3 Famous Portrait Photographers to Inspire You

Most of us will know a good portrait when we see one, but is there a universal recipe for taking a portrait photo?

There is no better way to learn the art of portrait photography than to study the best portrait photographers out there.

When the first photographs appeared, some cultures were afraid that their souls might be trapped in the picture. This fear has no place in today’s selfie culture, and yet those ancient societies might have been on to something. To take someone’s portrait photo is to capture their essence. It is getting the most authentic emotion and expression out from a subject, then freezing it in a single moment in time. 

The best portrait photographers are many and the names will vary depending on who you ask. I put together a list of some who undoubtedly left a mark in the work and whose work I admire. 

#1 Yousuf Karsh (1908-2002)

“There is a brief moment when all there is in a man’s mind and soul and spirit is reflected through his eyes, his hands, his attitude. This is the moment to record.” – Yousuf Karsh

Yousuf Karsh immigrated to Canada at a young age to flee the Armenian Genocide. He is known for his portraits of famous world leaders, artists, celebrities and royalty. His photo of Churchill made it to almost every paper of the time (read more on how he got this shot). 

Winston Churchill

Some of the people he photographed are Albert Einstein, Picasso, Mother Teressa, Ernest Hemingway and Marilyn Monroe.

Every great photographer has a distinguishing portrait style. For Karsh, it became the use of dramatic lighting. 

Source: karsh.org

#2 Dorothea Lange 

Dorothea Lange

“It is not enough to photograph the obviously picturesque.”Dorothea Lange

If you are interested in documentary photography, then Dorothea Lange is someone worth studying. Dorothea travelled across the US and photographed migrants and unemployed workers during the Great Depression.

SSPL/Library of Congress

Dorothea left her studio in San Francisco and went to the streets, in a way becoming a field investigator of the times. For her, the camera was a powerful tool that she could use to show the unseen. 

“We unearthed and discovered what had been… neglected, or not known” -Daring to Look

In documentary photography, knowing how to approach people and situations is key. Dorothea was said to put her camera down if her subjects objected, but that “she would wait until they were used to her.”

1940 Lange Migratory
© Oakland Museum of California

#3 Steve McCurry

Steve McCurry

“If you wait, people will forget your camera and the soul will drift up into view.”  – Steve McCurry

Even if you never heard of Steve McCurry, you have most likely seen his work on multiple National Geographic covers. He is interested in discovering cultures across the world and captures portraits of people he encounters while travelling. The American photographer and photojournalist became world-famous after his photo “Afgan Girl”.

© Steve McCurry

During his travels, McCurry manages to beautifully capture conflicts and ancient cultures by becoming intertwined with them. He often spends time getting close to a group of people, which gives him passage to photograph them. 

The most prominent element in his portrait style is bright, vivid colours and a focus on the subject’s eyes. McCurry has been shooting on Kodachrome film for 30 years of his career until it was recently discontinued.

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