Photography has changed substantially in the last decade alone. Tools on the computer, such as Photoshop, allow us to create virtually anything at all. Adjustments can be made to photographs long after the photos have been taken. However, many of the famous photographs and portraits came before the past decade of rapid advancement in digital photography.
We have created a spotlight for famous photographers in an effort to help current photographers learn from talented photographers of the past and present. These photographers have something powerful to teach from their images and techniques. Although some artists are from the 20th century, their work lives on today as a powerful example to us all.
More current photographers featured in the spotlight have a powerful awareness of the principles taught by early photographers. They also understand the power and potential of new Digital Photography techniques and tools. We thank the past and present famous photographers for the lessons that they’ve taught and their support to help teach the world about photography. Many of them have tutorials, blogs, and other tools on their websites that may be of use to you.
Without further ado, let’s get started on this list of some of the most inspirational photographers the world has ever seen!
1. Ansel Adams
Ansel Adams believed it only took one shot to capture a masterpiece. Hailed as one of the most famous landscape photographers of all time, Adams was known for his large format, landscape photography and ability to capture the vast landscapes and nature of the American West. Much of his photography work reflects his love for the wilderness and the importance of preserving the remaining wildlands of the American West. He was not only a landscape photographer but also an environmentalist and artist.
Adams had an immense work ethic and developed a complete understanding of the exposure latitude in film photography. He was an expert in the darkroom and used different types of developing styles to process his unmatched black and white photography. Through dodge and burn processing techniques and using large format prints, Adams was able to convey the emotion and tone through his photographs.
His images are rich in tonal quality and with great detail. From rich blacks to creamy mid-tones and bright whites, Adams was a master in film processing and would often pre-visualize what the photograph would look like before processing the film. Many photographers have tried to emulate his style over the years.
In the digital world, it’s easy to take millions of photographs without thinking twice about exposure, composition, etc. Our digital cameras do everything automatically for us. Ansel Adams’ work teaches us that you don’t just take a photo, you make the photo. To relate it to our digital world, it’s simply not enough to press the shutter and call it a day. We can use post-processing techniques to enhance the images and “make” the photo like how we imagine it to be. Modern photographers should take advantage of the incredible resources and tools readily available in photography
2. Yousuf Karsh
Yousuf Karsh was an Armenian-Canadian photographer, known for his incredible portrait photography of the 20th century. There are tons of portrait photographers out there, but Yousuf Karsh remains one of the most revered portraiture photographers in the business. His famous work includes portraits of famous thinkers, figures, and actors including Albert Einstein, Sir Winston Churchill, Walt Disney and Grace Kelly. Karsh was an Armenian Genocide survivor and migrated to Canada as a refugee.
Karsh was best known for his ability to capture the human face and transform them into legends. Many of his subjects are great figures; when you look at Karsh’s images, you’re witnessing history itself. From photographing figures such as Helen Kelley, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Ernest Hemingway, each photograph is extremely unique and captures the essence of each subject.
He would carefully pose his subjects and light them very distinctly, usually highlighting their unique features and characteristics that convey their deeper essence and personality. What makes Karsh an exceptional portrait photographer was his ability to capture his subjects in their most authentic state. For Karsh, every individual has a decisive moment where they drop their mask and their true selves are revealed for a split second. That split second is when Karsh releases the camera’s shutter. He believes everyone has an inward power that’s fleeting and elusive; he strived to capture this truth through film photography.
Many of Karsh’s works are in both private and public collections throughout the globe, including the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston which holds some of the largest collections in the United States.
3. Henri Cartier-Bresson
Henri Cartier-Bresson was a famous French photojournalist and is best known for his candid street photography. Cartier-Bresson’s work has influenced many famous photographers and filmmakers around the world. He even summed up his own work around the concept of “the decisive moment”. There is a moment in time when the visuals and psychological elements of the people in real life come together in harmony, creating the perfect photo for that single moment.
“To take a photograph is to align the head, the eye and the heart. It’s a way of life” – Henri Cartier-Bresson
There is an element of mystery, movement, and humor in Cartier-Bresson’s work that has inspired many photographers. His background in cinematography also contributed to his candid, photojournalistic approach to photography. Cartier-Bresson purchased his first Leica in 1933 and that’s when the magic began.
Cartier-Bresson was imprisoned for three years during the Nazi occupation and successfully escaped. He worked for the French underground thereafter and took portraits of various artists including Matisse, Bonnard, and Braque. He also co-founded an agency called Magnum which led him to travel all over the world for the next twenty years.
If there’s one thing we can take away from Cartier-Bresson’s work, it’s patience and flow. To become a great photographer, one must be patient and observe the world around you with ease and flow. Cartier-Bresson was a master at capturing the right moment at the exact right time, and it was hugely due to his patience and candid approach to photography
4. Cindy Sherman
Cindy Sherman is a famous actress and portrait photographer who turned the camera on herself: something that had been done before her, but not in the innovative manner of Cindy Sherman. Typically we call the works Self Portraits when the artist turns the camera on oneself.
A Self-portrait typically reveals something about the artist, but in the case of Cindy Sherman, the portraits would reveal a statement on society. She was able to create a commentary of sorts on women’s role in society by photographing herself in various genres.
Although her photos created a commentary, she would number the photos or leave them untitled in order to not reveal her true opinions or character. She would play many characters from housewife to prostitute. Although many may think of Sherman’s photographs as being self-portraits they are anything but self-portraits for the do not reveal her, they reveal the characters she plays.
5. James Nachtwey
Photographs from the Vietnam War and the American civil rights movement had a deep influence on James Nachtwey, an American war photographer. He started working as a newspaper photographer in New Mexico in 1976 before moving to New York City to become a freelance magazine photographer. His first photo assignment was to cover the civil strife in Northern Ireland in 1981, where he has since then devoted himself to photographing war, conflicts, and social issues.
“I have been a witness, and these pictures are my testimony. The events I have recorded should not be forgotten and must not be repeated.” – James Nachtwey
Nachtwey has completed many photographic essays in many countries, including Guatemala, Lebanon, the West Bank and Gaza, Israel, Indonesia, Thailand, India, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, the Philippines, South Korea, Somalia, Sudan, Rwanda, South Africa, Russia, Bosnia, Chechnya, Kosovo, Romania, Brazil, and the United States.
Since 1984, Nachtwey worked for Time magazine and was one of the founders of the photo agency, VII, in 2001. He has numerous exhibitions around the world and has received many honors for his work. Nachtwey’s sense of compassion and devotion to his work makes him an outstanding photographer; he believes that photography is a channel to truth and communication; it not only records history but can change its course by giving victims of war and conflict a voice.
6. Annie Leibovitz
Annie Leibovitz is an American portrait photographer and is well known for her ability to capture her subject’s personality and inner life in an intimate way. She originally wanted to be an art teacher but worked as a commercial photographer at Rolling Stone magazine in 1970. After leaving Rolling Stone, she worked at Vanity Fair where she began developing her own style of portrait photography.
“A THING THAT YOU SEE IN MY PICTURES IS THAT I WAS NOT AFRAID TO FALL IN LOVE WITH THESE PEOPLE.” – ANNIE LEIBOVITZ
Her use of bold primary colors and poses became her trademark, including the famous photo of John Lennon curled up around his wife Yoko Ono. Leibovitz has also worked with other American celebrities including Demi Moore, Whoopi Goldberg, Brad Pitt, Ellen DeGeneres, and more.
What makes Annie Leibovitz stand out from other famous photographers not only involves her photography skills but also in the way she markets her ideas and creativity. Leibovitz isn’t afraid to get up close and personal with her subjects, which is why most of her portraits look very intimate and different. She also loves using textures, colors, and backgrounds to make her shots more interesting.
7. Alfred Stieglitz
A promoter of modern art and aesthetic photography, Alfred Stieglitz was a highly influential photographer and played a significant role in the development and history of photography. His passion for photography began when he purchased his first camera in 1883. After enrolling at the University of Berlin, he studied under famous physicist Hermann von Helmholtz and chemist August von Hofman where his love for photographic chemistry and artistry grew.
“In photography there is a reality so subtle that it becomes more real than reality.” – Alfred Stieglitz
Stieglitz focused all of his attention toward photography and was big into the idea of “pre-visualization”. He had an idea in mind and previsualized his photographs before shooting and printing them. He strongly believed that photography is a form of self-expression, a subjective vision and an interpretation of the world around you.
During this period, many famous photographers at the time aimed to make photos look like paintings by obscuring and blurring it. However, Stieglitz encouraged other photographers to make photos look like photos. He believed photos could use post-processing, but not to the point where it would remove its original quality and uniqueness. Alfred Stieglitz always kept his child-like curiosity and spirit as a photographer, and that’s something we can all acquire to become better photographers.
8. Dorthea Lange
There are many famous photographers around the world, but American photographer Dorthea Lange has produced some of the most iconic works of the 20th century. Her best known photograph Migrant Mother, which was taken in 1936 during the Great Depression. Lange had an incredible eye for portrait photography and captured the struggles of American life in such a powerful way. She opened her own portrait studio in 1919 at the young age of 23 in San Francisco, where she met her husband and painter Maynard Dixon.
“It formed me, guided me, instructed me, helped me and humiliated me. I’ve never gotten over it, and I am aware of the force and power of it.” – Dorthea lange
At the peak of the Great Depression, Lange, her husband, and their three kids moved back to San Francisco from Taos. She took many photographs on the streets of San Francisco which led to her becoming a documentary photographer for Farm Security Administration.
During her final years, Lange stayed active in her work and photographed consistently during World War II where she was hired by the Office of War Information. She also co-founded Aperture, a publishing house that produces high-end photography books. Lange also worked for Life magazine and traveled through different parts of the U.S.
Lange’s iconic photographs have influenced many documentarians and photographers today. She took great emphasis on detail and understood the importance of seeing deeper into reality. Some of the most famous photographers don’t focus on the equipment and gear, but rather on the scenes, moments, and context of the world. Her work has inspired many artists and photographers to take notice of their own environments and to capture it honestly.
9. Clint Clemens
When it comes to commercial photography–and more specifically–high-end automotive photography, you may have heard of Clint Clemens, a famous pioneer in the commercial photography world. Clemens has published memorable campaigns in the 80s and 90s, his work mainly focusing on high-end photography that also incorporates CGI and technology. Clemens is a highly revered modern photographer, best known for his
One of his most memorable campaigns was for Porsche, where he created the concept of motion blur with his patented rig. The Porsche was tack sharp and the background was blurred. This was unheard of during the 80s, and it was a huge hit in the commercial photography world. Clemens went on and built around 8,000 of his patented rigs where he became very successful.
Clemens knows how to adapt as a modern photographer, and is well aware of the ever-changing economy. He’s involved in 3D space and many other advanced technologies to achieve his incredible photographs.
10. John Kirchner
Known for his digital fine art photography, John Kirchner uses his strong imagination combined with modern tools to create photographs that are strikingly beautiful, creative, and aesthetically pleasing to the eye. He is a famous modern photographer and has created a number of works using Digital Technologies such as digital stitching.
Kirchner is involved in many different genres and styles of photography, including nature, architecture, indoor, outdoor, pets, and even wedding photography. He is the jack of all trades when it comes to photography, and does an incredible job in every style.
One thing we can take away from Kirchner’s work is to not be afraid of using digital technologies in photography. In a way, these tools and gear can help us create the idealized photograph that we envision. It can add meaning, tone, and perspective to an image when used in a clever and unexpected way.
11. Alfred Eisenstaedt
As far as famous photographers go, Alfred Eisenstadt is on the top of the list. American photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt was a documentary photographer and worked for Life magazine where he became one of the most influential photojournalists in history. He was one of the first four photographers to work for Life magazine, and it was his mission to discover the perfect story and moment. He was a master of street photography and was skilled at using the 35mm Leica cameras where many of his photographs were published in European magazines.
“It is more important to click with people than to click the shutter.” –Alfred Eisenstaedt
Eisenstaedt photographed important figures, dictators, kings, and even stars. He once said that his aim was to “find and catch the storytelling moment” in his subjects. He knew how to capture people in their workday situations.
One of Eisenstaedt’s most legendary photographs is of dictator Adolf Hitler when he worked at Associated Press. He then emigrated to the U.S. where he captured one of the most famous photos to date–an American sailor kissing a young lady in Times Square in 1945. The photo, V-J Day in Times Square, has become one of the most reproduced pictures of the 20th century and for good reason. The photograph captures the fleeting moment of love, joy, and hope in such a beautiful, candid way. Eisenstaedt was a master at capturing his subjects in their most unguarded, intimate moments.
Throughout Eisenstaedt’s career, he stayed true to his Leica cameras and relied on natural light to get the best photographs. He disregarded the use of flash and artificial lighting, which made it easier for him to capture candid photos on the streets. He was truly known for his ability to get the most natural reactions and emotions out of his subjects.
12. Gregory Crewdson
Gregory Crewdson’s unique style of photography makes him one of the most famous and inspiring modern photographers to date. He’s well known for staging cinematic scenes in his photos, often surrealistic and melancholic. When you look at his work, you’re often blurring the lines between reality and fiction. His work is often set in American suburbs and takes place during twilight to create a mysterious and eerie tone.
“My pictures must first be beautiful, but that beauty is not enough. I strive to convey an underlying edge of anxiety, of isolation, of fear.” –Gregory Crewdson
Crewdson works with a large production team for his photographs, just as if it were a movie set. From props, lighting, staging, to casting, he goes out of his way to create a cinematic experience in his photographs. He takes something routined and normal but transforms it into something irrational and abstract.
What we can learn from Crewdson’s work is that the experience of photographing can be imaginative and full of life. Instead of taking a photo in the moment, the photographer can create the world and photograph it. Crewdson’s staging techniques and attention to detail keep the audience interested and spellbound.
13. Steve McCurry
American famous photographer and photojournalist Steve McCurry is recognized as one of the most evocative photographers in the world today. His images capture the essence of human struggle and emotion. One of his most famous work is the photograph “Afghan Girl”, a 1984 portrait featured on the front cover of National Geographic. It’s one of the most iconic images ever published in history.
McCurry has a special way of capturing human emotions. He meets people face-to-face and develops a connection with them first before shooting. The eyes tell everything, and McCurry focuses on the human emotion and translates it through his photographs. “Afghan Girl” is the perfect example of this, revealing all sorts of emotions through the subject’s eyes and piercing gaze. He works in low light situations and even underexposes his photographs for a rich, dark tone in his images.
What we can learn from Steve McCurry is his ability to connect with his subjects on a very intimate and genuine level. Not only that, but he also values rich tones and colors in his images. Don’t be afraid to experiment with exposure and colors. The more you observe, the more you’ll notice visually striking subjects in ordinary life like Steve McCurry has.
14. Robert Frank
Considered one of the most influential photographers of the 20th century, Robert Frank was a pivotal documentary photographer. His work reflects the raw, visually expressive emotions from his subjects. He was also known for capturing ironic renderings of American life, not afraid to make social commentary through his images.
Robert Frank’s inspiring book “The Americans”, with an introduction from Jack Kerouac, helped pave the road to photography and inspired many to diverge from the normal conventions of photography back then.
15. Edward Weston
Edward Weston was an American photographer who had a unique way of expressing composition, lighting and form in his photographs. He was given his first camera at the age of 16, and began taking photos ever since. He’s worked alongside famous photographer Ansel Adams and William Van Dyke and started Group f/46 together.
Weston had the special ability to transform landscapes, portraits, and still life into visually striking images. His camera was the tool to record life around him in abstract ways.
16. Richard Avedon
Richard Avedon was most known for his fashion and fine art photography. He’s photographed famous celebrities such as Marilyn Monroe, Audrey Hepburn, and more. He liked his subjects to emote in his photographs, capturing their work and movement.
Avedon also captured American Western figures at work, including miners, cowboys, drifters, etc. This developed into a photo series called In the American West (1985) and became an important photographic work in the history of photography. His work can be found at MoMA in New York, the Art Institute of Chicago, and many more around the world.
We hope these famous photographers can spark your creativity and inspire you to go out and shoot often! Every photographer has a unique way of seeing the world, and it’s up to the individual to decide how they want to communicate that through photography.
With growing technology and advances in cameras and gear, we have more freedom to express our creativity like never before. So grab your favorite camera and remember to have fun!