8 Things Vivian Maier Can Teach You About Photography


It’s the biggest mystery to hit the photography world in years. A historian purchases a box of negatives at an auction, not knowing much about photography. He quickly discovers, however, that the images are far beyond ordinary.

In fact, he soon realizes that he has uncovered a truly masterful photographer, completely unknown to the world.

Who is Vivian Maier? A nanny? A photographer? A traveler? Time will tell, as the historian goes forward, documenting her story in film.

But for now, we have the opportunity to study her work, and try to figure out what she might have taught us.

1. Document Your World 


Vivian’s work is best described as street photography, a style of shooting that documents people in candid situations, in public places. That sounds a bit drab, but it’s actually anything but.

Documenting your world gives an incredible look at the life and times of real people, right now. It’s a subject that you are uniquely suited to. You know your world better than anyone else, so show it to us!

Not only is it rewarding to create art out of your every day, but it’s also important work. Consider yourself a photographic historian, and preserve life as it exists today.

At the very least your grandkids will find it fascinating!

2. Use Anything

You don’t need a fancy schmancy digital camera to take great photos. Vivian used a gorgeous twin lens medium format camera to shoot her images.

She didn’t have a camera phone in her pocket at all times. She wasn’t able to take hundreds of photos every day. She couldn’t see what the shot looked like, and whether she should redo it.

You have so many advantages with your modern camera. It doesn’t matter how many megapixels or lenses you have. Just shoot!

3. Shoot Thoughtfully

With a medium format film camera you get about 12 shots to a roll. Can you believe that?? A modern memory card can store thousands of photos!

Think about going out on a photo walk only being able to shoot a couple dozen photos, maximum. Would you shoot differently?

Probably. You’d probably slow down, take more time with each photo, and think more. Use that experience to strengthen your work. Put effort into each and every frame.

4. Share Your Work

Part of the joy of photography is sharing your images with others. Many people today love Vivian’s work, and sadly, she’ll never know it.

She left many rolls of film undeveloped and unseen by even herself!

You need to do something with your photos. It’s easier than ever to get them out there, with websites, blogs, Flickr, Facebook, and Twitter. And easier than ever to print and create albums.

Don’t leave your photos to sit on your harddrives, never to be enjoyed. We all do it—we get busy with a million other things—but make a point to print out your own work. Choose a day every month to print out a new batch of images, if for no other reason than to enjoy them yourself.

Your photos are worth it.

5. Stand In Front Of Interesting Stuff


Here’s a great quote for you:

If you want to be a better photographer, stand in front of more interesting stuff. – Jim Richardson

Vivian travelled across the world, to places like Egypt, Thailand, Italy, France, Vietnam, Indonesia and more. She sought out interesting things to stand in front of.

Traveling is one of the most photographically inspiring things you can do. A new city, a new culture, new streets, new buildings. You won’t be able to put your camera down.

But that’s not the only way to see fascinating things. Great photos can be had in your hometown. Just go to the places where life happens. Markets, squares, downtown—go to where the action is, and you’ll find interesting stuff!

6. Be Organized

It is seriously sad that Vivian didn’t get a chance to enjoy a lot of her own work, with many rolls left undeveloped. Luckily things are much easier for you.

Start with Lightroom, it’s a solid program for both editing, and creating your personal archive. Develop a well organized system that allows you to easily find and view your images, with tags, collections and more.

Photos become more valuable the older they are. Keep your work well archived, and you’ll quickly develop a very valuable asset for yourself.

7. Understand the Power of Black and White


The majority of Vivian’s work is in black and white. This doesn’t make it less interesting whatsoever. In fact, the lack of colour makes her images MORE interesting.

In black and white, many critical elements of a photograph become more visible. The composition is front and center, and contrast, shapes, textures, lines, timing and expression are brought forward. With a strong eye for balance, her work really shines in the black and white world.

Perhaps black and white is so visually interesting to us because we simply don’t see the world in black and white. It’s automatically different, and, when you play to the strenghts of the medium, it’s truly a powerful way to present your vision.

8. Practice

Vivian took over 100,000 images on film. She was probably a master after the first 20,000. Imagine what level of photography she was producing after 90,000?

You have to practice. You have to shoot. You won’t improve unless you put in the time, so pick up your camera and get out there!

Bonus! Be Yourself

Be yourself! What does that have to do with photography? Well, it’s simple. You have an unique perspective on what you think is interesting in this world. So shoot that. Don’t worry whether or not others will think it’s interesting. If you think it’s neat, shoot it.

When you look through Vivian’s work you get a window into who she was. It’s truly incredible. She shot for herself, and no one else, and the images were the better for it.

There is so much you can learn from this amazing photographer. Spend some time looking through her work, and see if you can find any more lessons! 

Then share them in the comments below!

The first time I saw the photo on the right I literally laughed out loud. That’s the mark of a fantastic image, it gives you a true emotional reaction. She definitely seems like she had a keen sense of humor!


All images in this post by Vivian Maier, copyright under Maloof Collection, Ltd. and via http://vivianmaier.blogspot.com/

To see more of Vivian’s work you can also check out Vivian Maier Prints Inc., a group dedicated to making her life and legacy available to the public. They have a ton of her work, and are holding exhibitions as well!

Lauren Lim

Hey friend, I’m Lauren! I’m a photography ninja here at Photography Concentrate. I’m downright obsessed with photography, and love sharing it with super cool folks like yourself. When I’m not shooting, or writing, you can find me cooking (and eating!), traveling, and hanging out with wonderful people.

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25 Comments // Leave a comment

  1. Great post. Vivian Maier is my favorite photographer and has truly inspired me to shoot film again and shoot what ever I find interesting in my world.

  2. Thanks Sandi! She truly is an inspiration. I really want to shoot medium format now!!

  3. Great post. I plan on sharing it with my photography class.

  4. Thanks Jeff! And that's awesome, please share! :)

  5. Really enjoyed this article. I'm a huge Vivian Maier fan. I am going to share this article with a local photography meetup group.

  6. I'm so jealous of the guy who discovered her work! How awesome would it be to get to view those slides and negatives for the first time?

    Do you know if they're selling prints?

  7. Oh man, me too! I couldn't imagine what it must have felt like!!

    I don't think they are, just found this site though that seems like more of a gallery of her work: http://vivianmaierprints.com/

    If they were going to sell prints, I'd suspect it would be from there!

  8. jeffrey Goldstein says

    Greetings, I want to thank you from the team here at vivianmaierprints.com ( we're a collaborative working with the other portion of the Vivian Maier collection). We appreciate the fine posting about Vivian Maier. Besides the inspiration she has left behind, her work habits are great examples of dedication and perserverance. Something for all of us to think about in our personal pursuits. We love the use of Vivian Maier life's work being used as an educational tool. Thanks and all best, Jeff Goldstein

  9. Hi Jeff! So awesome to hear from you!! Thanks so much for checking out this post and for your fantastic response.

    That's a great point about her work habits! Perseverance is definitely a necessity for photographers (and everyone else!)

    And thanks to you guys for all that you do to get her work out there! :)

  10. Luc Desormeaux says

    I start doing streetphotography about a year ago and now it turns out to be a passion. Then I heard about Vivian Maier story and I discovered her incredible work. She is my main inspiration. Hopefully I will see her work in an exhibition here in Montreal one day !

  11. That's so cool that Vivian is such a big source of inspiration for you! It's amazing how quickly her work had such an impact! It would be so cool to see her work in person. "Vivian Maier Prints Inc.":http://www.vivianmaierprints.com/index.html is doing exhibitions, so hopefully they come to Canada!

  12. Great post. Don't forget that one of the big reasons her work looks incredible that is never mentioned is that it all looks vintage to us, the clothes, cars, the times look so amazing in this format and black and white film! Its all very consistent which really make it flow. Add to that her amazing eye. One other thing, you will never get as close or intimate with the subject as she has with a point and shoot or prosumer dslr, the Rolleiflex she shot with allowed for instant and continuous interaction with the subject via manual focus and instant shutter release. These are critical things to split second timing and immersion into your subject. There is still a magic in analog that is lost in digital.

  13. These are great tips! I'm so glad to see more press about Vivian. I especially love the tip about sharing … so relevant.

    This excerpt from my blog speaks to my fascination for Vivian's work:

    When I first heard about Vivian Maier’s story, I was entranced by this enigma of a street photographer. How could it be that a woman spent her time quietly documenting the streets, creating over 150 thousand negatives of images that she would never even see? And how could it be that just as she was discovered, she passed away? What came after this was an amazing story – to be slowly unraveled – would cause me to become gravely immersed in her work and inspired by her images.


  14. *@Brian:* Great points about the time period she shot in! I would absolutely love to get to go back and shoot then! The camera she used is definitely very different than ours today. I'd love to try one out some time, to get a feeling for it! Thanks for commenting!

    *@Juliette:* Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts on Vivian! What an incredible story, hey? I can't wait to see the documentary they are producing on her! :)

  15. I have loved Vivian Maier’s work since the first time I saw it. It’s beautiful, honest and such a joy to look at. Great post!

  16. This is an outstanding article. It’s encouraging for me since I am tackling a project of taking 10,000 Smiles this year. It’s a lot of work but I am seeing my photography getting better. I love your idea of capturing 12 shots in my local area, Qingdao, China.

    • Thank you for your very interesting blog. I never heard of Vivian Maier until the BBC ran a wonderful documentary ( Vivian Maier – Who took Nanny’s pictures )about her life – June 2013. As an amateur photographer I am fascinated by her work.


  17. Great tips in your post, very true. thanks

  18. Trevor Cowan says

    Excellent blog; I really enjoyed reading it. Great deal of valuable information too. Thank you.

  19. Before I read this article, I had no idea who Vivian Maier was. This is really interesting and mysterious premise behind her photography and personality.

    I enjoy vintage street photography. It puts a perspective on capturing life in the here and now! 2013 will feel vintage and nostalgic one day. :)

  20. Until my photography was gathered in one place pellkessden.com I had a general reluctance to say, “I am a photographer”.
    Combining the 8 steps with at least some effort should reveal who you and we are as human beings.

  21. Vivian Maier has changed the way I look at photography I have only discovered her
    recently.As i watch the film finding Vivian Maier. I thought it was well thought about and well
    presented.But most of all it introduced me to the work of Vivian Maier her photos are fantastic
    and have inspired me to take my camera out with me were i go.
    a big thank u to john maloof for bringing this work to light

  22. Edwar Ataalla says

    I accidently watched Mss. Vivian’s movie last night on Netflix: I was saddened by the end of his story; lost her job as a Nanny many times; ignored and called the “old lady” and No body discovered her even those she lived with and served. How many times we as human ignore the surrounding i.e. People, environment…and sometimes we do not pay attention to them sometime we focus only on their weakness and do not pay attention to their talents. I seen Vivian’s shots and how talented she was. I like taking pictures (but of course not like her) and I do like the natural snapshots. I learned many lessons from her and really appreciate the person who brought this amazing Art and history to us. This could of been thrown in the garbage and gone with the wind as they say. Please do not ignore the surrounding and learn from our Lord: A bruised reed He will not break, And smoking flax He will not quench, Matthew 12:20. God Bless

  23. R Guyette says

    I love this- Perfect for my Grade 8 art class as we have been looking at her work as part of our photography study – Would love to share it with them!

  24. Well “said “

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