Photography has evolved at such an incredible rate since the first photo was taken almost 200 years ago.
The first ever photo took an amazing eight hours to expose, which was then shortened to just 15 minutes by Louis Daguerre in 1839.
Now we can take a picture on our phones or cameras in a matter of moments; with innovative new technologies like High Speed Sync flash making it easier than ever.
Famous photographers throughout history have had the challenge of overcoming the limitations of their gear but have nevertheless overcome the obstacles and created some of the most recognisable images that we see everywhere: on movie posters, on billboards and even on our money.
This is the one thing that has never changed: countless awe-inspiring moments have been captured by some incredibly talented creatives around the world.
Surrounded by beautiful and unique art in such a broad variety of genres, it’s easy to succumb to self-doubt. The beautiful thing about art of all kinds, be it photography, painting or poetry, is that it can be inspired by anything; including those famous photographers you look up to.
There’s always more to learn, no matter your skill level; new techniques to master, new ways to form a rapport with your model, a new way to manipulate light. Here are 10 famous photographers across every genre that could very well inspire you to create your best work yet.
No list of famous photographers would be complete without mentioning Annie Leibovitz. She’s one of the most iconic photographers of the 20th and 21st Centuries, and certainly one of the most celebrated female photographers.
Annie was the first female lead photographer for Rolling Stone magazine but has also shot for world-renowned publications like Vanity Fair and Vogue.
Her career has notably featured shooting household names like Dolly Parton, Brad Pitt and John Lennon on the day of his death. But Annie is also famed for her non-portrait work which has been displayed in museums and art galleries around the world such as the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington D.C.
Annie’s photography has justifiably earned her numerous awards and accolades, the most notable being the Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Centre for Photography and the prestigious Wexner Prize whose recipients previously include director Peter Brook (Lord of the Flies, King Lear, The Tragedy of Hamlet) and filmmaker Martin Scorsese (Taxi Driver, Goodfellas, The Wolf of Wall Street).
But her most creative work is her elegant, high-fashion editorial shoots that are more often than not on location – like the image below. Much of Annie’s work contains these muted tones, but they’re anything but boring.
Charlize Theron shot by Annie Leibovitz.
The iconic image below of young Cosette is the first thing that comes to mind when you think about Les Miserables; the vibrancy of the eyes juxtaposing the otherwise drab colour palette that captures the despair and desperation of the French proletariat. Annie’s mastery of lighting is incredible, yet she often keeps it minimal; regularly just using one light and an umbrella to shoot her portraits. “A light meter is only a guide. It shouldn’t be used literally,” writes Annie in her book, At Work. “When I decided to tone down the strobe, we made it even with the natural light rather than being a stop over. Then we went a stop or two under the natural light. I liked the way things looked when they were barely lit. The darker pictures seemed refined, mysterious.” So, don’t be afraid to get close and get intimate with your lighting to create soft shadows that wrap around the subject in a way that accentuates the cheekbones in just the right way.
Steve refers to himself as a ‘visual storyteller’ and is responsible for one of the most recognisable images in modern history. His work, like many of the other famous photographers on this list, is focused on reality in all its unpleasant and gritty beauty; capturing the unique faces of some of the world’s most culturally rich areas. The image that put Steve on the radar is simply titled ‘Afghan girl’.
Much like famous photographer Annie’s Les Miserables images, it’s all in the eyes; the striking primary colours of Steve’s shots really telling a story. Whilst the images themselves are staged to an extent, with Steve needing to ask the subject’s permission, the people and their stories are very much real. The images aren’t shot in studio – they’re shot right there and then where Steve meets them; capturing the most authentic representation that he can in that moment that accurately depicts their story. Sometimes this means venturing into Ground Zero or refugee camps to see the faces of war and poverty.
In an interview with Vice, Steve recalled: “When I was [in Afghanistan] back in 1979–80 with mujahideen fighters, I was often days from help, out on location, perhaps two days from the nearest road, often with men who were not well trained and with whom you had a lot of communication problems and language barriers. You were being bombed with mortars and artillery and aircraft, and you’re with a bunch of ragtag fighters, who were certainly brave, but maybe short on training.”
Captured after Steve secretly the Pakistan border in to Afghanistan with two of the mujahideen fighters, the image of the Afghan Girl became the face of modern poverty in the media across the world.
Since then, Steve’s photos have been frequently featured in National Geographic and has been awarded numerous photojournalism awards including Magazine Photographer of the Year from the National Press Photographers Association and first prize in the World Press Photo Contest an unprecedented four times.
If you’re looking to take on a photojournalism or photo documentary project, there are few famous photographers better to learn from than Steve.
Renowned celebrity and portrait photographer, Greg Gorman, has had a star-studded career that spans four decades – and he’s not done yet.
Best known for his celebrity portraits, Greg has captured some of the biggest names in Hollywood: Sir Elton John, Drew Barrymore and Tom Hanks among many, many others. The recipient of some of the most prestigious photographic awards, such as the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Professional Photographers of America and the Achievement in Portraiture Award from the Luci Foundation, Greg now leads photographic workshops around the world, making him the perfect famous photographer to learn from to take your portraits to the next level.
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Susan Sarandon taken during a shoot at my home for ‘Bull Durham’. Over lunch she asked me if I knew who posed as a model in two of my art works by Edie Vonnegut to which I replied no. She told me in fact it was HER! They happened to be good friends and I am sure Susan was surprised to see them in my home as much as I was to hear the news!
Specialising in timeless, classic studio portraits, Greg has shot countless faces and captured even more personalities; but each shot is undoubtedly ‘Greg’. This is reflected equally in his personal work which focuses largely on fine art nude photography and shares some fundamental similarities with his portraits.
“Becoming a photographer is all about finding a voice, so you need to be shooting pictures for yourself,” Greg says. “I spent 40 years trying to figure out who ‘Greg Gorman’ was because I was only shooting pictures for other people.”
For example, Greg is a firm believer that it’s better to under light an image than over light it as too much light can make an image look flat. On the other hand, if his subject instead leans into the light and creates stronger shadows, an image becomes much sexier and intriguing.
Greg often says: “a photograph is most successful when it doesn’t answer all the questions”, and the dynamic range between the highlights and shadows in his shots allows him to create exactly this effect. Using continuous LEDs such as the Rotolight Anova PRO 2, Greg is able to preview exactly where his shadows will fall before taking the shot as well.
Elizabeth Messina is an American wedding, boudoir and engagement photographer whose Instagram feed can only be characterised as ‘heavenly’.
While her impact on the photographic industry may not be as far-reaching as some of the other famous photographers on this list, her unique aesthetic and eye for detail makes her more than deserving of a spot.
Elizabeth has photographed for Hilary Duff, Jason Bateman and Amanda Anka as well as magazines like People and InStyle, producing stunning bridal shots with a unique aesthetic.
After tragically losing her home studio to a fire as she was away shooting a wedding in 2015, Elizabeth had to meticulously rebuild her shooting space.
Each inch of her new studio was designed in line with her shooting style: clean, white and contemporary. As well as being a space to shoot, Elizabeth ensured her new studio was somewhere her clients would be able to feel comfortable and make themselves at home before a shoot.
Whilst a lot of Elizabeth’s photography is shot on a camera, some of her personal images are shot on an iPhone; a more contemporary, but controversial method of photography.
Whether it be her charming personal images that chronicle her life, her captivating editorial photos or lovely wedding work, the thing that remains consistent is the details. The lace of the veil, the bouquets, the delicate details of the dress; with such an ethereal minimalistic shooting style, sometimes the biggest statements are made by the smallest things.
Moving away from portraits for a moment, Ansel Adams is one of the most influential and famous photographers in history. Born in San Francisco in 1902, Ansel spent a lot of time as a child in Yosemite National Park which cultivated a lifelong fascination with nature and the wilderness.
Early on in his career, Ansel didn’t make much money from his work; his finances a constant concern for him. Despite this, he’s responsible for developing the Zone System alongside Fred Archer that determines the optimum exposure for an image.
Whilst originally designed for film photography, it can also be applied to digital photography as well; features of which are present in editing software such as Photoshop and continues to revolutionise the lives of every photographer to this day. On top of this, he wrote many photographic manuals which are considered some of the most pioneering in their field.
Ansel’s work captures the incredible intricacy of nature with an outstanding level of detail despite the fact he was never able to shoot in colour; highlighting the need to preserve the American wilderness.
Ansel’s dream was to share his passion; setting up a Photography Workshop program at his studio in Yosemite National Park which was one of the first photographic education programs in the United States.
Some, such as French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, criticised the lack of “humanity” in Adams’ images, but there is a vast amount of wilderness that has been preserved and protected because of the efforts of Adams and others like him. Even after his death, the Ansel Adams Gallery has continued to provide educational workshops that maintains Ansel’s core values and encourages the appreciation and conservation America’s great national parks.
An Armenian refugee to Canada, Yousuf Karsh is celebrated as one of the most famous photographers of the 20th Century – and absolutely one of the most talented in the portrait genre.
You may not know it, but if you’re in the UK you’re probably looking at his work every day! The shot that made him so famous was the iconic shot of Prime Minister Winston Churchill which is now on the £5 note.
Perhaps more iconic than the pictures themselves is the stories behind them.
Yousuf is renowned for extensively researching his subject before the shoot: what is their favourite food? Favourite music? The best way to make your subject comfortable is to know what they like.
Then the sittings themselves would be incredibly lengthy; waiting for that perfect moment that the subject’s true self would appear. “Within every man and woman a secret is hidden, and as a photographer it is my task to reveal it if I can,” he says. “The revelation, if it comes at all, will come in a small fraction of a second with an unconscious gesture, a gleam of the eye, a brief lifting of the mask that all humans wear to conceal their innermost selves from the world. In that fleeting moment interval of opportunity, the photographer must act or lose his prize.”
This philosophy is what helped him create his portrait of Churchill: by chance, Yousuf (without asking) removed Churchill’s cigar from his mouth, and it was that spontaneous, genuine response in that moment that is responsible for his expression.
Apart from researching your subject, Yousuf teaches that lighting is a tool to influence the way in which the audience interprets an image.
One of the reasons his sittings were so long is because of the fact his lighting needed to be meticulous and capture the persona of whoever is in front of the camera.
The most important message that Yousuf teaches is that you should never give up.
He shot Martin Luther King Jr., Queen Elizabeth II, Muhammed Ali, Picasso – the list goes on – but this was only after he had been a photographer for 15 years.
After starting her career taking portraits in-studio, Dorothea Lange, like Steve McCurry, wanted to chronicle the struggles of the people.
Taking a job with the Resettlement Administration, Dorothea captured the domestic injustices and poverty that came with the Great Depression and World War II.
Dorothea’s most renowned image, Migrant Mother which is pictured above, was taken in Nipomo, California.
Dorothea found herself in a campsite of pea pickers whose crop has been destroyed by freezing rain and were no left with no job and no food. Dorothea wrote in her notes: “I did not ask her name or her history. She told me her age, that she was 32. She said that [she and her seven children] had been living on frozen vegetables from the surrounding fields, and birds that the children killed. She had just sold the tires from her car to buy food”.
One of the most famous photographers to ever live, Dorothea was honoured with a place in the National Women’s Hall of Fame as well as well as a Guggenheim fellowship for photography.
Despite this, Dorothea did not consider her images to be art, she wanted them to tell a story that humanised injustice so that it could not be ignored.
Whilst many of the most celebrated famous photographers are those who have raised important political discussions, much like books, there’s an endless list of genres that deserve to be equally appreciated.
Ben Hassett’s speciality is portraits; an art that he has truly mastered.
His diverse portfolio has included shooting for some of the most luxury brands like Dior, Yves Saint Laurent and Calvin Klein, and portraits of Jennifer Lawrence, Nicki Minaj and Kim Kardashian. His shots are visceral; created with a creative use of colour, texture and shadows.
However it is Ben’s editing is what makes his work unique: “The way we work now, it’s so easy to make perfect pictures,” Ben says in an interview with Redvisitor. “In my studio, I’m trying to make an accident happen in front of the camera. It brings the whole thing to life. I’m looking for spontaneity.”
As a result, Ben often leaves small imperfections in his work rather than simply retouching them; the viewer may not even know they’re there or that it was even a mistake to begin with, but for Ben it adds to the beauty in spontaneity.
Simone Bramante is one of Instagram’s most famous photographers with an astounding 950k followers and specialises in intriguing environmental portraits.
Simone is a unique visual storyteller in that none of his shots are ever taken in isolation; but as part of his larger shoot – or story.
Each location has its own story with a consistent colour palette and feel: This is Japan features the greys and striking geometry of Tokyo’s skyline; punctuated with rich reds of neon signs, temples and the clothing of his model.
This is consistent throughout Simone’s commercial work as well; having shot for brands such as Jaguar, Marriot Hotels and HP.
Simone’s work reinvents the perception of a ‘brand story’ and seamlessly transforms it into a beautiful artistic vision.
Simone’s work, above anything else, demonstrates that, whatever it is you’re shooting, a captivating and consistent colour story can speak volumes.
British-born fine art and landscape photographer, Michael Kenna’s, unique and distinct shooting style makes him one of the most famous photographers in the landscape genre.
His work emphasises shapes and contrast; capturing minimalistic yet beautiful scenes across the world; from Britain to Hokkaido.
His intriguing but instantly recognisable style focuses on shapes and the contrast between the earth and objects such as fences, trees or piers.
His unique shooting style has been honoured with a permanent display in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, whilst his commercial clients include DHL, Rolls Royce and Audi.
Esther’s Diary, a film that recalls the horrors of the Holocaust, used Michael’s images of a ruined concentration camp in the opening credits due to how his work captures the juxtaposition between the ethereal highlights and eerie shadows.
Michael’s secret? His images are shot largely at night with exposures up to ten hours long!
“We are used to working with a single light source, the sun, so multiple lights that come from an assortment of directions can be quite surreal, and theatrical,” Michael says. “I particularly like what happens with long exposures, for example, moving clouds produce unique areas of interesting density in the sky, stars and planes produce white lines, rough water transforms into ice or mist, etc. Film can accumulate light and record events that our eyes are incapable of seeing.”
So now you’ve seen ten incredibly talented famous photographers who, against all odds, have created some of the most recognisable pictures in the world, it’s your turn to go and create.
Whilst their styles and techniques are all vastly different, the one thing they share is a passion for what they do and the resolve to never give up whatever challenges you face.