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How to Shoot like Annie Leibovitz – (Part 1: The Look)


Annie Leibovitz is perhaps the most well-known and well-respected living American photographer. Her career spans for more than four decades, starting at Rolling Stone, and then moving on to Vanity Fair, Vogue, and you name it. Her style and subject matter is as expansive as her career, from iconic editorial celebrity shoots the likes of John Lennon and Yoko Ono to her more recent and deeply personal American landscapes in her book “Pilgrimage.”

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To condense her lifetime of work into a handful of articles certainly won’t do her justice. Instead, we will focus on just her fashion photography that’s come to define the look of Vanity Fair. In this month long (probably longer) exposé, we will scratch the surface of Annie’s work, the craft behind her photographs, and how to shoot models in her style.

The Annie Look

Kirsten Dunst as Marie Antoinette, with her entourage. (Image from annieleibovitz.tumblr.com)

Annie’s style is an antithesis to Terry Richardson’s style. She bathes her subjects in soft expensive lighting as opposed to the hard snapshot flash. Her models are posed, like sitting for a painting, rather than Terry’s flowing freestyle. She uses composites to place models in impossible settings whereas Terry prefers plain backgrounds.

Actress Penelope Cruz with Director Woody Allen. (Image from annieleibovitz.tumblr.com)

Perhaps what’s most distinctive is the painterly quality to Annie’s work.  The mood, poses, lighting, background, and post-processing all contribute to the Rembrandt look.  Getting this look right or close will be a difficult challenge.

Salma Hayek as Frida Kahlo by Annie Leibovitz. I really have to look closely at this one to make sure it wasn’t a painting.

Annie’s images also tell a story. From her iconic group shots to delicately posed portraits, she balances the well-lit models with ambient lighting, not sacrificing one for the other. But in terms of dialogue, her picture seem to be like stills within a bigger movie.

Annie’s Disney Dream series features Mikhail Baryshnikov as Peter Pan, Gisele Bundchen as Wendy, and Tina Fey as Tinker Bell.

Finally, Annie’s take on photography really reflect our philosophy of and the struggle with the art here at iLHP. As she puts it best, she says:

“The camera makes you forget you’re there. It’s not like you are hiding but you forget, you are just looking so much.”

In Part 2 of this series, I will discuss Annie’s setup and the gear I bought to explore his type of photography. Stay tuned.

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