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‘Afghan Girl’ | The Story & Gear Behind One Of The Most Famous Portraits

By Kishore Sawh on July 29th 2015


Creating a definitive list of greatest photographers is difficult since most will have rather assertive opinions on why one or the other should be included or omitted. Debatably, however, a few names will almost certainly end up on many a list, and I’m willing to bet Steve McCurry will be one. Best known for his images out of war zones like Afghanistan in the 90s, like ‘Afghan Girl’, McCurry is as relevant today as ever, and in a way, more influential.


While he often refers to his favorite image being the ‘Women In A Dust Storm’ which he shot in ’83 in a desert in Rajasthan, depicting a group of women huddled together to shield each other from the violence of whipping sand, there’s no doubt ‘Afghan Girl’ is the shot that he’ll be remembered most for. It is National Geographic’s most popular cover image, and the image is one of the most identifiable, even earning the nickname, ‘the First World’s Third World Mona Lisa.’ Shot on Kodachrome 64 with a Nikon FM2 and Nikkor 105mm f/2.5, it’s a wonder of an image, but hearing the story from McCurry himself is a few minutes well spent that may serve for years of inspiration.

Miraculously, with razor-thin odds, Sharbat was able to be photographed again by McCurry many years later, and that story can be found here.


In a recent segment of NPR’s All Things Considered, McCurry was interviewed and spoke about the story behind the famous image of Sharbat Gula, and how he speaks of it, how the colors of her shawl and background came into perfect harmony, is enough to make you want to stop listening right there and grab your camera and set out to a distant land to find a muse. Perhaps most enjoyable for me was the moment he speaks about not knowing just what he had since it was pre-digital, and then how in photography, sometimes all the stars align.

Occasionally in life and occasionally in my photography, the stars align and everything comes together in a miraculous way.

And this is the way it is I find with all the masters of their craft, they are less about the technical, and more about emotion. That being said, as it was one of the images that really made me want to photograph anything, and women, in particular, I’d always wanted that Nikkor 105mm f/2.5, which Nikon stopped making only in 2005. You can actually get them at decent prices now, and of course, Nikon’s current 105mm line-up like the 105mm AF DC f/2 and Nikkor Micro AF-S VR 105mm f/2.8 are both brilliant lenses and certainly ones to own. I think there was probably less of a desire for these lenses when the 80-200mm f/2.8 and 70-200 f/2.8 lenses came out, but I’d still make room.

[REWIND: Using The Brenizer Method In Studio To Emulate Striking Larger Format Portraits]

McCurry has always been a fan of Nikon, and I believe he still shoots primarily Nikon and Hasselblad when he needs. He favors Nikon primes like the 50mm f/1.4 and the 24-70mm f/2.8, which, if I’m honest, is the one lens I’d have if I have to have only one.

You can see the full text breakdown of the interview on NPR’s site, and more from Steve here.

Sources: NPR, National Geographic

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A photographer and writer based in Miami, he can often be found at dog parks, and airports in London and Toronto. He is also a tremendous fan of flossing and the happiest guy around when the company’s good.

Q&A Discussions

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    The lens you linked to on B&H, the Nikon AF DC-Nikkor 105mm f/2D, was not manufactured until 1990.

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  2. Dustin Baugh

    Yet another famous photograph that isn’t shot on a super highspeed lens with tons of Bokeh, on film that could be bought at the corner store.

    Too many people are judgmental of the technical abilities of cameras. All the skill comes behind the camera, not inside of it.

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  3. J. Wolf

    For those living in the german speaking area it might be noticeable that Steve McCurrys work is currently shown in Zurich at the Museum of Arts
    More details are on
    While the website is in German only, the trailer about the exhibition and the interview with McCurry is in english. Here he speaks about how he made this iconic image and much more.


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  4. Samuel Sandoval

    The girl in the picture reminds me of Elijah Wood and I don’t know why. Its eyes?

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  5. J D

    Those eyes haunted me when I first found an old National Geographic at a yard sale and they still do.

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  6. Rafael Steffen

    I love his work. He is the photographer who inspired me to get into photography the first place. His works are just amazing!

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  7. Liam Doran

    I like gear…I have lots of gear…photography however is not about the gear. Its about light and moment, for me at least. Gear is best when it does its job without the photographer ever having to think about it. Until you get home and look at your images and realize…damn that camera/lens combo is sharp! Love Steve’s works and I look forward to hearing the NPR piece!

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  8. Brandon Dewey

    Cool, Thanks for sharing!

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  9. Alexander Europa

    I, like most people, ADORE his first shot of Sharbat.

    What I find even more interesting is that I until just now, I didn’t REALLY understand why the image is so powerful and jumps off the page at the viewer: complimenting colors. I know that for many readers of SLRLounge, this fact is obvious. However, other than “art class” in elementary school, I have had zero instruction color theory in my life. The more I learn, the more I see-both in cinema and famous works of art-and I am continuously blown away by the things that I am starting to see all around me. In a way, I feel like Jonas, the protagonist from the wonderful book The Giver (I refuse to watch the recent movie).

    Two of the key areas that I have been studying to take my photography to the next level are composition and color theory. As a self-taught artist, the more that I learn, the more that I realize the subtle beauty of a truly properly composed image (Eisenstaedt) or how powerful the use of complimentary colors (or color theory in general) can be.

    Just as we discus the mastery of the basics of exposure in order to be able to get out of one’s way and create better images; I think that composition and color theory are other parts of the “technical” side of photography that we must learn to master in order to truly take our photography to the next level. Looks like I have a LOT of work to do… :-)

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