Friday, August 2, 2013

10 Famous Photographers, and What You Can Learn from Them!

Photographers today can learn much from the famous photographers that have paved the way before us. Most of these photographers are now deceased, but a few of them are still taking beautiful photos today. Obviously, this is not an exclusive list. The list is composed of a few famous photographers that were nominated by the Improve Photography community on their Facebook fan page.

Henri Cartier-Bresson

This list of famous photographers would be absolutely meaningless without Cartier-Bresson. In many ways, Cartier-Bresson’s style is precisely the opposite of Jerry Uelsmann. Where Uelsmann elished in creating composites, Cartier-Bresson did not even like developing his own photos. His photojournalistic style has done more to influence photography than any other photographer’s contribution. He was one of the first photographers to switch over to the 35mm format and used exclusively Leica cameras with 50mm lenses. Like Ansel Adams, he shot almost exclusively in black and white. You can see Henri Cartier-Bresson’s work here.

Henri Cartier Bresson - Hyeres, France, 1932.

What you can learn from Henri Cartier-Bresson: The great tragedy of Cartier-Bresson’s photography is that he gave up the craft entirely long before he died. In 1975, twenty-nine years before he died, he became bored with photography and turned his attention to painting. He locked his camera in a safe in his home and rarely even took it out. Bottom line–DO NOT let this happen to you! If your goal in photography is to do anything other than enjoy it, then you will likely burn out after time.

Annie Leibovitz

Annie Leibovitz is a contemporary (born in 1949) portrait photographer who is well known for her work over the years with Rolling Stone Magazine and Vanity Fair. Perhaps her best known photograph is a portrait of John Lennon with Yoko Ono, which was taken the same day that John Lennon was murdered.

Recently, Leibovitz has found herself struggling through financial disaster caused by poor financial planning. As collateral for a contract, she has provided her entire portfolio of images. What a shame!

As is evident in viewing Ms. Leibovitz s photography, she prides herself in taking intimate portraits which communicate about the subject. She is quoted as saying, “A thing that you see in my pictures is that I was not afraid to fall in love with these people.” You can see some of Annie Leibovitz’s photography here.

Leibovitz's portrait of John Lennon and Yoko Ono in 1980.

What you can learn from Annie Leibovitz: Your portraits will always look lifeless until you begin to take portraits that communicate the life of the model. Get to know your model and say something about her in your photography.

Ansel Adams

I think it would be safe to say that Ansel Adams is the most famous photographer of all time. Even non-photo nerds know Ansel Adams and have seen his stunning landscapes. Adams is well-known as a master of the darkroom. His black and white landscapes of Yosemite and Grand Teton are outstanding for the captivating contrast that he achieved with extensive dodging and burning in the darkroom. Even later in his life, he continued to use large format cameras.

Ansel Adams - The Tetons and the Snake River, 1942.

What you can learn from Ansel Adams: While on vacation this summer, my wife and I read a book containing his letters and journal entries. What helped me improve my photography from reading those letters is that Adams felt trapped later in his life because he no longer had the physical strength and stamina to do the photography that he wanted to do. Keep yourself in shape so you can enjoy photography for a lifetime.

Brian Duffy

Brian Duffy is an English photographer best known for his work shooting fashion in the 1960′s and 1970′s.

Later in life, Duffy lost his interest in photography and even burned more than half of his entire portfolio of negatives in a fire. Fortunately, some of the photos were saved from the flames and remain on exhibit today. One year before Duffy died, he began taking photos again.

Brian Duffy - Pret a Porter Sept 1977.

What you can learn from Brian Duffy: People are prone to rash decisions when they feel stuck in a rut. Duffy lost a tremendous part of his life by burning his photos, but he came back later and regained his interest for the art. If you find yourself bored with photography, leave all the gear at home and simply go on a few photowalks in places where you have never been. Fall in love with photography again.

Dorothea Lange

Dorothea Lange was an American photojournalist who is best known for her photos of the Great Depression. Her photo Migrant Mother is one of the most well-known pictures in history. Aside from her well-known work documenting the Great Depression, she also worked tirelessly to photograph the internment camps in the 1940′s.

Dorothea Lange - Migrant Mother. Nipomo, California, 1936.

What you can learn from Dorothea Lange: Most photographers spend their time taking one random picture here, and another random picture there. Great photographers like Dorothea Lange dedicate their time and talent to fully capturing one theme or person before moving on to the next photography project. Dorothea Lange said, “Pick a theme and work it to exhaustion… the subject must be something you truly love or truly hate.”

Yousuf Karsh

I’m going to be honest here. I have carefully selected some of the best, in my opinion, photographers in history; however, I simply don’t understand some of their photos and why some of them became famous. With Yousuf Karsh, every single photo is a masterpiece. You can’t look at any one of his photos and wonder why the photographer got famous. His portraits truly speak volumes about the person. He is the Ansel Adams of portraiture.

Karsh is quoted as saying, “Within every man and woman a secret is hidden, and as a photographer it is my task to reveal it if I can. 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 interval of opportunity the photographer must act or lose his prize.” Many photographers claim to capture such moments, but Karsh truly had a gift for taking portraits that communicate. You see one of his portraits and you feel like you truly understand the model.

Another interesting fact about Yousuf Karsh is that he always lit the hands of the subject separately from the lighting on the rest of the person. He felt that the hands were a vital part of the story of any portrait. You can see photos from Yousuf Karsh here.

Yousuf Karsh portrait of Winston Churchill on cover of Life magazine, 1941.

What you can learn from Yousuf Karsh: Never take a portrait that doesn’t speak something about the person. Pay attention to the hands as an important part of the story. Be super famous and rich enough to own a 76-room house in Manhattan. Accomplish any of those things (especially the last one, which is true about him) and you’ll be better off for reading about his life.


Brassai, whose real name is Gyula Halasz (no wonder he picked a nickname), was a photographer best known for his work on the streets of Paris. He did not photograph celebrities or have fame or fortune like many of the other famous photographers listed here. However, his street photography showing ordinary people has made him famous throughout time.

Brassai - The Eiffel Tower at Twilight, 1932.

What you can learn from Brassai: I often hear from photographers that they enjoy photography, but don’t have the money to travel to find great locations. Brassai was born in Hungary, but lived in Paris for most of his life. He did not travel around the world to do photography or have celebrities come to him to have their portraits taken. He did his work in one city and he took captivating photos of ordinary people. Don’t use excuses for your photography!

Robert Capa

Robert Capa is best known for his war-time photography. He worked tirelessly to cover five different wars, including World War II. Capa was one of the co-founders, along with Cartier-Bresson, of Magnum Photos.

Not only was Capa a great photographer, he was also a fantastic business man. His name is actually Endre Friedman. He and an associate decided to form a partnership in which he would take the pictures and do the dark room work, the associate would do the marketing and sales, and they would credit “Robert Capa” as being the photographer. They found that they could get a much higher price in selling the pictures to the newspaper if they sold the photos under the made-up name “Robert Capa” and inventing the story that he was a rich man. Fraudulent? Probably. Did it work? Definitely. You can see Capa’s photography here.

Robert Capa - Landing of the American troops on Omaha Beach, Normandy, June 6th, 1944.

What you can learn from famous photographer Robert Capa: Capa is frequently quoted as saying, ”If your picture isn’t good enough, you’re not close enough.” This was significant because he was a combat photographer! He was known for literally getting down in the trenches with the soldiers to take photos, rather than taking photos from a distance as was the common practice. So, get close to the action and your photos will improve!

Jay Maisel

Maisel is one of the most famous modern photographers. He takes a simplistic approach to photography that is largely unencumbered by complex lighting set ups and fancy gear. In fact, he likes to shoot with one lens and simply look for interesting light and shapes in the city.

Perhaps the best way to learn from Jay Maisel is to subscribe to Kelby Training. They have two video courses which feature Jay Maisel where he walks around the city and shoots with Scott Kelby. It is truly fantastic to watch a master do his work. You can see Jay Maisel’s portfolio here.

Jay Maisel - Tree and Goal posts.

What you can learn from Jay Maisel: Ditch the gear and start paying attention to color, shape, and light. As you go about your day, find little things that have an artistic flair to them. Photography isn’t just about the knock-you-in-the-face obvious shots.

Jerry Uelsmann

Jerry Uelsmann as established a photographic style using multiple photos to create a surrealistic and impressionist composite image. Born in 1934, he used film for many years and built his works using film cameras. His work became famous mostly for his abilities in the dark room. Few others were capable of creating composites using so many images with such skill. Although Uelsmann is alive today, he never switched to digital cameras. He said, “I am sympathetic to the current digital revolution and excited by the visual options created by the computer. However, I feel my creative process remains intrinsically linked to the alchemy of the darkroom.” You can see Jerry Uelsmann’s photography here.

Jerry Uelsmann - Untitled, 1966.

What you can learn from Jerry Uelsman: Don’t let “photography forum” talk convince you that there is anything wrong with creating surrealistic images. Photography is art and you can express yourself in whatever composited, blurred, cloned, dodged, burned, and liquified way that you want.

*Jim Harmer is the founder of Improve Photography, host of the popular Improve Photography Podcast, author, and photography addict. This article was original published here.

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  1. I really like this article. It motivates a lot!

  2. Very helpful. I’m just starting out and it’s cool to know there are some people out there who dedicate time to giving such helpful tips.

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