portrait photographers

10 Famous Portrait Photographers

In Portrait Photography by Stefano Caioni Leave a Comment

Portrait Photographers capture raw emotions. They highlight the stunning characteristics of a subject’s facial expression. When looking at the mesmerizing work of these masters you will get inspired to take better shots.

Portraits are some of the most charged photographs that a professional photographer can take. The closeness to the subject makes viewers feel a connection with the picture. This connection leads them to become some of the most recognized photographs in the world.

Here’s a list of some of the most famous portrait photographers in the world. Let’s take a look at what makes their images so awe-inspiring.

Related: Portrait Photography Tips for Beginners

Steve McCurry 

You may have seen the famous ‘Afghan Girl’ cover of National Geographic. Legendary photojournalist Steve McCurry took the picture. The photo became so famous that National Geographic declared it as its most recognized picture. Despite the widespread love this photo brought, it did not come without controversy.

portrait photographers - Steve McCurry
Photo by Steve McCurry

Steve McCurry consistently struggled with accusations related to his integrity. One vlogger accused Steve McCurry of taking the ‘Afghan Girl’ photo under false pretenses. The vlogger even went as far as to say that McCurry put her life in danger by publishing the photo. Others have accused him of using Photoshop to extensively alter the original photograph.

“Most of my photos are grounded in people, I look for the unguarded moment, the essential soul peeking out, experience etched on a persons face.”

Steve McCurry 

Despite the controversies, critics often struggle to find words to describe the brilliance of his shots. Photographers dream of the remarkable consistency that his work has. Even at the age of 70, he continues to take some of the most beautiful photographs the human eye can appreciate.

Annie Leibovitz 

Annie Lebovitz has been amongst the most influential photographers of the 20th century. If you have seen a memorable portrait of a celebrity, chances are Annie Lebovitz took that picture. She served as the lead photographer at Rolling Stones and then at Vanity Fair. During her time at Vanity Fair, she won critical acclaim as one of the finest portrait photographers of all time.

Annie Leibovitz

While at Rolling Stones, Annie Leibovitz took one of the most famous cover photographs of Rolling Stones’ history. It was the famous polaroid photograph of John Lennon with Yoko Ono. This cover immediately became a famous photograph as it was taken just five hours before John Lennon’s murder.

“I’ve said about a million times that the best thing a young photographer can do is to stay close to home. Start with your friends and family, the people who will put up with you. Discover what it means to be close to your work, to be intimate with a subject. Measure the difference between that and working with someone you don’t know as much about. Of course there are many good photographs that have nothing to do with staying close to home, and I guess what I’m really saying is that you should take pictures of something that has meaning for you…”

Annie Leibovitz
Photo by Annie Leibovitz

To top off her impressive accolades, Annie Lebovitz was declared a Living Legend by the Library of Congress. She was also the first woman to have a feature exhibition at Washington’s National Portrait Gallery.

Helmut Newton 

The German-born photographer was one of the most notorious photographers in the 20th century. Avid photography enthusiasts and critics knew him for his black and white portraits. His work is recognizable through the provocative nature of his photography. At the time, feminists often criticized his work for being too suggestive and risqué. Although, the sensuality of his portrait photographs is what made his work stand out and last the test of time.

famous portrait photographers
Photo by Helmut Newton 

His work has featured countless times in Vogue magazine, making the cover an impressive 64 times! Stars such as David Bowie, Sophie Loren, and Leonardo Di Caprio were among his muses.

“My job as a portrait photographer is to seduce, amuse and entertain.”

Helmut Newton 
David Bowie by Helmut Newton
Photo by Helmut Newton 

Oftentimes, his shoots took place in unique settings outside of a traditional photo studio. This helped develop the aesthetic he was known for. He often featured elegant locations such as turn-of-the-century mansions and esteemed hotels. His mastery of composition and the dual tonality of his pictures were a breakthrough in the 20th century.

Read also: Why Photography is Important

Lee Jeffries 

A photographer with a unique vision, Lee Jeffries’ work revolves around homeless people. He is a shining example of how you don’t need the best camera or even ideal conditions to capture breathtaking images. His work often manages to capture the slightest glimmer of hope in his subjects’ eyes. Most of his photographs look more reminiscent of paintings than actual photos. However, the emotional impact of his photos truly cannot be understated.

Lee Jeffries - Portrait photographers
Lee Jeffries - Portrait photographers
Photos by Lee Jeffries 

During his career, Lee Jeffries has been published in Time Magazine, The Independent, The Guardian, and Huffington Post. On top of being published in esteemed magazines, his photographs have also made their way into films of various genres. Most recently, his work was featured in ‘Second Act’ directed by Peter Segal.

Related: Portrait Photography Tips for Beginners

David Lazar 

This Australian photographer is well-known for the sheer diversity of his portfolio. Lazar takes his pictures when he is traveling. He makes it a point to visit places that have rich cultural traditions in his travels. Magazines around the world have often picked up his images and used them as covers and features. His portfolio has been seen in National Geographic, Asian Geographic, and Lonely Planet just to name a few.

Portrait photographers
old japanese farmers smiling
Photos by David Lazar

On top of his portrait photography work, David Lazar also works as a photography tour leader. He conducts these tours throughout nine different South Asian countries. His patrons often describe him as the best photo tour leader imaginable. During these tours, he aims to help people develop their photography skills. He also shows them interesting locations and makes the entire experience enjoyable.

Philippe Halsman

This Austrian-born photographer is known as one of the pioneers among portrait photographers.  His early life was nothing but difficult. At the age of 22, he was falsely accused of murdering his own father. Eventually, he was released once the top intellectuals in the world vouched for his innocence. This resulted in him spending two years of his life in prison. Due to these tragic experiences, he moved to France and established himself as one of the best photographers in the country.

photos by Philippe Halsman
Photos by Philippe Halsman

Throughout his career, he has photographed people such as Albert Einstein, Audrey Hepburn, and Salvador Dali. His photograph with the latter is amongst the most iconic portraits of all time. Although, it was far from an easy photograph to take. According to Halsman, the photograph of Dali took 28 attempts to achieve a shot both men were satisfied with. It featured three cats flying in the air, a bucket of water being tossed up, and Dali himself in mid-air. Needless to say, the difficulties of obtaining this shot were obvious.

“The immortal photographers will be straightforward photographers, those who do not rely on tricks or special techniques.”

Philippe Halsman

Halsman’s work pushed portrait photography into the future. Typically, his photographs were sharp and closely cropped around the subject. Both of these techniques continue to be used today in the world of portrait photography. Although, at the time they were vastly different from the techniques being used by other famous portrait photographers.

Jimmy Nelson 

A photographer whose work is simply extraordinary, Jimmy Nelson aims to present a side of humanity that is unbeknownst to the modern man. The entirety of Jimmy’s work consists of portraits of people and cultures around the world. He focuses on groups currently facing extinction due to various anthropological factors. His work represents the unheard voice of millions whose culture, lives, and existence is in danger. As a result of Jimmy’s work, they have a voice.

portrait photographers
Photo by Jimmy Nelson

Putting together the portrait photography books Jimmy Nelson has released was certainly no easy task. To create his second book ‘Before They Pass Away’ Nelson traveled for three entire years. During these travels, he photographed over 35 different indigenous tribes. These tribes were from all around the world including Europe, Asia, Africa, South America, and the South Pacific. To top it all of, he photographed these tribes with a small, 50-year old camera. His work goes to show that taking a powerful portrait photograph does not depend on expensive equipment.

young indigenous portrait by Jimmy Nelson
Photo by Jimmy Nelson

His work tells others that as portrait photographers, it is vital to know who is in front of the lens and why they should make a connection with the subject.


A photographer and a master of the fine art portrait genre, Rehahn has traveled far and wide to cover his body of work. Some of his most famous works come from Southeast Asia and Cuba. His portraits manage to capture some of the most innocent moments of communication and reaction between humans. The intimacy of his photographs earned him well-deserved acclaim. He also became known as the photograph that captures souls.

“Each smile has a magic energy that draw people closer.”

old lady smiling
Photo by Réhahn

To help bring recognition to Vietnam’s tribes, Rehahn founded The Precious Heritage project. Through this project, he aims to document the traditions of these tribes. He also wants to show the impact that globalization has on these tribes. On top of The Precious Heritage project, Rehahn also opened the Precious Heritage Art Gallery Museum. At the museum, he displays the various gifts he received from tribe leaders during his travels. The museum also showcases his portrait photography of these tribes as well as their stories and musical traditions.

Related: Portrait Photography Tips for Beginners

David LaChapelle

Based out of America, David LaChapelle’s artwork goes far beyond just portrait photography. His photography frequently references historical pieces of artwork sometimes containing social commentary. Through his unique style, David LaChapelle’s photography has been featured in exhibits throughout the world. These features include both commercial galleries and art institutions.

“I love fashion, beauty, glamour. It’s the mark of civilisation.”

David LaChapelle
Famous portrait photographers
Photo by David LaChapelle

On top of photography, David LaChapelle also works as a music video and film director. He’s worked with some of the world’s most famous music artists including Elton John, Amy Winehouse, Hozier, and Mariah Carey. Throughout his career, LaChapelle has received awards for every type of work he’s pursued.

Kenneth Willardt 

Simply put, Kenneth Willardt is an icon of photography. His work consists of some of the most recognizable contemporary portraits in the world. His work can perhaps be summed up as an ode to the perception of beauty by humans. His portraits have been called ageless masterpieces, and are used by designer brands worldwide.

Girl eating pasta by Kenneth Willardt

Final Thoughts

These portrait photographers dedicated their lives to achieving this level of recognition. It took each of them years to master their craft. Their work is often heralded as the cornerstone of portrait photography. Budding photographers often view these photographers’ work as inspiration in their own careers.

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