Review: Annie Leibovitz’s MasterClass is a Disappointment

When MasterClass announced Annie Leibovitz Teaches Photography, I was pumped. I’d already taken ​the James Patterson Teaches Writing MasterClass and loved it. In just a few hours, I got a crash-course in fiction writing with plenty of actionable tips I still use every single day. So when MasterClass finally released Annie’s class on December 14, I yelled: “Take my money!”

I’m an Annie fan through and through. I own several of her books, and I’ve watched her interviews with Charlie Rose about a dozen times.

Here is the MasterClass trailer in case you haven’t seen it:

My Expectations

Going into Annie’s class, I knew that Annie Leibovitz is not a technician. I’ve listened to lectures and interviews with Annie’s former assistants, and they all basically said the same thing: that Annie is a brilliant, driven artist that knows exactly what she wants — but not specifically how to get there.

And in Annie Leibovitz Teaches Photography, she admits as much:

I photograph people. It allows me to have a point of view, and have a voice, which makes my photographs stronger, I believe. Having done this so long, I’ve sort of clung to the notion that what I’m doing is portraiture. But I’m actually a creative artist using photography. —Annie Leibovitz

So I wasn’t looking for Annie Leibovitz to tell me why she underexposed a background by 1 stop instead of 2. And I wasn’t expecting her to show me the difference between an umbrella and a beauty dish, or how to retouch skin.

I was hoping for:

  • Insights into her creative process
  • A general understanding of how she runs a portrait sitting
  • How her editing process works

These seemed like entirely reasonable expectations based upon the sales page, which states:

In her first online class, Annie teaches you how to develop concepts, work with subjects, shoot with natural light, and bring images to life in post-production. You’ll see the world through her eyes, and change your approach to photography forever.

In this review, I’ll go over:

  • What’s in the course
  • How the MasterClass Platform Works
  • Annie’s Teaching Style
  • My final verdict, including who this class is for, and who it’s not for
  • Additional recommendations for Annie Leibovitz fans

What You Get

The Annie Leibovitz MasterClass includes 14 videos totaling just under 3 hours, each with an short accompanying PDF. There is also a class-dedicated forum, plus an “office hours” section where Annie answers student questions.

Here are the chapters:

  1. Introduction: Get a look at Annie’s stunning body of work
  2. The Evolution of a Photographer: How Annie got started in photography and made her way to Rolling Stone Magazine
  3. Photographic Influences: A discussion of Annie’s influences, including Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Frank, and Richard Avedon
  4. Portrait Photography: Annie’s philosophy on portraiture
  5. Photographing People Who Are Close to You: The importance of photographing your family and friends
  6. Looking Back at Your Work: The value of self-reflection in your development as a photographer
  7. The Technical Side of Photography: Annie’s transition from film to digital, and why content is what matters in the end
  8. Creating Concepts: The concepts behind Annie’s incredible shoots with subjects like Keith Haring, Whoopi Goldberg, and Meryl Streep.
  9. Working With Light: Annie’s simple but effective approach to naturalistic portrait lighting
  10. Studio vs. Location: Why Annie’s best work is done on location
  11. Working With Your Subject: How to relate to the person in front of your camera
  12. Student Sessions: Annie critiques the work of students from the San Francisco Art Institute
  13. Case Study Part 1: Photographing Alice Waters: See a photo shoot with chef and author Alice Waters
  14. Case Study Part 2: Digital Post-Production: Annie sits down with her retoucher for an editing session

The videos can’t be downloaded. They must be streamed on your computer or mobile device. Each video has an accompanying PDF that reviews the material and gives you assignments that help you progress as a photographer.

Here’s the top of one of the PDFs:

The MasterClass site is fairly well-organized. The Annie Leibovitz Teaches Photography course home page has links to:

  • The Lesson Plan (where you watch the videos)
  • Community (forum)
  • Resources
  • Office Hours (where you can submit questions for Annie to answer)

Clicking on ‘Start Lesson’ or one of the individual titles will bring you to that particular lesson.

Annie’s Teaching Style

Most of the videos are interview-style with Annie, with occasional cuts to photos that relate to the subject matter. It quickly becomes obvious that Annie Leibovitz Teaches Photography is not a recipe-type course.

Annie’s an artist and philosopher, not a technician. And this is where the course gets tricky.

Let’s look at the message on MasterClass’ sales page one more time:

In her first online class, Annie teaches you how to develop concepts, work with subjects, shoot with natural light, and bring images to life in post-production [emphasis mine]. You’ll see the world through her eyes, and change your approach to photography forever.

MasterClass could have been​ more clear in their messaging. This is not a “how Annie Leibovitz shoots” class. It’s ​a “how Annie Leibovitz thinks and feels” ​discussion of sorts​.

There’s a lot of discussion about her philosophy, but not much about how a photographer can put these ideas into action. Annie Leibovitz Teaches Photography is more of a look into Annie’s mindset than her photographic process.

That’s causing a bit of a split ​among buyers, based on comments I’ve seen on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and inside MasterClass.com itself. Some people love this approach. Other like me, not so much. Many people ​are complaining that this “MasterClass” ​is more of an interview than a class, and it’s hard to argue with that point.

​This is a big problem because there are many great interviews with Annie streaming free on YouTube right now. (I’ll post some at the bottom of this article).

My Final Verdict

I give Annie Leibovitz Teaches Photography MasterClass 2.5 out of 5 stars.

I felt let down. The production quality was generally good, but there were some very awkward edits where points of conversation just suddenly cut off. It feels like the editors didn’t have enough good material to work with, and there were scrambling to just get something out.

And the quality of the sections was very uneven. ​The segment about photographing one’s family was incredible — I could have heard Annie speak on that subject for 12 hours. Everyone should watch that part if they can. I also enjoyed hearing Annie talk about her influences like Robert Frank and Richard Avedon.

But the segment with students showing work? That felt like filler. I bought the class to learn about Annie’s process, not to watch gentle critiques of college students.

This is what the class should have been:

  • 90 minutes of Annie talking about her background, influences, and philosophies
  • 90 minutes of an Annie shoot – Annie walks us through developing a concept, going over pre-production with her assistants, and then performing the actual photo shoot so we can watch her work
  • 30 minutes of editing with Annie and her retoucher

​That would certainly be worth paying for.

Again, I don’t need Annie to tell me why she’s shooting at f/8 instead of f/16. I just want to watch her shooting process so I can learn from observation.

Let’s look at a perfect example of photography education through observation. ​Recently, Profoto released a video called “The Light Albert Watson Shapes”:

I would KILL to see an extended version of something like this with Annie Leibovitz… and this wasn’t even a class! It was a showcase for Profoto lighting equipment!

Albert didn’t discuss exactly how he positioned his light or give his camera settings, but by watching him work, we get an idea of how a true legend ​runs a shoot and captures an iconic portrait.

​Annie’s class had barely any actual shooting, despite being nearly 3 hours long. As I said before, I wasn’t looking to learn lighting ratios or Photoshop techniques or what her favorite lens is. I was looking for insights into her creative process, but there just wasn’t much meat on the bone.

Obviously, if you are looking for a step-by-step instructional video, this course is not for you. ​And if you want a mere behind-the-scenes look at one of Annie’s photography sessions, you’ll be disappointed. The one scene where Annie is shown shooting is very short.

Ultimately, the Annie Leibovitz Teaches Photography MasterClass is for 3 types of people:

  1. Photographers that are more interested in concepts and ideas than technical details
  2. Diehard Annie Leibovitz fans that want everything she puts out
  3. Beginners looking for a heavy dose of inspiration, but whom don’t want to be drowned in​ details or technical matters

If that’s you, check it out on MasterClass.com. They have a 30-day money back guarantee, which is a good thing because this class clearly isn’t for everyone.

It wasn’t for me, and I’m a HUGE Annie fan.

My Recommendations

If you don’t have $90 for this class, or you think you don’t like it, I have several recommendations.

The first is to pick up one of Annie’s many excellent books. I read At Work at least once a year. It’s an in-depth retrospective of her career in which she details many of her most famous pictures. There’s also a technical section in the back where she discusses camera choice, lighting, how she uses assistants, and more.

I’m also a big fan of Annie’s Olympic Portraits book. It’s an amazing collection of portraits of the 1996 U.S. Olympic team. And you can usually pick it up for under $5. You’ll see many of Annie’s lesser-known photographs, including an iconic portrait of a teenage Floyd Mayweather Jr.

Here’s a quick little video of Annie photographing Keith Richards:

Annie photographing Lady Gaga for Vanity Fair:

Here is Annie’s 1999 interview with Charlie Rose:

And here is the documentary Life Through a Lens:


About the author: Michael Comeau is the editor of OnPortraits.com, an online community dedicated to portrait photography. And when they say portrait photography, they don’t mean blue-toned pictures of hipsters drinking coffee. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. Click here for more information about OnPortraits.com. This article was also published here.

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