25 Practical Tips from Elliott Erwitt for Street Photographers

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© Elliott Erwitt / Magnum Photos

I recently attended Elliot Erwitt’s “100+1” exhibition at Fotografiska, which will be in Stockholm from December 6, 2013 to March 2, 2014. We were given a brochure with great practical advice for street photographers– which I have shared here. This text for the article is extracted from the foreword dedication written by Elliott Erwitt for the book “Personal Exposures.”

What advice do you have that now everybody is a photographer?

“I think if you’re going to take a picture, you need visual sense. Unless you take photos of your cat, dog, or child as a memento. If you’re serious of taking photos, you should study the classic arts to speak—you need a visual sense of composition. I think you should find substance in your pictures. Meaning, content. If you’re lucky and you do something that is graphically interesting like content—and there is a little magic on top of it, perhaps you have a picture.

Photography is really quite simple, it isn’t rocket science. Its just reacting to what you see, and putting it into a frame. And that’s about it.” – (from his talk at Fotografiska)

On the supreme goal for photography

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“Making people laugh is one of the highest achievements you can have. And when you can make someone laugh and cry, alternately, as Chaplin does, now that’s the highest of all possible achievements. I don’t know that I am for it, but I recognize it as the supreme goal.

On very good photography

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“When photography is good, it’s pretty interesting, and when it is very good, it is irrational and even magical… nothing to do with the photographers’ conscious will or desire. When the photograph happens, it comes easily, as a gift that should not be questioned or analyzed.

On humorous images

© Elliott Erwitt / Magnum Photos

Sometimes, humor is in the photograph, not in the scene you photograph. I mean, you can take a picture of the most wonderful situation and it’s iceless, nothing comes through. Then you can take a picture of nothing, of someone scratching his nose, and it turns out to be a great picture. What occurs in a scene, in a situation, and what you get in the photograph can be totally different.

People tell me I’m good at visual puns. I guess that’s true. I also enjoy verbal puns. Some people hate them; I love them. When I get together with my friend Murray Sayle, a wonderful writer, we drive everybody crazy; we’re impossible. I don’t know why puns are funny. I don’t know what humor is. That would be something, wouldn’t it? To understand what humor is and to be able to produce it at will.

On sad photos

© Elliott Erwitt / Magnum Photos

“Some people say my pictures are sad, some think they’re funny. Funny and sad, aren’t they really the same thing? They add up to normality.”

On experiencing with a camera

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“The camera puts a barrier between me and the experience. Once, I had an assignment to photograph cancer surgery. The day before the shoot, I went to see the procedure so I’d know what to expect. When they started lifting out the bloody lung, the surgeon saw I was about to faint and asked me to leave. But the net day, with the camera in my hand, nothing bothered me. Whatever was gruesome, or frightening, was being taken in by the camera. I was on the other side.

On thinking about photos

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In general, I don’t think too much. When I talk about my pictures, I have to think a little bit, and I’m honest, but I don’t know what’s really from me or what I’ve heard from someone else or just where the words are coming from.”

On art critics

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“I certainly don’t use those funny words museum people and art critics like. Things should be left open to interpretation. If you can take it apart, maybe it doesn’t mean anything.”

On composition

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“Maybe this should be a secret: photography is a lazy man’s profession. You don’t have to train, like a musician or a doctor or a ballet dancer. You only need the modest ability to achieve order and composition, or find the right balance of mood.

And, occasionally, you may reveal a message in what you do. That is sufficient. Being in the right place at the right moment can also help.

There are two compositions. There’s the composition framed by the viewfinder, and there’s the composition in the picture, the dynamics of it. The second one can be there even if the first one is badly organized.

So I’m not against cropping, when it’s really necessary. Some people have a fetish about it, but it’s not immoral to crop. Of course, it’s better if you don’t have to, if you find the pictures dynamic composition and marry it to the composition in the viewfinder.”

On staging photos

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I rarely stage pictures. I wait for them… let them take their own time. Sometimes, you think something’s going to happen, so you wait. It may pan out; it may not. That’s a wonderful thing about pictures– things can happen. It’s not that I’m against staging, or anything else, when you’re not cheating or working with false purposes. Even as you wait, you are, in a way, arranging and manipulating. You’re getting ready to frame the event, when it happens, the way you want it to be framed. Maybe I’m contradicting myself. Well, okay.”

On technical abilities in photography

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I don’t think people should spend their lives testing lenses or in the darkroom or should necessarily make all of their own prints (I don’t anymore), but I do think you owe it to the craft to learn and understand the technical aspects even now with the advent of the microchip. I can make a very good print, or I can give someone else directions that will yield the exact result I want. I’m not one of those photographers who say, “I don’t know what I want, but I’l recognize it…”

On staying curious

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“The dedicated photographer works with his own sensibility, instincts, and experience. He stays curious about everything visible. He looks, looks some more, and then looks again, because that is the fundamental basis of photography. And that’s all… just looking and making your own unique connections. (Well, then, of course, you have to hope that Providence will wave his or hers magic wand and make it real and good.”

On barking at dogs

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“I bark at dogs. That is why the little dog is in one of my photographs has jumped straight up into the air. A lot of people asked about that. Well, I barked. He jumped. I barked. He jumped… Once I was walking down a narrow street in Kyoto behind a lady who was walking a dog that looked interesting. Just to see, I barked. Immediately, the lady turned and kicked her bewildered dog. I guess we had the same kind of bark.”

On photographing dogs

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“The dog pictures work on two levels. Dogs are simply funny when you catch them in certain situations, so some people like my pictures just because they like dogs. But dogs have human qualities, and I think my pictures have an anthropomorphic appeal. Essentially, they have nothing to do with dogs… I mean, I hope what they’re about is the human condition. But people can take them as they like.”

On emotional photos

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“I observe, I try to entertain, but above all I want pictures that are emotional. Little else interests me in photography. Today, so much is being done by unemotional people, or at least it looks that way… I mean, work that’s fascinating and fun and clever and technically brilliant. But if it’s not personal, then it misses what interesting photography is about.

Finding a gentleness in my pictures, that’s about the highest compliment I’ve had. Certainly, you can’t avoid taking cheap shots sometimes, but you ought to throw them away.”

On shooting with a 35mm format

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“I use the rectangular format because the proportion of 1 to 1 1/2, close to the “golden section”, seems particularly right. In almost everything, including architecture, it’s more pleasing to the eye. It’s also the the 35mm format, of course.”

On shooting with a SLR vs rangefinder

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“There’s a profound difference between the simple non-reflex, direct-viewing camera (such as a range-finder Leica) and a single-lens reflex. With a reflex, you tend to make the picture in the camera; with the other, you have to see the picture and then put a frame around it. The range-finder camera is also faster, quicker to focus, less noisy, and smaller, but these advantages are much less important than the fundamental difference.”

On lenses and film

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“Simplicity. I have a large arsenal of equipment for my professional work, but for my informal pictures I mostly use a 50-mm lens, sometimes a 90-mm. I work within a narrow range. I like to work with only one kind of film at a time, because I get confused easily. When I mix films, I often make a mistake and shoot with the wrong one. Tri-X is the most useful to me. I don’t like to make tests. I like for other photographers to make the tests and give me the results. I believe them.”

On gimmicky effects

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“As for extreme wide-angle lenses or telephoto lenses or pinkish graduated color filters and so forth, they’re to add interest where there is no interest. You may get a clever result that has nothing to do with observation. I’ve done lots of tricky, gimmicky stuff on commission, but that’s work and it can be fun, but it is a totally different mind-set, little more than creative obedience.”

On black and white vs color


“I don’t keep color pictures for my ‘personal exposures.’ Color is for work. My life is already too complicated, so I stick to black-and-white. It’s enough. Black-and-white is what you boil down to get the essentials; it’s much more difficult to get right. Color works best for information.”

On good advice for photographers

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“I don’t follow anyone’s system of philosophy, but famous phrases come to mind, sometimes about how to work. I never forget the advice of Field-Marshal Ferdinand Foch of France; “Time spent on reconnaissance is seldom wasted.”

Here’s another: “The most important advice to photographers is f:8 and be there. I’m not sure who said that. Let’s call him ‘an unidentified deceased photographer.’ It’s good advice.

And finally, (Red) Baron Manfred von Richthofen’s classic reply for success (in his business): “First you must overcome the inner Schweinehund (the inner Swinehound, the enemy inside yourself that makes you passive).” Presumably once you have overcome the inner Schweinehund, all the other Schweinehunde are duck soup.”

On visual sense

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Good visual sense probably can’t be taught, not at a profound level. It’s eye, but it’s also heart. I believe I have a good visual sense of other people’s pictures yet sometimes I don’t really see my own pictures right away. Years later, after I’ve passed over stuff and thought nothing of it, I look again and see that some of it is pretty good (or that some of what I thought was good is pretty lousy.) I just hadn’t recognized it yet. Boy, I wish I knew why that was. Did I change? Did the pictures change?”

On sharing your images with others

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“You can’t be arrogant with the gift of visual sense. You’re not seeking out some rare bird; you’re taking photographs for other people to see. You war them to see what you see. So, while you recognize that you may have an unusual talent, you can’t make the mistake of patronizing, or assuming that few people will really appreciate what you do. At all points, the public should be able to understand what you’ve done even if they don’t understand how you’ve done it.”

On judging photos

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Unfortunately, most people are insecure about judging or reacting to pictures. They gravitate toward what’s familiar, established, safe. That’s true even of some ‘experts,’ editors who are paid to read contact sheets and pick occasional good pictures out of a whole mass of lousy ones. They don’t know how to look. Or they’re unsure of what they see. But it’s just as true that there are ordinary, non-sophisticated people who often are unusually insightful about visual things.”

On political images

© Elliott Erwitt / Magnum Photos

My pictures are political in a way. They are intended to comment on the human comedy, and isn’t that politics? If I were asked whom I dislike more, Nixon or Johnson, I’d be hard-pressed to give a clear-cut answer. Johnson was the embodiment of vulgarity, but does that show int eh pictures? You tell me.”

If you want to learn more about Elliott Erwitt, you can read my article: 14 Lessons Elliott Erwitt Has Taught Me About Street Photography.


Below are some of my favorite books by Elliott Erwitt which I recommend:

1. Elliott Erwitt: Personal Best ~$40

1x1.trans 14 Lessons Elliott Erwitt Has Taught Me About Street Photography

A superb compilation of his best images. A great starter book to Erwittt’s work. You can also download it on iPad or iPhone in the iTunes store for $6 here.

2. Elliott Erwitt: Snaps ~$40

1x1.trans 14 Lessons Elliott Erwitt Has Taught Me About Street Photography

Another great book of Erwitt’s best street photographs taken. It focuses more on street photography than “Personal best.”

3. Elliott Erwitt: Sequentially Yours ~$60

1x1.trans 14 Lessons Elliott Erwitt Has Taught Me About Street Photography

One of my favorite books by Erwitt– in which the books are all of sequences of images he took in succession. The photos almost look like a moving picture– or video.

4. Elliott Erwitt’s Dogs ~$20

1x1.trans 14 Lessons Elliott Erwitt Has Taught Me About Street Photography

Any library with photo books of Elliott Erwitt isn’t complete without his book on Dogs– some of the best photos of dogs ever taken on the streets. A must-have for any dog lover.

5. Elliott Erwitt: Kolor ~$80

1x1.trans 14 Lessons Elliott Erwitt Has Taught Me About Street Photography

Erwitt’s newest photography book, all comprised of his most famous color images. Although Erwitt is mostly known for black and white, he did much commercial work with slide films. If you love color and want to see a unique side of Erwitt, I recommend you picking up this book.

You can also see more of Elliott Erwitt’s work on his Magnum Photos portfolio.