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11 Best Portrait Photographers to Inspire You

The 11 Best Portrait Photographers to Inspire You.
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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

best portrait photographers

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.

(© Annie Leibovitz)

Annie Leibovitz Portrait Photography

Annie Leibovitz Portraits for Vanity Fair

Annie Leibovitz Portrait Photography Work

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2. Steve McCurry

Steve McCurry Portrait Photographer and Photojournalist

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 Portrait

steve mccurry portrait photography

steve mccurry portrait photography

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)

andy warhol portrait by Richard Avedon

Björk Portrait by Richard Avedon

Richard Avedon Portraits of Igor Stravinsky

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 hist 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.

Hist 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

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28 thoughts on “11 Best Portrait Photographers to Inspire You

  1. 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….

    • 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.

      Thanks,

      Mike

      • 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 :-)

        • 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.

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  3. 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.

    • 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!

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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!

    • 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.

    • 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.

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  11. 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.

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