Inspired by: Yousuf Karsh


This month in our Inspired By series we’re going to put Yousef Karsh in the spotlight. Born in 1908 in the Ottoman Empire (modern Turkey), Karsh moved to Canada as a 16-year-old where he lived with his photographer uncle George Nakash. He soon moved to Boston to apprentice with portrait photographer John Garo, where he started to develop his distinctive style.


Upon moving back to Canada Karsh quickly made a name for himself photographing dignitaries of the Canadian government and visiting nations in the studio he ran in Ottowa, Ontario.


His style


Karsh was the first great master of studio lights and developed his unique style using a combination of lights and flags to place splashes of light on certain parts of the face. He combined this with often lighting the hands of the subject separately because he saw great character there and a quite strong post processing style for a contrast-heavy final image.


What we can learn from him


  • Engage your subject – As well as his distinctive style, Karsh was also a master at interacting with his subject. He often photographed VIPs and people who may have considered themselves too important to be wasting time being photographed, so he spent much more time researching his subjects than actually photographing them. On the day of the shoot, he knew enough about his client to develop rapport and capture the essence of the person.
  • Trust your gut – It was rare for Karsh to have a lighting set-up in mind before he shot a portrait. Instead, he wanted to get to know the client beforehand (as above) and base his lighting on the interactions they had on the day. For example, if the client was a deeply thoughtful and reflective character he’d make the lighting more subdued to draw you into the image
  • Be like a hawk! – Karsh greatest gift was the ability to capture the essential moment when his subject came alive and revealed their true self. In his own words:


"There is a brief moment when all there is in a man's mind and soul and spirit is reflected through his eyes, his hands, his attitude. This is the moment to record.”


It’s much easier to grab these moments with modern equipment so be prepared to click when you see your subject come alive!


Follow these simple tips and you’ll soon be taking masterful portraits of your friends, family and clients. We would love to see some of the results pass through our labs – be sure to let us know you were inspired by our blog!