famous-lenses-of-famous-photographers

Favorite Lenses of Famous Photographers

As much as photographers distance themselves from their cameras, saying that it is merely a tool, photography as a whole is much more intertwined with technology than traditional art. Our cameras and our lenses set the boundaries of our perspectives. This is why, we’d thought it’d be interesting to look at some famous photographer’s favorite lenses.

We’ve compiled a list of 7 famous photographers. We wanted to see if there is a trend. Are 85mm lenses really the preferred portrait focal length or is it more marketing? Is the 24-70mm  zoom really the industry workhorse? We wanted to see if there is reason behind the madness.

Henri Cartier-Bresson (50mm)

Genre: Street and Photojournalism

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One of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s most famous photographs, a man jumping over a puddle taken at the right moment.

The father of photojournalism, Henri Cartier-Bresson is a master of candid street photography and an early adopter of the 35mm format. He helped develop street photography back in the 1940s and 50s with  his Leica rangefinder and a 50mm prime.

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In an interview with the NY Times, he said:

“[The 50] corresponds to a certain vision and at the same time has enough depth of focus, a thing you don’t have in longer lenses. I worked with a 90. It cuts much of the foreground if you take a landscape, but if people are running at you, there is no depth of focus. The 35 is splendid when needed, but extremely difficult to use if you want precision in composition. There are too many elements, and something is always in the wrong place. It is a beautiful lens at times when needed by what you see.”

Bill Cunningham (35mm)

Genre: Fashion Journalism

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Bill Cunningham has been a fashion photographer for the New York Times since the 1970s, documenting women’s fashion on the streets of New York City. A recent documentary illustrates and details his impressive career. He is always seen in a blue jacket, on a bicycle, carrying a 35mm prime, whether on a film or a digital body.

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Designer Oscar de la Renta is quoted saying

“More than anyone else in the city, [Bill Cunningham] has the whole visual history of the last 40 or 50 years of New York. It’s the total scope of fashion in the life of New York.”

Annie Leibovitz (35mm)

Genre: Fashion/Portraits

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One of Annie Leibovitz’s most iconic photos, John Lennon embracing Yoko Ono.

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, and Vogue. 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.” We’ve dedicated a 3-part series to her style.

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Annie Leibovitz wearing a Fujifilm X100 with a 35mm f/3 equivalent lens.

Her favorite lens is the 35mm. In her own words,

“My lens of choice was always the 35 mm. It was more environmental. It was more or less the style of that lens to be a little pulled away. Because you can’t come-in closer with the 35 mm. I did have the 105 mm lens on the other camera but the most of my work was done with 35 mm. Coming tight was boring to me. Just the face… it was a boring kind of photograph to me. It didn’t have enough information.”

Steve McCurry (28-70mm)

Genre: Photojournalism

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Afghan Girl

The Afghan Girl is one of the most recognizable images in the Western world within the last hundred years when it appeared on National Geographic in 1985. The photographer behind the iconic image is Steve McCurry. He took the photo with a 105mm f/2.5 lens on a Nikon FM2 with Kodachrome 64 slide film.

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Photo by Tim Mantoani.

He now shoots with a 28-70mm zoom lens, reasoning that:

“Today I use a Nikon D700 DSLR and a Hasselblad medium format camera. In the old days, I mainly used prime lenses like a 28mm, a 35mm and a 50mm, but these days, I am  happy with the results of my Nikkor 28-70 zoom lens that I find gives me sharp results.”

Terry Richardson (35mm)

Genre: Fashion/Portraits

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Whether or not you have heard of him, you’ve probably has seen his work. From Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar to H&M and American Apparel, his white-background-with-hard-direct-flash-portraits has been the iconic look of the recent times. Pay attention the next time you go shopping, and just realize just how many billboards and ads are shot clean, on a white background, with very little shadow. The Terry Richardson look, then, has defined this generation of fashion photography. We’ve dedicated a 3 part series to his style.

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He was famous for shooting with a plastic and automatic Yashica T4 with a 35mm lens when everybody else had elaborate setups. He gave the industry a young lo-fi refresh that it desperately needed. Today, he shoots mostly with a Panasonic GF1 from 2009. He is one of the few professional photographers who leave their EXIF data intact within his photographs.

Herb Ritts (100mm)

Genre: Fashion/Portraits

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Supermodels in the 1990s. Featuring Stephanie Seymour, Cindy Crawford, Christy Turlington, Tatjana Patitz, and Naomi Campbell in Hollywood, California for Rolling Stone Magazine.

Herb Ritts was a fashion photographer who was most well known for photographing supermodels when supermodels first became a thing in the 1990s. He was known for shooting with Mamiya medium format cameras, specifically the 180mm lens (which is roughly equivalent to 100mm in 35mm format).

Bonus: Astronauts (16mm and 70-200mm)

Genre: Orbital Photography 

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This one is a little out of the ordinary, but astronauts from all over the world have always carried cameras into space as part of their mission of exploration. In fact, NASA has a Flickr page dedicated to space related photography that is worth a browse.

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From NASA’s Flickr account, it reads “Earth observation taken from the International Space Station of the coastline of the United Arab Emirates. The large wheel along the coast center left is “Jumeirah” Palm Island, with a conference center, hotels, recreation areas and a large marine zoo.”

Two lenses stand out among the shots taken. The Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8 is often used for closeups of the earth from orbit. The Nikkor 16mm f/2.8 Fisheye is often used for space selfies.


Now we need your help. If you know of other famous photographer’s favorite lenses and you have a citable source, please comment below and we will compile a list for a part 2. 

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