Snap judgements: Seven great photographers talk about their craft

Anybody can take a snapshot – but what makes a truly extraordinary picture? The world's greatest living photographers tell Anne-Celine Jaeger how they craft their genre-defining images...

Rineke Dijkstra

Dijkstra, a Dutch photographer, tends to work in series, concentrating on individual portraits. She focuses on people in a transitional stage of their life, such as women after giving birth and new recruits in 'Israeli Soldiers', of which the image here is part.

What is your aim when taking pictures?

I want to show things you might not see in normal life. I make normal things appear special, but it has to be based on reality.

What equipment do you use?

I use a 4x5-inch field camera with a standard lens and a tripod.The negatives are the size of postcards, which gives you really wonderful sharp detail and contrast. The end result is that your photograph is almost more real than reality.

How do you edit your pictures?

I might leave them for two weeks because you need distance to see properly. It happens to me that I take a picture and I think it doesn't work at all and then I look at it three years later and I think it's a great picture. It's probably linked to having something in mind and being disappointed that your expectations weren't met, then realising later that it was a lucky moment.

What art form does photography come closest to?

Perhaps sculpture. I think it's important that people understand and look at photography in a more abstract way. It's about being able to imagine looking behind the image as if it was three-dimensional.

William Eggleston

Often referred to as the "father of colour photography", Eggleston was already experimenting with colour in the early 1960s, when black-and-white was the norm. He became famous for monumentalising everyday subjects.

How do you decide if something is worthy of being captured?

I never know beforehand. Until I see it. It just happens all at once. Even the most uninteresting, ugly or boring places can for an instant become magical to me.

What goes through your mind when you are framing a shot?

I compose very quickly and without thinking, but consciously. I take a picture instantly and never more than one. A long time ago, I would have taken several, but I was wasting a lot of time looking at these damn near identical pictures.

What makes one image stand out more than another?

I don't have favourites. I look at pictures democratically. To me they are all equal. There are still so many pictures that I wish were seen.

When did you first get interested in photography?

A friend made me buy my first camera – a Canon – when I was studying at Vanderbilt University in Nashville in 1957. I was fascinated immediately. Do you think it's important to be technically proficient? You become technically proficient whether you want to or not, the more you take pictures.

Naomi Harris

In 2000 Harris photographed Haddon Hall, the last hotel in Miami dedicated to senior citizens. Thanks to that project she got her first assignment with The New York Times Magazine and has been working as a documentary photographer ever since.

When did you start taking pictures?

I never really had an interest until I studied printmaking at university. I thought it would be worth taking a photography course. When I saw the contact sheets I thought, "Oh dear, I think this is what I want to do".

How do you get the best out ofyour subjects?

I'm always very honest with the people I photograph. I open up a lot and tell people about my own experiences and answer their questions honestly. I'm asking my subjects for something, so I want to give something in return.

Is it important to be technically proficient?

Yes. Regardless of whether you use lights or not, you should know what the effect would be.

Do you think a photographer needs a philosophy to do good work?

Most good artists are a bit on the crazy side. Most of my photographer friends are either on medication, in therapy or should be. It's the off-kilter quirkiness that allows you to see people in a different way.

What advice would you give to a budding photographer?

Only you can make it happen. Work on your own project when you're not shooting for an assignment. It's not enough to be a talented photographer, you have to be a good business person too.

Boris Mikhailov

Born in the Ukraine in 1938, Mikhailov's photographs demonstrated a satirical criticism of the Soviet regime during the 1970s and 1980s. Following the downfall of the Soviet Union, his focus shifted to capturing the social disintegration.

What attracted you to photography?

A picture I made of a woman holding a cigarette. That was a radical break from the norms: you were only supposed to show Soviet women as an ideal. Photography was where I could express myself as a citizen and a human being.

Did you have access to international photographers' work?

Not really. But I understood after a while that it wasn't important for me to look at. They have a really strong aesthetic,which corresponded to the Western environment. In my life there is dirt, things are broken. I needed to concentrate on what was real.

What do you think about when you are framing a shot?

I don't look in the frame. I look later. First I look in life.

David LaChapelle

Fashion photographer LaChapelle is famous for creating surreal, uncompromisingly original visual worlds, saturated in colour.

To what degree did your mother, who was also an artist, inspire you to become one?

My mother was the first person to introduce me to creativity. My parents didn't have much, but she would decorate the house in the most amazing way at Easter and Christmas. She frequently transformed our house into a wonderland.

Do you think formal education is important?

I think art history is crucial for anyone in the visual arts. You have to understand how ideas evolve.

What makes one image stand out more than another?

Images that stand out are those that haven't been taken just to shock or impress you.

What advice would you give?

Take the pictures you want to take. Don't think about what sells, or what an editor might say. The key is to photograph your obsessions, whether that's old people's hands or skyscrapers.

Do you need a philosophy to do great work?

I don't know. I think you certainly have to think beyond the latest model.

Alec Soth

An avid traveller, Magnum nominee Soth spent three years taking pictures along the Mississippi river with an 8x10 camera. He continues to create images infused with lyricism and melancholy.

How did you get into photography?

I studied painting at high school, but the thing that really got me excited in photography was going to a Joel Sternfeld lecture in college. I'll never forget how he showed an image of his little car in a vast landscape and it was so exciting for me. I thought, "God, I could drive around America".

What do you think when you shoot?

All thoughts leave my head. It's the nine hours of driving around beforehand [when I do my] thinking. And I think right after I've taken the picture how it's going to fit into the series.

What's your theory of photography?

Photography is very related to poetry. It's suggestive and fragmentary and unsatisfying in a lot of ways. It's the art of limitation: framing the world.

Does a photographer actually need a philosophy to do good work?

You need to find your own voice, as corny as it sounds. You need to know the tradition [of photography] and find your little voice in that tradition in order to bring a glimmer of newness to it.

Mary Ellen Mark

A contributing photographer for The New Yorker, Mark achieved worldwide recognition following her 1981 book Falkland Road: Prostitutes of Bombay. Her images often depict people at the edge of society.

How did you develop your own way of seeing?

I don't think you can develop or learn a "way of seeing". It's who you are, how you think and how you create images.

Do you know what you want to say before you take a picture?

I prefer not to think ahead about what I'm going to say; I would rather be surprised and see what my subjects bring to the photograph.

How important is patience in your job?

You have to wait for the right moment. There is so much we see today that is not about the subject but about the clever ideas the photographer might have. Most often the ideas the subjects have are a thousand times better. I was photographing an animal trainer who had a massive ego. He took the trunk of his beloved elephant Shyama and wrapped it around his neck like a necklace. I would never have thought of something that clever.

Do you think that a documentary photograph can ever be objective?

All documentary photographs are subjective. But great photographers are special because of the way they see the world. They have a personal vision.

Extracted from 'Image Makers, Image Takers', by Anne-Celine Jaeger, paperback, £17.95 (Thames & Hudson)