Top 5 Working Portrait Photographers to Study and Inspire From
(Featured Image by Annie Leibovitz)
I wanted to make a very specific list of my personal top 5 favorite working photographers who you can easily find information and teachable lessons from. There are thousands of photographers who deserve just such a list, and perhaps these 5 aren’t even on your own personal list, but what sets this list apart is that each of these photographers has an absolutely huge trove of videos, blog posts, articles, and even documentaries about their work, approach, and processes. This means you can learn a lot from what they have to share.
5. Jeremy Cowart
Jeremy is an amazing photographer and his story isn’t too dissimilar to my own. He also began his career as a designer and started to pick up photography when he was unable to find photos that matched what was in his head for his designs. I still spend most of my working time as a creative director and designer whereas Jeremy has reached amazing heights in his photography career and has even become an amazing humanitarian, working on several socially focused projects and non-profits. He calls himself an, “idea man”, and spends much more time working on the artistic aspect of photography rather than the technicalities – an approach I would suggest for most photographers. He has a ton of great videos where you get a chance to see him work through an idea and then (attempt) to put it into production. They don’t always work out the way he plans and that’s another good thing, I believe, to see a photographer work through the job from start to finish, warts and all. Jeremy is gifted and charming, with a slight southern accent weaving through each word he utters. Definitely worth the look!
Where to find Jeremy: You can find his videos on his own SeeUniversity, KelbyOne, and CreativeLive.
4. Chris Knight
Chris Knight is on a whole different level when it comes to photography. No one commands light in the grand scheme better than Chris. You may not know his name, but you’ve seen his photos. They are often painterly, with great use of shadows to compliment his unparalleled mastery of flash. His photos always fill the viewer with an intense feeling of story and depth. When you look through his work it’s hard to believe that the final product isn’t heavily photoshopped, making the truth that it’s all done in-camera inspiring, if not a little intimidating. If you want to learn to light the same way renaissance painters used oil and canvas, then Christ Knight is the photographer for you.
Where to find Christ Knight: You can find him on Creative Live, and his Instagram
3. Lindsay Adler
Lindsay Adler is one of the absolutely best conceptual fashion photographers the world has ever known. If Chris Knight’s photography evokes the likes of Leonard DiVinci, then Lindsay Adler’s is Andy Warhol and Richard Avedone combined. Her art is color-pop and sharp angles. No one poses a subject as she does, and her work with colored gels has upended the entire industry in the past 5 or so years. If you’re in your studio right now using a lot of colored filters in front of your studio flashes to light your subject, then you are standing with two feet firmly in the trend she cemented. She’s funny and matter-of-fact when she talks about how she approaches photography. She’s done it all and has a solution for it. If you’re struggling with any aspect of portrait photography, she should be your first resource.
Where to find Lindsay Adler: You can find her on Creative Live, and Instagram
2. Joe McNally
If I could spend 1 day in the field with any photographer in the world right now, it would be Joe McNally. While my own photographic aesthetic may be more similar to other artists, Joe has taught me more about photography than any other. He’s been in the business as a professional photog’ for decades. He’s worked as a commercial photographer, a journalistic photographer, and spent a long portion of his career as a NatGeo photographer just to round things off. He’s been in situations that would make most pros tremble and has still managed to emerge with an unshakable body of work. Joe has a great, no BS New York type of attitude. He takes everything in stride, with a smile. He knows where the jokes are when tension is running high. Most importantly, he knows how to problem solve – quickly. When you watch Joe McNally teaching photography it’s like being on assignment with him. He walks into a room, looks around, and instantly begins to formulate. You get to see a solution take shape through iteration and then with one magical press of the shutter: WHAM! He gets the shot. It’s so cool to watch. If you are new to photography – start with Joe. He’ll make you feel like he’s in it with you. Your problems are his and he’s gonna keep you on your feet till the job is done.
Where to find Joe McNally: You can find him on Kelby One, Creative Live, and through his own Books and Learning Videos
1. Annie Leibovitz
Where Joe McNally taught me to be a photographer, Annie Leibovitz inspired me to become a photographer. My love affair with Annie’s work is well documented. What can I say? She’s my favorite modern artist without reservation. Any is a pop culture icon. Where other photographers leave their mark by nurturing a style, Annie will go down in history as the mother of modern photography where photojournalism and commercial photography meets. Every time someone sets up light and poses a person in a beautiful location, there’s a piece of Annie there. Any time someone takes a gritty hotel, or back-stage photo there’s a piece of Annie there too. Actually, pretty much every single photo taken anywhere has a hint of Annie in it. She’s become so deeply ingrained into our visual lexicon that it’s almost ubiquitous. It’s not even a conscious decision anymore to draw upon her work as inspiration – it just is.
As well documented as Annie is, however, learning from her requires the viewer to be keyed in and somewhat well versed in the craft already. Annie is not going to walk you around the set and talk about aperture settings. In her own words, she hates, “talking shop.” If you want to learn how Annie does what she does you need to be the astute, silent observer. There are several documentaries about her and even has a Master Class where she “teaches” you photography. I put that in parenthesis because she doesn’t really lay out anything to you, the class. As I stated above, you really need to pay attention to what she is doing in order to learn about her process. You may not get a step-by-step from her, but you will definitely see, laid bare, the way she works which is equally as telling. She does have one book where she walks through a few of her more iconic photos, but they are an anecdotal retelling of the moment rather than a guide on how to take a similar photo. Just as well, I’d rather just enjoy the beauty of Annie Leibovitz working, rather than spoiling it by having the curtain pulled completely back.