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How to Shoot like Annie Leibovitz – (Part 3: The Results)

In Part 1 and Part 2 of this series, we explored how Annie Leibovitz created one of the most iconic fashion photography looks of the recent decades and the few pieces of lighting equipment we needed to emulate her style. It has been an enlightening learning process and we would like to share our final results with you.

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Annie Leibovitz shooting Michael Kors for Vanity Fair. Click for behind the scenes video.

Apologies are in order for the belatedness of this Part 3. As multiple readers have questioned and asked, I kept putting off this article because it was hard to sum up what was a difficult project. It was much more involving than my Terry Richardson series. It was also a lot more expensive. My admiration for Ms. Leibovitz has only increased since we took this journey.

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Annie Leibovitz shooting Kate Upton for Vanity Fair’s 100th anniversary cover. Click for video.

To reiterate, the core of Annie’s genius is her vision and her ability to connect with her models. Her style is painterly, timeless, and haute couture. Her style is an inspiration to us at iLHP and though no one can replicate Annie besides Annie herself, we do hope to share our own interpretation.

Controlling the Shadows

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Single large softbox with studio strobes to the left, 55mm @ f/5.6 & 1/160s. Processed in Lightroom with the “Annie Style Matte Film” preset, available below.

Photography is as much about light as it is about shadow. Subjects in Rembrandt paintings are bathed in soft light but where the shadow falls is as important as how much of it. Controlling the ambient light is essential. For indoor shots, I prefer blacking out the studio so the only major source of light is the flash or a studio strobe.

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A huge 6′ tall square softbox immediately left of the model, powered by studio strobes. Processed in Lightroom with the “Annie Style Rembrandt” preset, available below.

Lighting itself is usually a matter of trial and error, moving the light stand and/or softbox around to get the look you want. There are whole seminars on Rembrandt lighting but I find the best way to learn is just to go out and try it. I found modeling lights on studio strobes to be particularly useful for experimenting with shadows. Modeling lights are continuous bulbs built into studio strobes that lets you see how the light will fall.

For this reason, I prefer studio strobe to flashes for Annie shoots because of this convenience factor. While preparing for this article, I came across these ridiculously inexpensive and highly rated 180W Neewer studio strobes which should work for this type of shoot quite well. There is a more powerful 250W version for not a lot more. I don’t have personal experience with them but I plan to find out.

Camera and Flash Settings

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Processed in Lightroom with the “Annie Style Matte Film” preset, available below.

For a controlled environment like a lit studio, the camera settings are fairly straight forward. I stick with f/5.6 or sometimes f/4 to get more of the model and the texture of the backdrop in focus. I then keep my ISO as low as I can, my shutter speed up to avoid motion blur, and adjust the strobe accordingly. Simple stuff.

Outdoors on a carefully manicured lawn, towards sunset. You can manipulate the look of the backdrop by varying the amount of light hitting it.

Outdoor shoots and non-blacked out studios are a little bit more difficult. High speed flash sync becomes your friend. A 1/2000s will darken a high noon sun, but if you’re like me shooting a off-brand Youngnuo 560 III flash without high speed sync, ND filters are necessary in daylight.

Working with a Painted Canvas Backdrop

I recommend against cheaping out on backdrop stands like I did. I got this off of Amazon for no more than $40 and while they do the job, they were clearly not designed to support the weight of painted canvas. Colored paper, yes. Muslin, probably. 12-coat cotton canvas, no.

My least and most favorite parts about doing this series was working with the painted canvas. Recall that I had commissioned a LA mural artist to paint two canvas backdrops, one dark grey 8′ by 15′ and another 8′ by 12′ yet to be revealed. Rolled up together, they weigh about 50lbs. Transporting these in my sedan meant it had to go diagonally cross the length of the car cabin. Setting it up and tearing it down by yourself takes a good 35mins each. Thank your assistants!

A Youngnuo YN-560 III modified by a Photek 60″ Softlighter II to the right and a white reflect directly in front of the model. Processed in Lightroom with the “Annie Style Cool” preset, available below.

But once it’s set up, there’s just nothing that comes close to a high quality painted backdrop. Colored paper doesn’t look the same. It doesn’t have the fifty shades of grey texture that shimmer ever so slightly as you move the light around. Since it’s matte, it absorbs light itself, isolating the model in a rich velvety texture.

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Youngnuo 560 III modified by Photek 60″ softlighter II in a non-blacked out studio. Processed in Lightroom with the “Annie Style Matte Film” preset, available below.

It really adds class to a photo shoot regardless whether it’s indoors or outdoors. The tasteful thickness and stiffness of it cannot be emulated by muslin or other materials. Unless you have an eager crew, as Ms. Leibovitz surely does, I suggest leaving the canvas in the studio. I really is too unwieldy for a solo photographer to handle. It can be done, but you’ll be worn out by the end of the day. You also better pray it doesn’t rain.

Post Processing


As usual, post processing makes all the difference. It is where the magic happens and this is no exception here. Annie Leibovitz’s end products are heavy with compositing and retouch work but I simplified the process by focusing on tone. Instead of having you guess and figure out how each of my photos were processed, I’m simply going to share the presets I’ve created and used for my Annie shoots.

  • “Cool” – This is my default preset for shooting Annie style portraits. The tone is slightly towards the cooler side and it especially brings out porcelain skin.
  • “Rembrandt” – This is a warmer toned preset with higher clarity and vignetting to really get that old world painting look. Make sure you soften the skin when using this preset.
  • “Matte Film” – This is one of my favorites. It messes around with the tone curve to give it a matte film look that takes away from the sterility of a modern digital image. Vignetting is the same as “Cool” but it also adds fine film grain reminiscent of slide film.


The Annie Style preset package includes 6 presets. Each of the three presets described also comes with a +1EV version for photographers purposely underexposing their portraits for post processing. They are designed for RAW files, your experience may vary when processing JPGs. These presets work on Lightroom 4/5+. Earlier versions of Lightroom are not supported unfortunately.

For this three part series, I’ve estimated my out of pocket costs to be about $1,275, which includes commissioning the canvases, studio rentals, and the models. Your purchase of the $10 preset package is greatly appreciated. The Buy Now button takes you to Paypal, after which you should automatically receive an email after within five minutes with instructions to download the 6 presets in a zip file. If you have any questions about the presets, please feel free to email I will personally return your email as soon as I can.

Final Thoughts

This wraps up the final part of our Annie Leibovitz series. It has been a tough challenge to study her style but one that’s stretched me professionally as a portrait photographer. I am happy with the results and I’ll be sure to continue practicing her style. I hope you took something away from this series.

annie self portraitI’ll leave you with a few words from Ms. Leibovitz herself, words which have fundamentally inspired us and the creation of iLHP. As she puts it:

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

Models in this Article: JMDRo D., R.W., N. P., C. D., Maya.

If you’ve enjoyed this series, please help us by sharing it on social media. Remember to Like our Facebook page and Follow us on Twitter. Thank you for your support. Thank you to all the models I’ve worked with for this project. You girls are beautiful.