Born in Hamburg, Germany, son of a British father and German mother, Brandt grew up during World War I, during which his father, who had lived in Germany since the age of five, was interned for six months by the Germans as a British citizen. Brandt later disowned his German heritage and would claim he was born in South London. Shortly after the war, he contracted tuberculosis and spent much of his youth in a sanatorium in Davos, Switzerland. He traveled to Vienna to undertake a course of treatment by psychoanalysis. He was, in any case, pronounced cured and was taken under the wing of socialite Eugenie Schwarzwald. When Ezra Pound visited the Schwarzwald residence, Brandt made his portrait. In appreciation, Pound allegedly offered Brandt an introduction to Man Ray, whose Paris studio and darkroom Brandt would access in 1930.
In 1933 Brandt moved to London and began documenting all levels of British society. This kind of documentary was uncommon at that time. Brandt published two books showcasing this work, The English at Home (1936) and A Night in London (1938). He was a regular contributor to magazines such as Lilliput, Picture Post, and Harper's Bazaar. He documented the Underground bomb shelters of London during The Blitz in 1940, commissioned by the Ministry of Information.
In 2010, an English Heritage blue plaque for Bill Brandt was erected in London at 4 Airlie Gardens, Kensington, W8.
During World War II, Brandt concentrated on many subjects – as can be seen in his "Camera in London" (1948) but excelled in portraiture and landscape. To mark the arrival of peace in 1945 he began a celebrated series of nudes. His major books from the post-war period are Literary Britain (1951), and Perspective of Nudes (1961), followed by a compilation of his best work, Shadow of Light (1966). Brandt became Britain's most influential and internationally admired Photographer of the 20th century. Many of his works have important social commentary but also poetic resonance. His landscapes and nudes are dynamic, intense and powerful, often using wide-angle lenses and distortion.