7 Lessons Helmut Newton Can Teach You About Photography

I remember the first time I came across the work of Helmut Newton. I was in Paris, randomly walking around, when I saw posters for these huge nude photographs. I went to the exhibition, and was blown away by the powerful images of Helmut Newton. His photos of women showed them as powerful, assertive, sexual, and also dominant. The photos were also printed larger-than life. I remember one of his images printed about 20 feet tall.

Warning: Some photos in this post show nudity and are NSFW (not safe for work):

Why I wanted to study Helmut Newton© Estate of Helmut Newton

I’m currently inspired by a lot of the fashion photographers— how they were able to create alternate realities with their photographs. Furthermore, I love the spontaneity that happens a lot in fashion photography, as well as the sense of mystery in the images.

I’m highly inspired by Richard Avedon and Guy Bourdin—two photographers who tippy-toed between fashion photography and “fine art” photography.

Enter Helmut Newton — another of the main titans of fashion photography from the era. The difference between Helmut Newton’s work is that they were much more flamboyant, less calculated, yet more sexualized.

One thing that also drew me to Newton’s work was how simple his gear and his shooting style was. He often just shot with a simple Canon 35mm SLR camera, with all automatic settings, and a simple flash connected to the top of his camera. Once an art director brought in a bunch of fancy lights for him to use, Newton put them all away, and just used his simple setup.© Estate of Helmut Newton

Furthermore, he was famous for shooting in hotels, pools, and on the streets. He didn’t do much shoots against white backdrops, because he felt that they weren’t as real.

Helmut Newton lived an illustrious life as a fashion photographer, and was also very commercially successful in his lifetime. He ended his life brilliantly— crashing his Cadillac into the famed Chateau Marmont hotel (where he lived).

Below are some lessons that Helmut Newton has taught me about photography; lessons you can apply to your photography as well.
1. Create structure and discipline in your work© Estate of Helmut Newton

“This is why I continue accepting commissions, even though economically I don’t have to. Because making money gives me a kick, but also because I think it’s important for me to have the discipline, to work for somebody within a given frame. At least from time to time.” – Helmut Newton

By the time Helmut Newton said the above, he was a successful and rich photographer. Yet he still decided to take on commissions— because it gave him a sense of structure and discipline to his work.

I feel that in our photography, it can help us to have structure. I’ve found that personally by having unlimited time and freedom, it is hard to motivate yourself to take photos. However when we’re given constraints — we tend to be more creative.

For example, if we have constraints in terms of time — we don’t fritter away our precious free time. We will use our precious time on the weekends or after work to make photos.

If you work as a commercial photographer, often working under the constraints of a client will help you in your work. Some photographers when given complete control falter. Because many of us need a sense of direction.

Ultimately you just want to find a structure and a way to motivate yourself. If you thrive with structure; demand it. If you feel that structure constrains you; throw it away.
2. Don’t repeat yourself© Estate of Helmut Newton

“At my age, the one thing I don’t want to do is repeating myself. I don’t want to work for fashion magazines any more, doing the same shit, even if it was good and fun at the time.” – Helmut Newton

Many of us as photographers are seeking our vision, our voice, and our own “style.”

However trying to find a style can restrict you creatively. Because in order to have a distinct “style” — you need to keep repeating yourself, to create a distinct and consistent look.

In his career, Helmut Newton created a distinct style. His photographs were sexy, often shot with a direct flash, in hotel rooms or pools, and with an air of mystery.

However after a long career of shooting fashion, he was fed up. He felt like he was constantly repeating himself, and he just became bored. This led him to pursuing photography projects he was interested in — like shooting self-portraits, and also shooting nudes.© Estate of Helmut Newton

In your photography, you want to thrive creatively. If you ever hit a place where you feel like you’re just repeating yourself, not having fun — switch things up.

Ask yourself the crucial question: “What do I really want out of my photography? What excites me in my photography? What styles of photography am I interested in, but haven’t tried out yet? How can I take my work to the next level, and keep things fun and interesting?”

Don’t let the fear of trying something new put shackles on your creativity.
3. Embrace the beauty of imperfection© Estate of Helmut Newton

“What I try to do is a good bad picture. I work it out very carefully, and then I do something that looks as if it went wrong. This is also why I abandoned Kodachrome, it looks too professional, too fine grain, too perfect, I’d rather get what I call funky colour, I don’t mind if it’s all wrong – as long as it’s not too horrible. For the same reasons I like it when the camera is not quite straight, when something happens that’s not perfect. But of course I start off with the professionalism.” – Helmut Newton

One unique thing about Helmut Newton’s work is that he didn’t seek perfection — rather, he liked his images to look more casual, less polished, and more “amateurish.” This lead him to shooting with simple cameras, with simple settings, and with simple lighting.© Estate of Helmut Newton

In an age where most fashion photographers were aiming for fine grain, shooting with medium and large-format cameras, and compositional perfection; Helmut Newton rebelled.

I feel that in our photography, we try to get the “perfect shot.” We want every element in the frame to be perfect, and often spend a lot of time post-processing our photos, cropping them, and adjusting them to look as good as possible.

But by intentionally letting imperfection creep into your photos — they feel more genuine. They feel more real. They feel less manufactured. They feel more personal.

This is why I love street photography — the real world isn’t perfect. Yet it is all about finding beauty in imperfection which makes photography so exciting.

4. Reflect on your old photos© Estate of Helmut Newton

One interesting takeaway I got from Helmut Newton is that he never throws away his old photos. In-fact, he finds that the longer he waits and sits on his photos, and lets them “marinate” — the more interesting he finds certain photos.

For example, he talks about his editing process of choosing his best images:

“I always show my photographs to June. I make a choice and she makes one, sometimes we agree, more often we are totally opposed. But she is an excellent editor, while I really hate editing, I think it’s boring. What I find very interesting is that when I get my contact sheets back from the lab I would choose one shot, but when I look at it a year later something else will interest me.”

This often happens in my photography — a photo that I find interesting this year might seem boring next year. But then again, a photo I think is boring this year, might be more interesting next year.

© Estate of Helmut Newton

Helmut Newton also stresses the importance of never throwing away (or deleting) your images:

“That’s why one must never throw anything away. Everything changes, your whole idea about things changes, at least mine does. I do have certain taboos. But these also change, they get less and less as I get older. I used to hate girls that stood like this, the hands like a fish. And then, all of a sudden, when I did the Big Nude book, I thought : ‘Oh, I like that’, and I made the girl stand that way. All of a sudden I started liking it. Everything changes. I look at things in an entirely different way today than I did five years ago.”

Realize that as time goes on, your tastes and artistic vision are going to change and evolve. A lot of photographers spend a long time curating their archives, and often revisiting older work. Sometimes your older work will spark new interest for you.
© Estate of Helmut Newton

For me personally, I often change the images and projects in my portfolio. With certain projects, as time goes on, the more I like them. Other projects, as time goes on, I begin to despise looking at the photos. For the photos that get better with time, I keep. For the photos that I hate looking at over time, I remove from my portfolio.

Helmut Newton also talks about how letting your photos sit and “marinate” for a long time are especially interesting in fashion photography — as it can show a change in the times:

“I think that the older a fashion photograph is, the more interesting it gets. And there is another thing that I think is important. You tend to go in close. Well I pull back. Back, back, back. Because I found that what worried me when I took the picture, some car going by, some persons, something in the background that shouldn’t be there, has become fascinating years later, because it’s part of the time captured. So I started going back.”

Often we romanticize older photos— because things looked so much “more interesting” back then. However to the photographers shooting in the 1920s and the past didn’t find top-hats, people reading newspapers and the such as “interesting.” These photos have only become more interesting as time has gone on, because photos from the past are always more nostalgic and retro.

Know that the photos you shoot today are going to be a lot more interesting as time goes on. The photos you shoot today of people on their iPhones — 50 years from now people are going to find your photos strange and “retro.” In 100 years, the backgrounds in your photographs and the cars in your photos are going to be interesting to the viewer.
© Estate of Helmut Newton

Personally, I try to backup my photos as faithfully as I can — and keep my archives organized. However at the same time, I try not to hoard all of my photographs, because honestly, I rarely (if ever) look back at any archives older than 4 years ago.

However what I do is look back at photos from 1–2 years ago, and try to re-evaluate them. At the end of every year, I also try to go back through my Lightroom catalog of the year, and try to dig out “hidden gems” I might have not seen.

In today’s age, archiving your digital work is a nightmare. What I try to do is just export my favorite images and “maybe” photos to folders on my hard drive as JPEG images, and also back them up on Dropbox, Flickr, and the cloud. And ultimately my favorite photos, I print them out (because who knows how accessible our hard drives and cloud storage systems will be in the future?)

As for you, figure out a system that works for you. I do find it fun to go back to my archives and look at older images. But some people find it as holding them back — because they live in the past.

Do what works for you.
5. Shoot for yourself
© Estate of Helmut Newton

Ultimately, you want to shoot for yourself. The more you shoot for yourself, the more authentic your photos are going to be, the more happiness your photography will bring you, and the more creative you will be.

Helmut Newton tells a story of when he first got admitted into the hospital, and started to shoot more personal photos — photos that were truly for himself:

“In the hospital, for the first time, I took pictures for myself. During my convalescence I acquired a small electronic, automatic camera. I took pictures of everything: the visitors, the nurses, the doctors. Perhaps it was to distract me from my illness. Never before had I taken pictures for myself. Marvelous trips had been taken, sublime models had been met, but nothing was left, not the smallest photograph as a record of it all. When, after 10 days of reserved diagnosis, the doctor told me that I would live but I would have to be prudent, I promised myself to take all the pictures that I felt like taking.”

Helmut Newton spent most of his career taking photos for others— for his clients, fashion magazines, and commercial outlets. Once he started to shoot for himself, he got a “second wind” in his work — and only focused on shooting what truly interested him (nudes):

“The year after my coronary, I gave up fashion and did nudes, nothing but nudes. But very quickly this became even more boring than clothes. I came back to fashion with enthusiasm, having nevertheless acquired new experience with the nude. For myself, then, I began to make what I call erotic portraits. They are nudes or semi-nudes, always in black and white.”

By focusing on nudes, Helmut Newton found out that it wasn’t that interesting to him. However this helped him gain a new enthusiasm for his fashion work, and also helped him bridge his fashion work with nudes. It also helped him work on what he called “erotic portraits” — a new style and direction for him.

Many of us make photographs because it is fun, because it helps us express ourselves, and it helps us escape some of the dread of daily 9–5 office life.

One of the downsides of being a commercial photographer is that you need to shoot for others in order to make a living. But if you are a hobbyist or if photography is your passion, consider yourself blessed. You have the freedom to shoot for yourself, and to please yourself— the greatest blessing of all.
6. Focus on hands

© Estate of Helmut Newton

As a practical tip, Helmut Newton mentions how important hands are in his photography:

“I’ve always liked the idea of cowboys — the way they look, they way they walk, especially in the movies. Why? A cowboy stands a certain way. He’s got a gun here, a gun there, his hands are always ready to draw. So I make the girls into cowgirls — with their hands ready to reach for the guns. But I don’t tell them, I just show them. I stand for them. I show them exactly what they should be doing.”

How do we want the hands of our subjects to look? Helmut Newton says they need to have some sort of energy and strength:

“The hands are very important. It’s not that they’re always active, but they must have a certain strength.

I’ve also discovered this in my photography — in order to make powerful photographs with emotion, energy, and vigor — you want to focus on body language, and especially hands.© Estate of Helmut Newton

When it comes to photographing your subjects, you can do two things:
a) If you’re shooting street photography, only photograph people who are doing interesting hand gestures or things with their hands.
b) If you’re directing your subject, ask them to do something interesting with their hands, either by showing them yourself, or by asking them to play with their hair, their face, their facial hair, sunglasses, or something else.

If you are interested in portrait photography, look at how many successful photographers incorporate hands and gestures into the photograph. That is a key thing you can use to improve your photos.

7. Use simple gear

“I think things are complicated enough without making them more so, I think this is why my technical equipment is very simple, very basic because it gives me more time to work with the girl which is the most important thing.” – Helmut Newton

Technology should empower us, rather than distract us.

In photography, we are overly-obsessed with our tools and technical settings. Why? Because we use it to cover up our own insecurities and lack of artistry and creativity. We wrongly think that by buying a new camera or lens, we can suddenly make better photos.© Estate of Helmut Newton

But in reality, we should strive to use simple equipment, with the simplest settings— in order to focus on what is truly important.

For example, in street photography — I like to “set it and forget it” by setting my camera in “P” (program) mode, where the camera automatically chooses the aperture and shutter speed. I set my ISO high (1600–3200) to make sure I get no blur in my photos. I set my camera’s autofocus to the center. And then I just shoot.

By not worrying about my technical settings, I can focus on framing, interacting with my subjects, getting close, and “working the scene.”© Estate of Helmut Newton / David Bowie Contact Sheet

If you are a commercial photographer, the less you worry about your gear and technical settings, the more you can work with your models, your subjects, or in capturing “the decisive moment.”© Estate of Helmut Newton

There is no “right” or wrong equipment or technical settings to use. But just find out what is the simplest for you, in order to make the photos you want to.