The Masters of Photography courses are a series of instructional videos, each focusing on the work and style of a specific photographer who is considered a master in their field. Having tried both the Joel Meyeorwitz and Albert Watson courses, I had to give the third – Steve McCurry – a go. Here’s what I thought about the experience and the lessons learned.
Steve McCurry is a very direct man, with a lot of stories to tell. A lot of the course involves him speaking about his experiences in the past – anecdotes such as how he would smuggle canisters of film through border checks to avoid having them seized, how he was almost killed while photographing a ceremony in India, and so on. These experiences speak to all areas of his work – from his photojournalism, to his portraiture.
There are moments when he breaks from the anecdotal style to deliver direct tips and advice on how to shoot. There are also segments in which he demonstrates his work by going out onto the streets of Cuba to photograph whatever he can find. We follow him as he does this, learning by watching how he approaches subjects, how he finds them, and what images this technique can create.
Overall, McCurry advocates two parts to being a successful photographer: first, to work hard every day, and secondly, to enjoy a dose of luck. With these two coming together, you can get a great shot. It’s clear from his teaching that without putting that work in every day, the luck will never be enough – which is a good message to end with.
Value of Content
The most valuable video to most photographers will no doubt be the one in which McCurry talks about getting his most famous shot – and perhaps a contender for the most famous image of all time: Afghan Girl. He explains the whole story from beginning to end, of how he discovered the girl, took the photograph, and ended up with such a stunning result.
There is also a lot of value here for anyone who is interested in McCurry himself, and has been a fan of his work. You can learn the stories behind most of his great shots as well as watching how he works in person.
In terms of educational value, the best parts are those in which McCurry directly lays down tips and advice for getting great shots. Not every video contains this kind of content, but those that do are very useful. I made five pages of notes while following the course, which included how to use natural light, how to make a beautiful portrait with nine precise tips, how to avoid standing out when covering fraught situations, and so on. Looking back at these notes, I do have a toolkit which would allow me to go into any portrait, photojournalism, or documentary project with a good starting point.
The course includes not just videos, but also two extras. These are a comment section, where you can discuss the videos with other students; and a PDF download which accompanies each video. The PDF contains an overview of what the lesson was about, an assignment for you to carry out to ensure that you have understood the lesson correctly, and a transcript of the video.
There’s no accountability on the homework, which means you can put in as much or as little work as you would like. I would recommend doing the homework as you watch, because this means you are actually taking in the lessons properly and learning as you go.
You can mark each lesson complete after watching it and doing the assignment, which is a great way to keep track of where you are up to. You can then go back into your dashboard at any time and easily find the next video that you need to watch. There are many hours of lessons, so this system really makes it simple to move through the course – you would be very hard-pressed to move through it all in one go.
What I Liked and Didn't Like
I enjoyed listening to McCurry’s stories and how those stand-out shots developed. The Afghan Girl story was definitely a highlight which has stood out to be after watching the whole thing, and I think it will probably stay with me for a while. There is such a strong lesson there about being hard-working, making sure that you are available and ready with all the necessary learning and experience to take that magic shot when it presents itself. Simply put, if you don’t get out there with your camera, you can’t ever produce something iconic. But if you go out there day after day, sacrifice the hours, and learn your craft to the utmost degree, there’s a strong chance of it happening.
I didn’t gain as much from some of the other stories – although they were fascinating. I also would have liked to go a bit more in-depth on other styles of photography the same way that the course did with the portraits in Cuba. Of course, it would be very difficult to create a scenario in which McCurry was showing us how to photograph a war zone, so that’s understandable!
I think that both the strength and the disadvantage of this course is that you really need to be self-motivated to get through it. This means that if you are determined, you will gain a lot of knowledge and experience through the lessons and the homework assignments. If you aren’t so determined, you might not get very much out of it.
I would recommend the McCurry course as a whole. Out of the three courses I took, I would rank it second, with the Joel Meyerowitz course being my favorite. They also work quite well together, building upon the same kind of ideas and providing context and advice in a different direction on the same genre for an extra hit of inspiration.