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Design & Style

How to Organize a Great Photoshoot: 6 Tips From Annie Leibovitz

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Oct 2, 2020 • 4 min read

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Annie Leibovitz Teaches Photography

Annie Leibovitz is one of the world’s most esteemed photographers. Several collections of her work have been published and exhibitions of her photographs have appeared in museums and galleries all over the world. Her photoshoot tips and techniques are a great resource for amateur and professional photographers alike.

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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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Annie Leibovitz’s 6 Essential Photo Shoot Tips

Whether you’re an amateur shooting on an iPhone or a professional commercial photographer, here are some great tips from Leibovitz that will help improve your photoshoots.

1. Make your subjects feel comfortable. Being in front of the camera can be nerve-wracking, and the last thing you want is a subject who feels uncomfortable. 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 great photos. 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 looking at too. Making the subject stay for hours will not help things either. If things aren’t going well, it is better just to schedule a follow-up photo session rather than making them sit through another close-up or wide-angle 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.
2. Natural light is your friend. Leibovitz tries to emulate natural light as much as possible in her photography sessions. 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 photo editing in Adobe Photoshop, Lightroom or other post-processing software can replicate it.
3. Conceptual portraits should be dictated by the subject. According to Leibovitz, conceptual portrait photography is driven by an idea. Somewhere in the raw material of information about who the 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 custom, subject-specific photoshoot ideas present themselves naturally. The idea should begin with the person, not the other way around.
4. Start working at the beginning of the day. One of Leibovitz’s simplest photography tips 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.

5. Practice with people you’re close to. Leibovitz advises new photographers to stay close to home at first. She believes that they will get the results they want faster than if they work with people they don’t know. Working with friends or conducting a family photoshoot is also a low-risk way for new photographers to experiment with different styling or camera techniques, like slow shutter speed, black and white photography, or shooting on a new DSLR camera.
6. Examine old work. “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 a focal point that does not serve the overall composition. You can learn from all of your old work, and that knowledge will help you know how to better photos 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 Annie Leibovitz’s MasterClass on photography, she reveals how she works to tell a story through her images while providing valuable 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 Annual Membership provides exclusive video lessons from master photographers, including Annie Leibovitz and Jimmy Chin.

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