Do you lack photographic motivation? A great place to find inspiration is to look at the work of famous photographers.
We are surrounded by imagery; there are photos are everywhere. These can be inspiring, but bewildering too–it’s difficult to know where to start.
I’m here to help. I’ve collated 26 of the most famous photographers in the world, whose work will open your eyes to new possibilities. Hopefully, they’ll inspire you to take better photos.
Naturally, these photographers are my personal choice and there will be people I’ve omitted who you might have included. A list like this is never complete, but I hope you’ll find some people and images here to awaken fresh passion in you.
Elliott Erwitt’s approach to photography is to always have a camera with you; because you’re bound to see potential images all around you.
It’s simply a case of having the tools with you and always being alert. He once said: “It’s about reacting to what you see, hopefully without preconception. You can find pictures anywhere. It’s simply a matter of noticing things and organizing them.
“You just have to care about what’s around you and have a concern with humanity and the human comedy.”
He’s well known for his photos of dogs, but Erwitt’s output is much broader. His body of work includes documentary and corporate photography, portrait photography and street photography. Whatever the subject, his sense of humor always shines through.
I only discovered Fan Ho’s work relatively recently, and what a revelation it was.
Fan Ho started exploring photography at an early age, first shooting with a Brownie camera. At the age of 14, he acquired a Rolleiflex and used it for the rest of his life.
His use of light and shade around the streets of Hong Kong is exquisite. Many of his images have a cinematic look that wouldn’t seem out of place in a Hollywood movie. It’s of little surprise that he later became a film director.
Eric Kim has written a great article about what we can learn from Fan Ho and his photography. I urge you to read it as it’ll make you think again about your own approach.
Sebastião Salgado started his working life as an economist but began taking photos seriously during business trips to Africa for the World Bank.
He switched to photography full-time in 1973. Much of his work has focused on long-term, personal assignments; documenting humanity and our effect on the world around us.
Salgado’s images are monochrome (he still shoots on film) and laden with detail. If you ever get the chance to see his work in person it’s even more awe-inspiring close-up.
Many of his photos are reminiscent of an epic movie–think Ben Hur with thousands of extras. But at the same time, you see the humanity of the people in them. His photos from the Serra Pelada gold mine in Brazil, for example, show a seething mass of humanity working together for a pittance to bring wealth to others.
If you want to learn more about Salgado, I recommend this interview from the Guardian. You should also watch Wim Wenders’ excellent 2014 documentary about him, The Salt of the Earth.
Swiss-born Robert Frank is best known for his photographic work documenting small-town America.
His 1958 book The Americans, his most widely known and influential work, focuses on the lives of those living on the margins. With a foreword by author Jack Kerouac, it contains images that influenced future generations of photographers.
Frank began his working life as a commercial photographer. But his preference for a 35mm Leica camera didn’t fit the vision of glossy magazines, so he changed path.
Of course, small-town camera was the perfect subject for his documentary work. It helped him capture some of the candid moments he chose for The Americans. Frank died recently, and the Guardian newspaper published a fascinating obituary about him.
No list of famous photographers would be complete without a mention of Henri Cartier-Bresson.
He is the grandfather of street photography and was an early pioneer of shooting with 35mm film. Best-known for his ability to capture ‘The Decisive Moment’, which is the English title of his 1952 book. However, the original French title of the book, Images à la sauvette, is actually better translated as ‘pictures on the run’.
Given the fleeting moments all street photographers encounter, the latter is probably very apt, if not as poetic.
A founding member of Magnum Photos, Cartier-Bresson worked widely as a documentary photographer. He later chose to focus more on portraiture and landscapes. Towards the end of his life, he concentrated on drawing and painting.
Jane Bown had a knack for capturing the depths of someone’s character in one single moment.
Bown worked for The Observer newspaper in the UK for six decades from 1949. She was known for her minimalistic approach to camera gear. She often shot with natural light using one Olympus or Pentax camera body and a single prime lens.
Rather than using a lightmeter, she would hold out her fist to judge the exposure. She worked quickly and would rarely spend more than 15 minutes on any one shoot.
Despite this, Bown’s portraits have a wonderful sense of personal connection and intimacy. Perhaps her best-known portrait is that of the playwright Samuel Beckett in 1976. He was reluctant to have his picture taken, but Bown caught him outside the stage door of the Royal Court Theatre. She quickly captured this superb portrait, shooting just five frames in total.
If you’d like to learn more about Jane Bown, seek out the 2014 documentary about her, Looking for Light.
Starting out as a fashion photographer, Saul Leiter spent 20 years creating imagery for glossy magazines, including Vogue and Elle.
He was a very early exponent of color photography, taking color pictures as early as 1948. However, it’s his street photography that first brought Leiter to my attention.
His use of color on the streets of New York has a unique look; he often uses bad weather conditions to great effect. The 2012 documentary about him, In no Great Hurry, gives a brief and thoughtful glimpse into his very individual work.
Richard Avedon was one of the most famous photographers in the world of fashion.
An American fashion and portrait photographer, he worked for Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue magazines.
His approach to fashion photography was different to many. Rather than expecting models to remain static, he encouraged movement and wanted to capture a sense of their emotions.
He later photographed everyday people, often picking those who’d done something extraordinary, such as civil rights campaigners. Among his later photography, Inthe American West, is considered by many to be some of his best work.
Joel Meyerowitz originally worked in advertising but inspired by Robert Frank, quite his job in 1962 to take up photography.
He took to the streets of New York with his camera. And thank goodness he did, as the world of street photography would be poorer without his work.
Meyerowitz was an early pioneer of color photography. His observational skills are acute, spotting the quirky characters and rapidly changing events around him. These skills have left us with a wonderful collection of dynamic street photos.
He was the only photographer given permission to shoot at Ground Zero, New York, following the World Trade Centre attacks. He spent 9 months documenting the devastation via the enormous team of people working to clear the site.
Martin Parr is something of a ‘Marmite’ character in the photography world; you either love or hate his work.
He has a sharp eye for the comical, taking great joy in capturing quirky characters and scenes he encounters.
His style makes strong use of color and he isn’t afraid to use flash when shooting candid street photography. His recent exhibition, Only Human, featured everyday people and celebrities, side by side, revealing the idiosyncrasies of the British psyche.
Our list of famous photographers would not be complete without Irving Penn.
His photography covers a vast array of genres, but he is best known for his work in portraiture, fashion and still life photography.
He shot no fewer than 163 covers for Vogue magazine, and his unique creative eye resulted in some striking imagery. Anna Wintour, Editor-in-Chief, said he “changed the way people saw the world and our perception of what is beautiful”.
While the world at large might recognize Penn’s fashion and celebrity work, he also had a creative eye for still life. His images in this genre are compositionally perfect, with no item out of place.
In my opinion, the single most striking feature of Edward Weston’s photographic output is the sculptural look of his subjects.
This is true, whether the focus of the photo is a nude or a vegetable. Whatever the subject, he would find the essence of its shape.
Perhaps his best-known image is Pepper No.30; a four-hour exposure that shows every curve and nuance of this shapely fruit. What is less well known is that he ate the pepper in a salad after the shoot.
There are few photographers who could genuinely claim to be a household name, but Annie Leibovitz is one of them. She is one of the most famous photographers around.
Her long career has taken her from staff photographer at Rolling Stone magazine, to countless cover shoots for glossy fashion magazines, as well as a multitude of celebrity portraits along the way.
Her style varies from intimate portraits to wild flights of fantasy, but they are all unmistakably Leibovitz.
My chosen picture is one she took in 1972 when then US President Richard Nixon left his office in disgrace. She said: “I was out there with the White House press squad, and after his helicopter took off, and the carpet rolled up. This wasn’t a photograph that others were taking, but I continued to take pictures.”
Her tenacity paid off, as her photos were used in Rolling Stone magazine, instead of their planned spread by Hunter S. Thompson.
Don Komarechka is fast becoming the go-to photographer for macro photography of the natural world.
In recent years Komarechka has focused on unusual photographic techniques; extreme macro, infrared, 3D and more. For many winters he has captured a new snowflake image every day.
To create these stunning pictures he shoots at incredibly short distances, stacking as many as 50 images together. This is the only way to create sufficient depth of field to capture these miniature marvels in all their glory.
A self-confessed geek, Don presents a fascinating podcast about the more tech-related aspects of photography. He also regularly appears on other podcasts talking about his work.
Vivian Maier is unusual among the photographers on this list, as she never worked in photography professionally.
She was a nanny in Chicago, who spent her free time shooting on the city’s streets with a Rolleiflex camera.
No-one knew about her street photography until a couple of years before her death. The contents of a storage container she’d hired were auctioned off to help clear her debts. Inside were thousands of photos, negatives, and undeveloped films, bought by collector John Maloof.
Over the past decade, Maloof has gradually acquired and published more of Maier’s archives. He is committed to showcasing her photographic talent so her work can be appreciated by a larger audience.
She was fearless when it came to getting close to people, capturing interesting characters and fascinating moments on the street.
Michael Kenna is one of the most famous photographers when it comes to monochrome landscape photography.
Even after 45 years in the business, his work still grabs your attention with both hands.
He’s well known for his work among the snowy landscapes of Hokkaido in northern Japan but has photographed all over the world.
I saw his work at a recent retrospective and can attest to the glorious detail and impact of his images.
Who are Your Favorite Famous Photographers?
So there are my suggestions of famous photographers whose work you should explore if you’re looking for inspiration.
There are so many amazing artists out there, this was a hard list to compile.
Which is your favorite out of our famous photographers? Have we missed anyone? Let us know in the comments below. Share photos inspired by them too; we’d love to see them.
Now that you’ve seen all this incredible photography, I hope you’re feeling inspired.
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