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When you’re first getting started as a photographer, picking up your camera and shooting anything that catches your attention is often the spark that lights your creative flame. But if you have your heart set on becoming a professional and building a career in the industry (perhaps even becoming a famous photographer one day), studying those who have come before you is one of the best ways to learn. In this guide, we’ll introduce you to some of the world’s most famous photographers, talk you through how their unique styles have made them stand out in a crowded space, and hopefully inspire you to follow your own photography dreams.
1. Annie Leibovitz
Let’s start with someone whose photos you’ve probably seen several times before, Annie Leibovitz. Her distinct style of using muted lighting and excess props in her celebrity images makes her work instantly recognizable, creating final pieces that look as if they’ve stepped right out of the Renaissance section of a fine art gallery.
Her consistent style helped her to gain notoriety in her career, leading to opportunities to shoot some of the most influential and famous individuals in the world, including Yoko Ono and John Lennon (mere hours before his assassination!), Mick Jagger, Demi Moore, and even Queen Elizabeth II.
2. Vivian Maier
Vivian Maier was a mid-20th century American street photographer, who sadly didn’t become well-recognized until after her death in 2009. Her first photographs were published in 2008, with her best-known work featuring black and white images of Chicago and New York in the 1950s and 1960s.
Most of Maier’s photos are casual shots of anyone who happened to walk past her that day. She also captured a number of self-portraits, with photos reflecting herself in antique store mirrors, the sides of cars, or even the glass fronts of streetside shops. Her work doesn’t have the polished finish that many famous photographers are typically known for but is instead a momentary snapshot of history that will inspire you to find beauty in everyday life.
3. Walker Evans
As a notable photojournalist, Walker Evans is best known for his photos of the Great Depression while he was working for the Farm Security Administration. Like Vivian Maier, Evans primarily focused on anonymous street photography, using his camera to capture a moment in time for the ordinary person.
Evans’ photographs feature a range of subjects, from a couple standing on a bridge in 1920s New York to young men sitting in the window of a cafe, along with his documentary-style portraits of farmers and their families in the South.
4. Paul Strand
Paul Strand was both a photographer and filmmaker, using his camera to highlight social injustice throughout the 1930s and 1940s. His black and white photographs are primarily portraits or landscapes, with several of his city and town architectural images using a geometric-based approach to create an eye-catching final look.
His interest in machines and buildings later became a key focus for his work, as cities like New York grew into major metropolises around him. His later relocation to France saw him return to his roots, documenting plant life and the people he met in his day-to-day life.
5. Gregory Crewdson
If you could turn a Hollywood blockbuster into a still photograph, there’s a good chance that Gregory Crewdson would be the one taking the picture. Famous for his over-the-top cinematic style, Crewdson creates large-scale prints that cost millions of dollars to put together.
While his subjects are typically ordinary people and small American towns, Crewdson operates with a team as if they’re building a low-budget movie. The final results end up looking like stills from any chart-topping sci-fi or horror film. But you don’t need to be a famous photographer with money to burn to recreate this look. Instead, play with setting and lighting as if you were a movie director and take your shots from there.
6. Elliott Erwitt
French-American photographer Elliott Erwitt stands out from his 20th-century contemporaries with his candid and comedic black and white images. While he did capture portraits of famous individuals like Marilyn Monroe and Che Guevara, most of his work centered around dogs and the humorous situations that he found them in.
His “off the cuff” style made him a popular choice for lifestyle and entertainment magazines in the 1950s and 1960s. For anyone interested in comedic street photography, Erwitt’s work is a great example of how to turn everyday situations, people, and objects into funny and ironic works of art.
7. Ansel Adams
Ansel Adams is most famous for his nature photography in the 1930s, particularly his work in Yosemite National Park. He used a strong focus and wide tonal range in his work to better capture landscapes and the natural world, resulting in images that have incredible clarity and depth for the time that they were created.
A keen and lifelong environmentalist, Adams used his work to highlight the beauty of America’s natural resources and was later hired by the U.S. Department of the Interior to photograph national parks all over the country to use in their advertising materials. He was ultimately awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1980 and was a key advisor in the founding of the photography department at the NYC Museum of Modern Art.
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8. James Van Der Zee
James Van Der Zee is best known as one of the leaders of the Harlem Renaissance and his portraiture of Black New Yorkers in the early 20th century. He opened his own photography studio in 1916, after learning his trade as a darkroom assistant.
With a large number of Black immigrants moving into the Harlem area, Van Der Zee’s business took off as he began to take pictures for middle class families at weddings, funerals, and other social events. His work was mainly studio-based and features a large number of props, costumes, and backdrops to frame his portrait subjects.
9. Dorothea Lange
Another 1930s documentary photographer, Dorothea Lange is famous for her Depression-era black and white pictures. Her most notable work, Migrant Mother, became an iconic picture of the time, highlighting the struggles that many Americans faced in keeping their families alive during the worst economic crisis that the world had ever seen.
Her later work in the 1940s depicted the lives of Japanese Americans facing evacuation and internment following the attack on Pearl Harbor. Photos of families being forced out of their homes, children waiting in line reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, and individuals collecting identification tags became a chilling reminder in the post-war period of the incarceration of innocent people.
10. Steve McCurry
Like Dorothea Lange, a single image took Steve McCurry’s career from good to world-famous. His 1984 photo, titled Afghan Girl, features a then-12-year-old orphan living in a refugee camp. The final image highlights her striking eyes and has since been named the most recognized photograph in the history of National Geographic magazine.
After initially picking up a camera during college, McCurry traveled to Pakistan and started taking pictures. They were eventually published in major publications like The New York Times and Time Magazine, launching his career as a professional photographer covering armed conflicts around the world.
11. Irving Penn
As one of Vogue’s top photographer’s for over sixty years, Irving Penn was best known for bringing the eyes of an artist to each of his images. His preference for a controlled environment like a studio allowed him to pose his subjects carefully, usually in front of a grey or white backdrop, to create a refined and elegant style.
Throughout his career, Penn photographed notable people such as Pablo Picasso, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Igor Stravinsky using his unique, minimalist style. He’s credited with breaking the barriers between fine art photography and commercial work, making his photographs some of the most popular references for budding magazine photographers.
12. Matt Porteous
Now more famous for his personal portraits of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and their children, British photographer Matt Porteous has worked as a wedding, sports, and travel photographer for several years. His work typically features bold natural lighting and bright colors, driven by the venues and landscapes that he’s photographing in.
Pippa Middleton, Ellie Goulding, and others have all hired Porteous and his team to capture their wedding days, but his most recent work as the private family photographer for the future King and Queen of England put his name on the map. He’s caught some of the Royals’ best shots, from Prince George’s birthday to a candid Prince Louis on his christening day.
13. Deana Lawson
Deana Lawson is a contemporary American photographer whose work is largely centered around the African American experience in the modern US. Typical themes that emerge from her images include intimacy, spirituality, sexuality, and Black families. Each picture is highly staged but often takes place against a seemingly mundane background, like the kitchen of a family home.
Although her photos are so focused on the Black experience in close groups, most of her subjects are actually strangers and posed in these settings. She’s also incorporated travel into her work, as a reflection on how Black culture extends beyond national boundaries. The 2019 film Queen & Slim was inspired by Lawson’s work.
14. David Bailey
British photographer David Bailey began working for British Vogue in 1960, capturing the rise of hippie culture in “swinging London” throughout the decade. His photos reflect the destruction of class barriers that had dominated Britain for centuries, highlighting working class and punk subjects in the 1970s and 1980s.
Bailey has photographed thousands of the world’s most iconic names, from the Rolling Stones to Kate Moss, using his signature black and white style. Sharp lighting and closely cropped shots are also strong features of Bailey’s work, bringing a new level of simplicity and intimacy to fashion photography.
15. Margaret Bourke-White
Famous for being the first American female war photojournalist, Margaret Bourke-White is also credited with taking the last known photograph of M.K. Gandhi sitting at his spinning wheel only hours before his 1948 assassination. She was one of the most notable photographers of war-torn and violent destinations, with her images of the newly-liberated Buchenwald concentration camp in Germany proving to be some of her most memorable work.
Like other photojournalists of the 1930s and 1940s, Bourke-White’s portrait approach was used to capture moments of everyday life for both the ordinary person and world leaders. Her interest in humanitarian work is clear through her photos, with many of her images depicting the harsh realities of war and poverty.
16. Elizabeth Messina
Wedding photographer Elizabeth Messina has a unique approach when working with her couples. Unlike many wedding shots, her photos are a beautiful blend of intimacy and artistry, capturing the big day using unanticipated natural lighting and perspectives.
Her photographs have a soft finish, often in black and white or pastel neutrals, with heavy focus on the drape of fabrics or the lines within flower petals. She creates a romantic and timeless look with her work, which has gained her attention among celebrity fans. Jessica Simpson, Lauren Conrad, Jason Bateman, and fellow photographer Jose Villa all had Messina shoot their weddings.
17. Mario Testino
Mario Testino, a contemporary Peruvian fashion photographer, is known for his intimate portraits of celebrities and royalty. His most recognizable work includes a series of photographs of Princess Diana taken shortly before her death in 1997, along with the official photos of Princess Charlotte’s christening in 2015.
Testino’s fashion imagery has been featured in Vogue, Vanity Fair, and GQ, along with advertising campaigns for the world’s best-known brands such as Chanel, Ralph Lauren, and Versace. While some have described his style as “luxury realism,” Testino argues that his work is about the engagement and expression of the subject.
Grab Your Camera and Get Shooting
Now that you’ve seen a few examples from some of the most famous photographers in the world, it’s time for you to start creating your own works of art. Whether you’re interested in portraits, street photography, or even still life shots, experiment with different styles, angles, and lighting settings until you find a style that you can call your own. Happy snapping!
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