11 Best Portrait Photographers to Inspire You

The 11 Best Portrait Photographers to Inspire You.

One of the more common types of photography, especially in the digital age of the “selfie“, is portrait photography. Also known as portraiture, portrait photography is the art of taking a photo of a single person or group of people, capturing their most real mood and emotion.

Portrait photography is a constant challenge and requires the photographers creativity in order to really achieve beautiful portraits.

Some of the best portraits involve the most authentic capture of human emotion and expression. Learn more about photography from the best portrait photographers below.

1. Annie Leibovitz

Annie Leibovitz

Photo: Robert Scoble

Arguably one of the most famous American portrait photographers, Annie Leibovitz is known for her exceptional work photographing the portraits of celebrities. She has worked for Rolling Stone Magazine, Vanity Fair, and a few other fashion and pop-culture publications.

Her use of bold colors, intriguing light, and unique poses is what ultimately helped her work gain exposure. One of her most famous works is this portrait of John Lennon and Yoko Ono a few hours before Lennon’s murder.

(© Annie Leibovitz)

Annie Leibovitz's portrait of John Lennon and Yoko Ono a few hours before Lennon's murder.

2. Steve McCurry

steve mccurry

Photo: John Ramspott

Steve McCurry is an American Photojournalist who has done work for National Geographic and has won countless awards for his photojournalism and coverage of various wars throughout history.

One of the most famous portraits of all time comes from Steve McCurry. Known as “Afghan Girl“, it is commonly compared to the Mona Lisa and other famous works of art.

(© Steve McCurry)

afghan girl

3. Dorothea Lange

Dorothea Lange Portrait Photographer

An influential documentary photographer and American photojournalist, Dorothea Lange was fundamental in documenting the Depression Era.

She is known for her work photographing victims of the Great Depression and was very important in the development of documentary photography.

She truly can be considered one of the best portrait photographers of all time as her work during the Depression showed the faces and emotions of so many affected.

(© Dorothea Lange)

Great Depression Portrait Photography, Dorothea Lange

Portrait Photography by Dorothea Lange

Dorothea Lange Photojournalism

4. Angus McBean

Angus McBean Portrait Photographer

A portrait photographer from South Wales, Angus McBean is remembered for his portrait photography of celebrities in the early 1900s.

He was very famous in the era of vintage film and the rise of the cinema. His most famous subjects included Audrey Hepburn, Vivien Leigh, and the Beatles.

(© Angus McBean)

Best portrait photographers, Angus McBean

Beatles Photography by Angus McBean

Angus Bean Portrait of Vivien Leigh

5. Diane Arbus

Portrait Photographer Diane Arbus

Known for her black and white portrait photography of seemingly ugly or surreal people, Diane Arbus is one of the more unique portrait photographers out there.

Her philosophy involved taking real photos. Photos that involved flaws and shortcomings, not beautified perfection.

Her portrait photography is consistent with this as she primarily photographed marginal people such as dwarfs, giants, nudists, performers, and other deviants.

(© Diane Arbus)

Diane Arbus Portrait Photography

Diane Arbus Portrait Photography

Portrait Photography of Diane Arbus

6. Yousuf Karsh

Portrait Photographer Yousuf Karsh

Yousuf Karsh was an Armenian-Canadian portrait photographer most widely recognized for his clientele. When it came to portrait photography, he photographed all the top people in the world.

From celebrities to politicians to world leaders and thought provokers, Yousuf Karsh photographed the best of the best.

Some of Yousuf’s subjects included Albert Einstein, Winston Churchill, Ernest Hemingway, Pablo Picasso, Helen Keller, Grace Kelly, and so many others.

(© Yousuf Karsh)

Albert Einstein Portrait by Yousuf Karsh

Grace Kelly Portrait by Yousuf Karsh

Winston Churchill Portrait by Yousuf Karsh

7. Richard Avedon

Richard Avedon Portrait Photographer

Known for pushing the bar and heavily influencing American style, Richard Avedon is one of the most prominent fashion and portrait photographers of all time.

He photographed many famous icons in American pop-culture and beyond and was very good at switching up the usual style of fashion and portrait photography with his unique photos. Find a more complete bio of him on Artsy.

(© Richard Avedon)

8. Edward S. Curtis

Portrait Photographer Edward S. Curtis

A photographer of the American West and Native American peoples, Edward S. Curtis was one of the earliest portrait photographers, being born in 1868.

He took stunning portraits for various Native American’s and each photo tells a story. Effectively he is prominent in visualizing American history, and that is why he is one of the best portrait photographers.

(© Edward S. Curtis)

Three Horses Portrait by Edward S. Curtis

Wyemah Taos Indian Portrait by Edward S. Curtis

Lucille Dakota Sioux Portrait by Edward S. Curtis

9. Philippe Halsman

Portrait Photographer Philippe Halsman

Philippe is the photographer responsible for some of the 20th century’s most recognizable portraits. He was an American portrait photographer who had some eccentric photography.

His best work includes portraits of Marlon Brando, Salvador Dali, Marilyn Monroe, and more.

(© Philippe Halsman)

Marilyn Monroe Portrait by Philippe Halsman

Marlon Brando Portrait by Philippe Halsman

Salvador Dali Portrait by Philippe Halsman

10. Antonin Kratochvil

Portrait Photographer Antonin Kratochvil

Antonin Kratochvil is a photojournalist and portrait photographer from Czechoslovakia. His work unique in that he has photographed everything from celebrities to war victims.

He has a unique style and leans toward black and white for most of his work.

(© Antonin Kratochvil)

Broken Dreams by Antonin Kratochvil

George Clooney Portrait by Antonin Kratochvil

Portrait Photography by Antonin Kratochvil

11. Herb Ritts

Herb Ritts Portrait Photographer

Herb Ritts was an American Fashion and Portrait photographer who took most of his photos in black and white, with a unique touch. He positioned his models in the style of classical Greek sculpture.

His work was intriguing and prominent in the fields of fashion and style.

(© Herb Ritts)

Photography by Herb Ritts

Richard Gere Portriat by Herb Ritts

Madonna Portrait by Herb Ritts

Find more photography inspiration on our blog.


70 Replies to “11 Best Portrait Photographers to Inspire You”

  1. Adam says:

    Another great post from FilterGrade! Thanks!

    1. Mike says:

      Thanks Adam! Glad you enjoyed it. :)

    2. Satyendra Sunkavally says:

      These supposedly great photos are only okay with the exception of that cowboy photo which is truly outstanding. But I have in my possession what I consider to be the greatest portrait photo ever taken, the mona Lisa of all portrait photos. called ” catoptric image of the mien of the metaphysician”. It only took 30 years to finally nail it.

      1. Satyendra Sunkavally says:

        Full title of the Mona Lisa of all portrait photographs is “Catoptric image of the Mien of the Metaphysician in Sun-Specs”.

      2. Mike says:

        Not sure what you mean Satyendra? What portrait?

      3. Satyendra Sunkavally says:

        Mike it is a portrait photograph of the physiognomy of a philosopher wearing sunglasses. You might ask what is so special about that. The Net after all is filled with images of men wearing glasses- about 20,000 in fact. Well, this photo is………….how shall I say it……different, very different. So different in fact it caught me too off guard……to the point where one actually stares…..all the time. I have not put it into the public space for this reason. I find it far too precious a possession for that. It is always remarkable when a piece of music such as Bach’s Fugue in D Minor stops time……or a photograph does.

      4. Dara Srikanth says:

        Hey Satyendra,

        The Portrait which might look so eye-catching for you might be not the same influence over others, having said that the portrait which you had mentioned is overwhelmed to you since usually, the human brain tries to be holding the impact of one’s image or one incident which holds him for a moment.

        However, one perspective of view depends on the nature of interest.

      5. Prajith Aarya says:

        Hello satyendra sir I’m a former student of urs and very deep admirer of ur intellectual ability as well……
        I tried contacting u through various ways but I couldn’t reach u….seems like ur undercover hahaha………

        As I have finally got a hold of u now…i shall fulfill my purpose here….
        Sir….can u please suggest the books that are a must read for me or my generation(27 yrs of age)???…Be it philosophy or psychology….or anything….tat has the potential to impact our lives…..of course it purely depends on how we perceive it….but my confidence in ur ocean of knowledge gives me all the more reason to believe ur advice….

        I am definitely a nobody to u….the maximum I can do is to request u to please oblige and guide me….

        Also I want to be a film director….any advice on writing the stories???…..

        Also I’m eagerly waiting for the release of ur books 17degrees north and de profoundis???wats their status?

      1. Reymond says:

        hey marcussssss ur kinda segc

  2. Geoff says:

    The list wouldn’t have been compiled by an American by any chance would it?
    7 out of the 10 chosen photographers just happen to be Americans. Weren’t there any good French or German or Australian or….

    1. Mike says:

      Hey Geoff. This post was put together by an American.

      However; it didn’t even occur to me that so many were American photographers. I was purely researching based on talent and popularity, not race/religion/or location.

      Sorry about that. Can you recommend any great photographers from those locations? I’d love to learn about them, and perhaps write on them in the future.



      1. Geoff Naylor says:

        Selections can often, unintentionally, be chauvanistic Mike. We probably all do it to some extent without realising. People tend to publicise their own talented individuals – those that come from their own country – whether they’re composers or writers or artists or, in this case, photographers.
        A few international, non-American photographers who certainly wouldn’t be out-of-place on your list are Cecil Beaton (British), Yousuf Karsh (Armenian?), Sune Jonsson (Swedish), Helmut Newton (German?), Philippe Halsman (Russian I think), and… well I could go on. These are all Europeans I see now.
        Put it simply, it’s highly unlikely that 70% of outstanding portrait photographers are or were American :-)

      2. Robert says:

        And highly unlikely that 90% were men.

      3. Henri. Cartier -Bresson is a legend and should not have been omitted from your list.

      4. John says:

        Henri Cartier-Bresson was not primarily a portrait photographer, so his omission from this list is perfectly justified, as is the omission of Ansel Adams, who took some great portraits but was recognized primarily for his genius as a landscape photographer. On the same note, I could see criticizing the inclusion of Dorothea Lange since she was, as is noted, a documentary photographer. Her pictures of individuals or groups were meant to tell a larger story (of the dust bowl for instance), not a personal story.

      5. Hello Mike…maybe you kud get to write about me in the future. My name is Stephen Maithya and i am a Kenyan photographer, Africa. You can catch me on my Facebook page: https://m.facebook.com/stevenchyphotography/ Instagram: @stevenchy_photography.

      6. Mike says:

        Nice photos Stephen! Thanks for your comment.

      1. bigger nibba says:


  3. Geoff Naylor says:

    I see now that two of my photographers are on your list already, Mike.
    That’ll teach me to reply without checking my input first :-)
    Here’s a few others to make up for it; Edouard Boubet, Raymond Meier, Horst P. Horst, David Bailey, Mankowitz… there’s a lot more where they came from.

    1. Mike says:

      Awesome. I apologize again for not digging a bit deeper and getting a wide variety.

      Thanks for your input, even if a few were already included.

      I will look into these talented individuals and include them in a future post or project. Happy to discover other great talent all the time, to broaden my range of inspiration.

      Thanks for sharing!

      1. Geoff Naylor says:

        I don’t want to hog all the comments here, Mike, but there was a report on the BBC today about current photographic portraiture. A couple of interesting artists were mentioned; the Brit David Titlow and Italian Sara Lando. Well worth a look.
        David Titlow; winner of the Taylor Wessing Portrait Prize 2014
        Sara Lando

      2. Mike says:

        No problem Geoff! I very much like the work you shared.

        Thanks :)

      3. Ketix says:

        I just stumbled upon this article and am sorry to dig up this old conversation, but I really have to say how refreshing and quite uplifting it is to read such a nice, civilised and resprectful conversation on a photography related blog. I just wish more commenters on photo blogs would show a similar behaviour towards another.

        Good job guys!

      4. Mike says:

        Thank you Ketix! We’re all just trying to learn and grow here. It’s refreshing to have lovely people like yourself reading the blog. :)

  4. Philippe says:

    Hey Mike, first time on your site and I think you did an excellent job. Sure there are more great portrait photographers out there, but the list would probably be endless. Your choices were classics, thank you.

    1. Mike says:

      Thanks so much Philippe, glad you enjoyed the post! :)

  5. John says:

    This article, for me, again raised the question of “What defines portrait photography?”

    I looked over this list and often found myself agreeing and disagreeing with photo and photographer choices, and it always came back to the same question. . . What story is the photographer trying to tell?

    For me, a great “portrait” seeks to, and succeeds in, telling the story of the individual or individuals in the photograph. Annie Leibovitz is a great photographer, and has taken many great portraits, but the picture of Leonardo DiCaprio with a swan around his neck really tells me nothing of Mr. DiCaprio. This is a fashion photograph, or maybe a fine art photograph to some, not a picture where we get any insight into the subject itself. Every picture included by Steve McCurry, on the other hand, is solely about the individual. When you look at these portraits you know that you are looking at the “souls” of these individuals. Whether you see desperation, fear, resignation, strength, or anything else, you know that you are seeing the emotions of the subject, not what the photographer or the art director was trying to get them to convey. In between you have the photos of Edward S. Curtis. These are great pictures, and his work was hugely important to documenting Native Americans, but he often straddled the line between telling the story of the individual and telling the story that he wanted to tell, often posing people in inauthentic ways, dressing them in inauthentic costumes, and staging ceremonies that more closely resembled Western caricature of Native American culture than the culture itself. This leaves us wondering with each photo of his that we see whether it is a portrait of the individual or a staged picture more closely akin to a still life or fashion propaganda piece. Dorothea Lange is in a separate category where I would call none of her work shown here portrait photography. These are photos that show individual emotion and connections, sure, but they are all against a larger backdrop and are meant to tell the larger story. Yes, I feel as though I can see the individuals in these photos, but my overall feeling is for the setting, the dust bowl, and not for the individual. What makes Langes photos different from Mccurrys is the context. McCurry isolates his subjects to such an extent that even though you get the feeling that the portrait is taking place amid dramatic events, the events are hidden and the individual shines through. Lange places everything in context in order to tell a larger story. I would never say one is better than the other, they are just trying to tell different stories, one of the individual and one of the situation.

    This is not a criticism of this list at all, and is actually meant more as a compliment. I love it when articles make me think more deeply on a subject than I was intending to when I first started reading them, and this one certainly did that.

    1. Mike says:

      Really appreciate your insights John. I couldn’t agree more on your words about what a “great” portrait seeks to do. Thanks so much!

    2. Geoff says:

      McCurry currently has an exhibition near my home in Eindhoven, John, and while he makes great portrait photos he isn’t – to my mind anyway – basically a portrait photographer. He can do just about everything including editorial, landscape and street photography (among others). A very talented artist (if photography is an art, I suppose).

      1. Mike says:

        Ah that’s cool, wish I could see his exhibition! Totally agree though. He is a true artist and is very skilled at what he does.

  6. Trent says:

    My goodness, Mike, of the hundreds of world class photographers we’ve seen since the turn of the century every one on this list is a unique and fine photographer in their own right. More importantly they’re YOUR suggestions to inspire. You are gracious to share and even more gracious to apologize to commenters who seem to confuse pedanticism with the open spirit of art, photography and sharing. “Chauvinistic”?! Good heavens.

    I’d not known of Edward S. Curtis and find his portraits stunning and wonderfully composed. Thank you!

    1. Mike says:

      Thanks for your kind words Trent. Really appreciate it and glad you found a new inspiration from this post! Isn’t it the greatest feeling when you discover a new artist/photographer/designer who just blows you away? I love it.

      1. Trent says:

        Indeed. So much beauty to be captured in the world, so little time to appreciate it. But here’s to trying. Cheers. ;)

    2. Geoff says:

      When an article is headed ’11 best portrait photographers to inspire you’, Trent, the visitor expects to be presented with a representative, although maybe subjective, selection of artists (if photography can be considered an art, that is). By making a list the author obviously puts him or herself in the firing line: do the chosen 11 satisfy the claim?
      The fact that they might fall short for a number of reasons – like, for instance, are they all actually portrait photographers or are there much better individuals who maybe haven’t been considered – is to my mind worth mentioning in a reasonable, grown-up debate.

      1. Kate evans says:

        shut up geoff

      2. Greg Harrison says:

        Thank you for this appropriate response to the avalanche of presumed objectivity.

      3. Tetra says:

        your actually generally annoying

      4. even bigger nibba says:


      5. Greg Harrison says:

        “if photography can be considered as art?” Really? Surely you can’t be serious with this question.

  7. Jacklyn Rose Williamson says:

    Hello Mike, My name is Jacklyn Williamson. Would you happen to know if any of these people would have an email address to something to that nature to where i can try and get a hold of them. I would absolutely love to get their intake and thoughts on some of my work.

    1. Mike says:

      Hi Jacklyn, thanks so much for the comment. Apart from the photographers who are deceased I’m sure many of the other photographers have websites where you can contact them. It’s definitely worth a shot! You can also get feedback for your work in the FilterGrade Community: https://www.facebook.com/groups/1489144284721048/

  8. ssewankambo brian says:

    mccurry is my all time favourite

    1. Mike says:

      Thanks for the comment! He is truly amazing at what he does.

  9. Louise says:

    Quite a classic choice by you.
    It’s actually inspiring especially by the photographer Steve Mccury.

    1. Mike says:

      Thanks Louise. Steve is one of my favorite photographers in the world. The way he captures emotion in the eyes is unlike any other portrait photographer I have ever come across.

  10. Brunie says:

    Don’t try to define what a great photograph is, it is a mystery.

  11. *jumps down the stairs* says:


  12. Danielle Valenza says:

    Annie, Halsman and McBean…. I love them all. They are masters of their craft and their masterpieces are magical and inspiring. . I can browse through these photos over and over. Thank you for posting this great list

    1. Mike says:

      Agree with you 100% Danielle. Love scrolling through their photos and digging deeper in their portfolios. :) So inspiring! Thanks for the comment.

  13. I wonder if one day I could be able to make it to such a list.
    One thing, I find important, is that the photographers listed above were around creating their work in, how to put it, more exiting “magical” time period. Time where there wasn’t so much saturation, hence the rarity and uniqueness of their work.

  14. marcus-2612 says:

    I adore the work of Diane Arbus, there are so many different readings and conjecture one can make of the portraits, to me they are complete with bits missing. The gaps are for you to fill. I do not hold hold to the accusations of voyeurism on her part, I believe she did identify with her subjects and the best of her portraiture is when we can almost see the person in front of the camera through her eyes.

    1. Mike says:

      So well said Marcus, thanks for sharing that.

  15. Kent Miles says:

    I accept the reality that lists such as this are arbitrary and based on the taste and opinions of the author. Consensus is not possible. There are good reasons for liking the work of these outstanding photographers. If you are talking about photographers that inspire one to extend the imagination and skill set, I would have a hard time leaving out the work of Irving Penn and Arnold Newman, August Sander and George Hurrell, Mary Ellen Mark and Edward S. Curtis. An argument could even be made for the youngster Mihaela Noroc and the oldster Julia Margaret Cameron. The list goes on.

  16. Satyendra Sunkavally says:

    Some portrait photos leading up to the Mona Lisa of all portrait photos have been placed on the Tumblr site: biology-geology-beaches-india. It also goes under the name Littoral.

    This is a minatory, mystical Universe that operates on Zero Point Energies, quantum fluctuations, evasions, equivocations, mathematical mirages and cruel, capricious probabilities.

    Therefore, a portrait photographer simply cannot be a TRUE photographer unless he is first the philosopher, so that he may then capture all elements of this mystical mirage in his mystical, magisterial, metaphysical miens.

    A few very good books that grant one such a philosophical foundation are Paul Davies’ book The Cosmic Blueprint, Hans Ohanian’s book Modern Physics, Papoulis & Pillai’s book Probability, Random Variables and Stochastic Processes, Anne Bancroft’s book Twentieth Century Mystics and Sages, and Briggs & Peat’s book Turbulent Mirror.

    The portrait photograph is more than what we had historically thought it to be, something Oscar Wilde partially realized in his book The Picture of Dorian Gray.

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  17. CRA says:

    @Satyendra Sunkavally – It is to convey that while philosophical insights can undoubtedly enhance a photographer’s ability to convey depth and more meaning in their work, the idea that a photographer cannot be a “TRUE” photographer without being a philosopher seems a bit narrow perspective.

    However, the literary recommendations you have proffered are indeed poised to elevate my status from that of an intermediate portraiture artist, encompassing mediums such as charcoal, oils, and acrylics, to a more judicious and discerning exponent. For the execution of brushstrokes is a manifestation of individual agency, guided solely by the sovereign hand of the artist and their predilections. Thanks.

  18. CRA says:

    Mike – Third pic from bottom by Herb Ritts showcasing the presence of Cindy Crawford exudes remarkable excellence. Also it looks like heap of mixed miens adorned with resplendent beauty

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