”, “bars”, etc. He would then make sure that there was enough variety in his shots, and would then continue to edit down and keep his best shots.

10. Cameras Are About Solutions, Not Problems

"Copyright: David Hurn/Magnum Photos"

Hurn mentions in his book that many aspiring photographers have a fear of approaching strangers, and taking their photographs without permission. He also mentions now most photographers hate being seen with a camera,and wish they were invisible.

Hurn says this is all a bunch of nonsense. He mentions the camera as being about solutions, not problems. For example, for shy photographers he mentions that the camera is an excuse to be curious. It is an “entrance ticket” to moments in which you normally couldn’t have access to.

For example, let’s say you walk by a concert. If you approached the security guard and said you wanted to go in and check it out, he or she would probably decline. But if the security guard asks, “Why do you want to enter?” and you respond that you are a photographer and show him or her your camera, you are more likely to be able to enter.

Don’t see the camera as something you want to hide, but rather as a symbol of power and authority. It is an extension or your body and eye.

As street photographers are are inherently interested in people. Imagine how awkward it would be to simply stare at someone in public without saying anything. If you get caught (and you’re not a photographer) that person may feel awkward or strange. However if you get caught staring at someone and you say that you are a photographer and think that they have a great face, they will be flattered.


I highly recommend everyone to read David Hurns book, “On Being A Photographer“. It is one of the few photo books of its kind that is instructive and practical, yet written by a Magnum photographer.

Now go out and shoot!

Which of these tips really hit you in the heart? Also for those of you who have read the book, what else would you add to to this list? What do you agree/disagree with? Leave your thoughts in the comments below! 

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