Design, Photography, & Fashion

8 Essential Photography Tips From Annie Leibovitz

Written by MasterClass

Sep 4, 2019 • 4 min read

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Annie Leibovitz Teaches Photography

Renowned photographer Annie Leibovitz is known for extravagant and intimate celebrity portraits. Whether you’re an amateur shooting on a smartphone or a seasoned pro using a DSLR camera, Leibovitz’s photography tips will help hone your own photography skills and have you taking better photos in no time.



Annie Leibovitz Teaches PhotographyAnnie Leibovitz Teaches Photography

Annie brings you into her studio and onto her shoots to teach you everything she knows about portraiture and telling stories through images.

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Tip 1: Conceptual Portraits Are Dictated by the Subject

According to Leibovitz, conceptual portraits are driven by an idea. Somewhere in the raw material of information about who the main subject is and what they do, is the nucleus of what the picture will become. It doesn’t have to be a big idea. It can be simple. The key thing about a conceptual portrait is its connection to the subject.

Many professional photographers make the mistake of trying to retrofit an old concept to their current subject, rather than letting the photo opportunities present themselves naturally. The idea should begin with the person, not the other way around.

Tip 2: Learn From Photojournalism

Pay attention to the front page of a newspaper and analyze what makes the headline photo stand out:

  • What is the depth of field?
  • How are they using the rule of thirds or leading lines?
  • How is this photographer seeing things from a different perspective?
  • Are they using spot metering to achieve their desired effect?

Sometimes, all you need is a moving subject, a digital camera, autofocus, and the right timing to take a good photo.

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Tip 3: Natural Light Is Your Friend

Leibovitz tries to emulate natural light as much as possible. She uses ambient light and adds a small key light on her subject, usually in the direction the natural light source is coming from.

Adding too many lights to a room will often take away what the natural light offers. With digital photography, you can get away with shooting in a lower amount of light, but shooting in low light changes the image and can sometimes ruin great photos. It can make your photograph diverge from the ambiance of the actual setting of the photograph, and no amount of post-processing, exposure compensation, or photo editing in Adobe Photoshop, Lightroom or other editing software can replicate it.

Tip 4: Travel Light

Many photographers feel the need to bring every piece of equipment they have with them to a photoshoot. Leibovitz keeps her equipment kit small so that she can be flexible and adapt to the moment. Don’t panic if you forgot to bring your telephoto lens or your special wide-angle lens or your zoom lens. Sometimes, the best photos come from the spontaneity and intimacy of working within limitations.


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Tip 5: Start Work at the Beginning of the Day

One of Leibovitz’s simplest photography tricks is to start working at the beginning of the day. She doesn’t like to wait for the “golden hour” at the end of the day. She likes to start working in the early morning when she has soft light and the option to work longer if she needs to.

Sometimes you’ll have direct sunlight, but Leibovitz favors working on overcast days when she will mix the strobe with flat ambient light.

Tip 6: Make Your Subjects Feel Comfortable

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Annie brings you into her studio and onto her shoots to teach you everything she knows about portraiture and telling stories through images.

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Even the best camera is no match for an unwilling or shy subject. The camera’s flash or the sound of the shutter button can be intimidating for anyone. While Leibovitz feels that some discomfort might make the picture more interesting, in general, she finds that her subjects relax after a few minutes.

  • Trust and respect are important if you want to take good pictures. For instance, checking the back of the camera frequently to look at the picture might seem rude, unless you show the subject what you are seeing through the viewfinder too.
  • Making the subject stay for hours will not help things either. If things aren’t going well, it is better just to schedule another session than to make them sit through another close-up shot.
  • How you conduct yourself is going to affect the shoot. Talking alone with the subject before things start is the best way to establish a fruitful rapport. Then when the shoot gets going, you can go back to your role as an observer.

Tip 7: Practice With People You’re Closest To

Leibovitz advises young photographers to stay close to home at first by photographing people you know. She believes that they will get the results they want faster than if they work with people they don’t know.

It’s also a low-risk way to experiment with different techniques and camera settings, like slow shutter speed, long exposure, small aperture photos, and different focal length. Want to test out a new camera or camera lens, or experiment with shooting different angles with your neutral density filter, or a large aperture in aperture priority mode? Ask a friend or family member to be your subject.

Tip 8: Examine Old Work

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“Looking back” is a lesson Leibovitz believes is invaluable. “You’ll be surprised,” she says. “There will be something there you didn’t expect to see.”

  • Sometimes, you’ll notice old mistakes, like blurry photos or motion blur caused by camera shake.
  • Maybe in your old work, you use flash or unnecessary zooming to compensate for poor natural lighting conditions, or you’re over-reliant on auto mode or auto white balance.
  • You can learn from all of your old work, and that knowledge will help you know how to better pictures in the future.

Want to Become a Better Photographer?

Whether you’re just starting out or have dreams of going professional, photography requires plenty of practice and a healthy dose of patience. No one knows this better than legendary photographer Annie Leibovitz, who has spent decades mastering her craft. In her first online class, Annie reveals how she works to tell a story through her images. She also provides insight into how photographers should develop concepts, work with subjects, shoot with natural light, and bring images to life in post-production.

Want to become a better photographer? The MasterClass All-Access Pass provides exclusive video lessons from master photographers, including Annie Leibovitz and Jimmy Chin.