Ten things I learned from Jay Maisel

Jay Maisel is one of the world’s greatest photographers and his workshops are intended to completely change the way you take photographs. They do. I was privileged to be able to do his workshop twice. That is ten solid days, from breakfast until ten at night, absorbing everything he has to teach. His studio is in an old bank in the Bowery section of lower Manhattan and exploring the six-story building is an experience in itself.

The following are ten of the most important things I learned during my time at the Bank with Jay. They apply  to street photography as well as any other type of photography .

1-Always carry a camera.  Unless we have the  camerawith us at all times we may lose the opportunity to capture that great decisive moment when it presents itself because most decisive moments are also elusive moments. If we just wait until we “go out shooting” to capture those moments then we will miss many of them because they may happen when we were out,  but not “out shooting”, so we didn’t bring a camera. The key is to train ourselves to take our camera wherever we go, the grocery store, the movies, a bar etc, so you’re always prepared for the unexpected moment.

El Raval, Barcelona, Spain. (C) Juan Jose Reyes

2- Nothing in the image is neutral, it either works for you or against you.  It’s important to always be aware of everything that we capture in an image because we are responsible for every square mm.  of the frame. As Jay says, nothing in the image is neutral, it either works for you or against you. The background, the signs, the branch coming out of the head,  the extra person etc.  I am learning to pay attention to everything I see through the viewfinder before I take the shot. In street photography is not always possible to correct or change what we see but is important to train the eye to see what might be detracting from getting a better image.

Coney Island, Brooklyn, NY. (C) Juan Jose Reyes

3-Gesture over graphics. If the gesture is powerful then nothing else matters. Even if there is a lot  of clutter in the frame ( see # 2) always go for the gesture instead of trying to “clean up” the frame. Gesture is what makes the picture emotionally involving and always overrides form.

Soho, New York,NY. (C) Juan Jose Reyes

4-Show something that the viewer has never seen. Is easy to just take pictures of what’s happening in front of us, but is it something that no one has seen before? This question forces us to look for the unusual, the extraordinary . The special gesture, the weird light, the complex combination of things, the funny juxtaposition of subject and background. I sometimes use the following question:  if I google what’s in the picture I just took how many image results will I get?.

5- Don’t imitate. Jay says that the goal is revelation not replication. We need to shoot until we find our own style. We could  have elements from someone who we like and admire but in the end the viewer has to know that the picture they are looking at is undoubtedly ours.

New York, NY (C) Juan Jose Reyes

6- If it looks bad in the viewfinder it won’t look better in the computer. This is the old “garbage in, garbage out” rule. If the picture is mediocre when we are taking it then no amount of cropping or post processing will make it great. It may improve it but it will still be mediocre. This is where the art of street photography resides.

7- Great pictures don’t just tell you things, they ask questions The challenge is always to look for situations that will make the viewer want more. If we show everything then the fun is over.  If we entice the viewer to create a story around the image then is probably a good image

Manhattan’s Lower East Side, New York, NY. (C) Juan Jose Reyes

8-Shoot where all the others aren’t. This is such a simple rule and changed my pictures dramatically. Is obvious that if everyone is shooting the same thing then most likely the pictures won’t be very original. This goes with Jay’s 180 degrees rule, which basically says if someone is shooting in one direction, turn around and shoot the other way, there might be more interesting things there. An example would be shooting the sunset. The most interesting pictures are sometimes looking 180 degrees away from the sunset ( and you can google sunset images if you want to see one).

9-Lettering becomes content even if you don’t want to. Whenshooting in the streets is almost impossible to avoid some sort of lettering: street signs, ads, posters etc. We have to be aware that the brain always gets attracted ( or distracted ) by words because the first thing it wants to do is to read them, taking away the attention from the subject. The challenge here is to avoid distracting signs or words ( remember nothing is neutral) or if we can’t avoid them then make it part of the story.

Downtown Fort Lauderdale, Fl. (C) Juan Jose Reyes

10-Life is in color. Jay shoots only in color because life is not black and white and if we are trying to capture life then we have to capture it the way it is. The tendency in street photography is to shoot only in BW but I think one of the reasons for that is because shooting in color is a lot more difficult.  Any image can look a little better by making it BW just because it gives it a classic nostalgic look but the content remains the same so if it was a predictable image in color it will continue to be after the change.  The key here is to develop our own style ( see #5 don’t imitate).

Midtown Miami, Miami, FL (C) Juan Jose Reyes

I’m still incorporating most of the things I learned from Jay in my photographs. It takes a while. The results may take a long time to appear but as long as the shift has occurred  inside our brain then  we just have to keep practicing until they do.

I’m still waiting.



7 thoughts on “Ten things I learned from Jay Maisel

  1. A really useful and concise summary of Jay’s philosophy. Thanks for publishing it. I’m still waiting, too, six months after attending his workshop. The good photos are coming more often than they used to, however. My take on Jay’s sessions is here: http://photoartsguild.org/docs/Maisel-Workshop.pdf (it’s a large Powerpoint file that takes a while to download).

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