10 Things I Learned from Jay Maisel

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Sunset over Manhatten by Darren Johnson on Flickr Creative Commons.

It’s finally September, and psychologically the end of summer. The triple-digit heat still holds Arizona in its grip, though, so I still spend my days inside, in air-conditioned comfort. Luckily for me I have a subscription to Kelby Training. Just because I can’t physically wander the streets, camera in hand, doesn’t mean that I can’t enjoy a photography-filled day. I dedicated five and a half hours to watching the trio of videos about street photography, shot on location in New York City and in Paris, with Scott Kelby and Jay Maisel. I came away feeling invigorated and re-inspired, just itching to feel the camera in my hands again. I hope to take all of the things I learned and turn them into an exceptional experience when I participate in the Worldwide Photo Walk on October 5th.

There is a wealth of knowledge about street photography, gained from Maisel’s 40+ years of experience, encapsulated in that five and a half hours. Here are the top ten things that I took away from the training classes.

1. Go light on the gear. Take ONE camera and ONE lens, and free yourself from such trappings as lens hoods and camera bags. The smaller your physical profile the better, as it allows you freedom of movement and flexibility. It also frees you from concerning yourself with such questions as, “Am I using the right lens?” You’ll shoot with what you have, which means you’ll shoot more often and remove the tendency to pause and hesitate.

2. Always have a camera with you, and always be ready to shoot. When performing a photo walk, leave the camera on. Don’t worry about draining the battery, just carry a couple of extra batteries in your pocket. You waste precious moments and squander precious opportunities even in the mere seconds it takes to power on your camera.

3. Use aperture priority, a higher ISO (like 1600), exposure bracketing, high-speed continuous shooting, and RAW+JPEG. All of these things will help ensure that you get “the” shot, at a moment’s notice. You will be able to react and respond to fleeting photographic opportunities without having to fiddle with camera settings to make sure you get the proper exposure. It takes a bit of practice to get the timing of bracketing and high-speed continuous shooting down, but once you do it will help tremendously. Yes, this will fill up your memory card faster, so just carry a few extra. And yes you will have more photos to sort through in post-processing, but the JPEG copies will free you from having to convert photos that are great just the way they are, straight out of the camera. Plus you will have the opportunity to select the exposure you like the best, from the multiples that you take. NOTE: The use of exposure bracketing ties into the importance of always leaving the camera on. Many cameras, like my Canon EOS 7D, will cancel the exposure bracketing setting when the camera is turned off, making it necessary to re-set it again when the camera is turned back on. More precious moments wasted!


4. Be open, be open, be open. The phrase that Maisel returned to time and time again was to, “be open”. The best plan is to not have a plan (to quote Maisel, “If you’re going to explore, don’t start with a plan”), but to let life unfold before you. If you have a specific plan you will narrow your point of view and miss what is happening around you. The unintended and unanticipated is often “the” picture. But being open also means letting go, so keep in mind that you can’t capture everything. Don’t worry about what you’re missing, concern yourself with what you’re capturing in the moment. And don’t worry about always being productive, because sometimes productivity kills creativity.

5. Shoot what excites you. Every shot should have a trigger, that one element that caused you to bring your camera up to your face. It could be a play of light and shadow, a gesture or emotion, a combination of colors, unique shapes or the formation of patterns. Shoot what speaks to you, and in the process practice identifying and defining that trigger element.

6. If you want to be a great photographer, you have to practice every single day. Occasional photographers will occasionally take great photos, but those who shoot every day raise up to a new and rare level of skill. Don’t shoot with an eye toward “fixing” something later in Photoshop – those who do so start to get sloppy. At the same time, don’t be afraid to go against what you’ve been “told” to do – shoot through glass, shoot in dappled light, shoot at any time of the day and not just during the “golden” hours, capture glare or flares, break compositional “rules”. Don’t give up the moment or the shot, the trigger or emotion, for the sake of technical perfection.

Paris by Wilhelm Lappe on Flickr Creative Commons.

7. Don’t just be satisfied with what everyone else sees, or the shot that everyone else can get. Inject something into the photo that makes it unique, makes it something nobody has ever seen before. Get beyond what everyone else sees – especially when shooting landmarks or popular attractions. Those sites have been shot hundreds and thousands of times before, so bring something else, some element of yourself or something new, into the shot.

8. Try hard not to repeat yourself. Try not to duplicate your successes, but find new and exciting ways to be successful. A photographic style cannot be purposefully developed and applied – it comes out over time through your photography and is something that evolves and happens without contrivance.

9. Find your inspiration by looking at art. In order to see the full range of human expression, don’t limit your knowledge of art to just photographs or paintings, but all forms and mediums no matter how obscure. Everything is acceptable, even if it doesn’t personally appeal to you. Assume everything is a broadening experience.

Paris 10_2006 by Ralf Schulze on Flickr Creative Commons

10. Keep eliminating the bad pictures from your portfolio. If you don’t know the difference between the bad photos and the best, you’re always going to be judged by the bad ones, not the good ones. Take the worst one out, look at the portfolio again, and take the worst one out again. Keep doing this until you know in your heart that there is nothing in there you’re embarrassed about, that you’re ashamed of, or that you have to explain. Keep the portfolio under 20 shots for your personal portfolio, if you have no specific motive, client, or task in mind. The less you show and the better they are, the more you’re going to impress. It gets to be like work if there are a lot of pictures to look at. If the pictures speak for themselves, let them. If you’re having to explain them, take them out.

Photo credits (in order of appearance):

- “Sunset over Manhattan” by Darren Johnson on Flickr Creative Commons
- “New York Monochrome” by Randy Lemoine on Flickr Creative Commons.
- “Paris” by Wilhelm Lappe on Flickr Creative Commons.
- “Paris 10_2006″ by Ralf Schulze on Flickr Creative Commons.

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  • Jim Martin

    Nice post, Tiffany. I’m also looking forward to Oct. 5! The rule that seems most important to me here regarding street photography is that you have to shoot every day. A couple of years ago I also reviewed the Kelby video (seehttp://jimmartinphotoblog.blogspot.de/2011/06/review-of-another-day-with-jay-maisel.html). It is one of the best in my opinion.

  • http://www.sandyolsonphotography.com/ Sandy Olson

    Great post. I like the idea of shooting against what you’ve been told to do. Some of my best shots wouldn’t have happened if I had listened to the ‘correct’ way to shoot a photo. http://www.sandyolsonphotography.blogspot.com