What I learnt from Girish Mistry

I attended a lecture on photography. It’s not something that I usually do.

Don’t get me wrong - I’m keen to learn but I’ve realized that I don’t really learn much by listening to people talk.

Most “good” photographers don’t talk as well as they shoot and most people who talk too much don’t have the photos to back up their talk.

Photography these days has become like almost everything else, a marketing game.

If you are good at marketing the crap that you turn out, you can become a popular photographer on social media. Photography skills, technique and artistic vision unfortunately are secondary.

I’m the sort of person who learns better by observation - In some cases, by watching what people are doing and in most cases especially what they are not doing. Maybe it’s the type of person I am …or maybe I’m just growing old.

Perhaps that’s one of the reasons why I’ve never enrolled for any formal photography training course – the good news is that if there is someone to blame for the terrible photographs that I take, it’s just me!

Boredom strikes!

Off late, I’ve realized that I’m bored of shooting photographs that look the same as all the other photos I’ve taken over the years. My cameras have changed from SLRs like the FM to the F2 (with a Spotmatic and Zenit thrown in for good measure) from entry level DSLRs to Full frame DSLRs.

I moved from Nikon to Canon and again to Nikon and then again to Canon (no Sony or Fuji so far). I used to write about photography too quite a bit, was active on online forums, did photography articles for a newspaper, shot every weekend for a long time – I got bored and I stopped everything.

I sold my nice expensive retro looking Nikon fullframe DSLR (the Df) along with some 25 to 30 odd lenses that I had hoarded from 10mm to 600mm. And I’m now a photographer without a camera. I have however continued to pay for this  website  so there is proof of the bad photos I've taken with fancy equipment. 

I felt I needed inspiration. My friend Brendon felt I needed a drink.

I find DCP Expeditions to be a great bunch of guys to hang out with. Even though they shoot photos which are  very different in terms of genre from what I like shooting, I’ve gone out with them a number of times especially in Nasik  The DCP gang got their shots, I got mine. 

I saw an event on the DCP Expeditions Facebook page - “The Art of Seeing (sideways)”.

Interesting topic. It’s the “sideways” bit that caught my eye.

Name of the speaker - “Girish Mistry”. Familiar name I told my cat.

I had heard about him and his work from a friend of mine who was one of his students (before meeting Girish Mistry at the DCP Expeditions Annual Awards where I was the emcee).


This guy used to work in the same office as me. Wanted to learn photography.

Saw some photos on my website and asked me to teach him.

I told him he didn’t have a DSLR.

He came to office the next day after purchasing a nice shiny new Nikon D80 (this was years ago when the D80 was new).

I told him I shoot landscapes and insects and flowers. If you shoot with me you'll get a sunrise,  a boat, a tree, a spider, a butterfly and that's about it.  You'll have to get up at 4 am on a holiday and walk for miles.

He came with me twice. Then said err...sir do you shoot people? I told him no. Not with a camera.

He asked me where he could learn fashion photography.

One of my hobbies is tinkering with vintage / classic motorcycles. A fellow collector used to live in the building opposite Shari Academy (the old address) and I used to stare at the board every time I rode into his building on my 1963 Royal Oilfield (my cat calls it that instead of Enfield as it keeps leaking oil). I told this guy about it (Shari Academy not the Royal Enfield) . The next thing I know he quit his job and enrolled with them. He shot some fabulous stuff and showed it to me and I recollect thinking that if someone could get this guy to shoot stuff that was so good  then the teacher definitely had a lot of talent and skill.

Coming back to the present:

The good news  – Girish Mistry.

The bad news  – Thane

I asked my cat if I should drive all the way there from town (where I live) to listen to the good man speak. Like most women she maintained a stoic silence. Like most men I took that silence for a yes.

I thought to myself, I haven’t come across any lectures that he’s given. Unlike most celebrity photographers (who shoot bad photos with blown out highlights) but have a strong online presence on Facebook, Insta etc, Girish sounds like someone who’d rather shoot than talk.

Now I’ve always believed that you can read a hundred books on photography, attend classes, watch videos, listen to lectures etc but if you can’t remember those things a few weeks down the line, it doesn’t help.

It’s been a few months since I attended that talk by Girish Mistry.

And here’s what I learnt, and remember, in random order:

Be a Learner. Find a Master

“A 13th century Persian poet wrote that no art or craft begins or can continue without a Master giving wisdom”.

You need someone to look upto. You need someone to teach you the nuances and finer points. This teaching need not be in the form of a formal lesson…every master has his own way of making you learn.

The Brick

Girish had a hard taskmaster as a boss when he was a student and was assisting a gentleman who had a studio in Colaba. Girish felt that he too was good enough to shoot for clients along with the boss. The boss gave Girish a brick and asked him to take a photo of it as a sort of test.

Girish tried..and tried again.

He became obsessed with that brick. He carried it with him in his bag. He took it home. He took it to college. He wasted (err sorry I meant used) a lot of film.

There was no instant preview on the LCD screen at the back of the camera. In the good old days you got to see what you shot only later.

He took photos of it from various angles. He took photos at various locations. The boss wasn’t happy. Made him go back and keep shooting till one day Girish got the perfect shot.

Girish said he learnt a lot of lessons from that brick the hard way - Think differently. Think creatively. Aim high. Your work has to stand out from the crowd. Use your brains and think about what will make your shot look different even if it is a common subject. The viewer has to stop, turn back, look again and say f---! (Or utter a similar but polite exclamation). That’s the photo you need.

The perfect shot

There was a photographer who missed his “perfect shot”. But he went back and kept going back to that location again and again.

Don’t give up. The perfect shot doesn’t just happen when you are there.

It happens a minute before you got there or a minute after you’ve left.

You need to go back to that spot repeatedly till everything comes together.

Strive for perfection.


Girish spoke about Fibonacci in photography. About how composition and lines work. About the spirals.  Showed lots of examples of what works well in a photograph from a subject placement perspective.

You can’t have a technically perfect shot with bad composition – that’s boring and doesn’t get the viewer interested. You need to use these techniques to get the viewer drawn into the frame. Girish’s point was to learn and understand how composition works. Learn about subject placement. Tried and tested techniques are derived from nature. Look around you carefully and you’ll see the creator has used similar patterns and lines in his creation.

It might sound cool to say I don’t care about composition guidelines. A few thousand likes on facebook from a layman audience doesn’t make a photograph great. An artist would smirk and laugh at bad composition (in his mind if not in public). Just the way my cat smirks and laughs at my photos.

Spray and Pray

These days it’s all digital and photographers are usually in a spray and pray sort of mode.

You fire away at x number of frames per second and pray that you get it right.

You check the photo on the LCD and say I’ll fix it later in Photoshop.

Digital is a very forgiving medium. Film wasn’t. It made you learn things the hard way.

Photographs need to be planned. You need to think before pressing the shutter. 

Shoot with instinct

Planning is important but you can’t keep thinking for too long either. Go with your gut feel in terms of shots.

Girish mentioned about instances when he went ahead with a shot based on his gut feel and he got the desired result.

An artist has to develop that inner voice that tells you to press the shutter at a particular moment, tells you to dial in a particular setting, tells you to change an angle etc.

Learn to trust that inner instinct.

Understand Light

Understand light and how it falls. And then use it to your advantage.

Learn to visualize.

Girish showed a portrait he shot of his wife and asked us to guess the light set up.

A few seconds later I raised my hand and said it’s behind her.

Now that’s not the usual place to put your lights. It’s the last place where you’d want to place a light. Photographers normally tend to go with safe options.

Safe options give you normal shots. Like the shots everyone else has. You need to learn to think differently.

Look Around

Remain focused but don’t forget to look around.  Girish spoke about a group of people known to him who went to a national park to take photos of a tiger.

They had the focus.

They had the equipment.

They had the plan.

The tiger didn’t show up.

They came back empty handed. The trip obviously wasn’t very successful for them.

There were however dozens of other shots all around them of birds, trees, animals, landscapes but they didn’t see them.

A photographer has to identify opportunities. Look for alternatives. Photographs are waiting to happen everywhere.

You have to develop the “eye” of a photographer to be able to “see” a photograph.

See the Sea

You need to look around you. There are dozens of photographs where you live.

Learn to spot them. Girish lived at marine drive and saw the sea almost every single day.

He didn’t find anything unique about it.

A friend who dropped in from out of town (Rajasthan if I remember correctly) felt that it was the most awesome place ever!

So you need to be aware of your environment. Don’t just see the obvious. Don’t dismiss things because you see them everyday.

Plan the shot

There was a nice photograph that Girish showed us – a wide angle pic of kids on a swing that was moving upwards and kites (of the avian variety) flying in the background.

Looked candid. Was rigged.

The guy had thrown pieces of meat to get the birds in the background when the kids were swinging.

You need to plan. You need to also have a back-up plan. You need to think.

If you have a shot in mind and there are no birds visible – learn what needs to be done to get them there.

No – don’t photoshop them into the frame.


He spoke about monuments getting destroyed / defaced. About the importance of conservation and the need for us to preserve art that people learnt years ago.

Art that involves time, hard work and dedication. Destroying it just takes a few minutes.

We need to value art – be it paintings, monuments, photographs etc.


I like reading. I’ve been reading a book every week ever since I can remember.

Girish said he has a huge collection of books on photography in his library at the studio and was kind enough to say that if we wanted to read them we were most welcome to drop in.

I hope to shamelessly take him up on that offer some day.

I did ask his wife for the address after the talk. My cat however felt that Girish most probably will be busy with work at the studio and might not like being interrupted so I haven’t gone there yet.


But I’m glad I attended that lecture. It did get me some good results.

It made me think.

It made me learn.

It made me spend some money - I bought a Canon DSLR with an ultra-wide angle lens.

So from someone without a camera I am now once again a DSLRwala.

It also made me move my arse and go out and take a photo. This one - 

Untitled photo

To cut a long story short, I've started shooting again.

Not as often as I used to but its a start. I also hope to try and make the photos I take in future, look different from the ones I've shot so far...in the hope that I get some appreciation from my cat  

And Girish, if you are reading this, a sincere and heartfelt - thank you Sir! It was a brilliant talk and I really enjoyed it!

"If you ask me what I came to do in this world, I, an artist, will answer you:

I am here to live out LOUD " – Girish Mistry

DCP Expeditions conducts a range of workshops, tours and photowalks and can be contacted via this link

Girish Mistry is a leading photographer who has been teaching since 28 years and practicing photography since 1980. He's the Dean of Shari Academy, a training academy that offers a variety of professional photography courses. You can connect with them  here

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