Bernstein was born in Washington DC, and graduated from Penn State University with a degree in Architecture. In the 1970s, Bernstein served as an editorial photographer for Harper's Bazaar and Esquire Magazine. He photographed figures like Steve Martin, Peggy Lee and Sonny and Cher in the first few years after his graduation from Penn State University. Bernstein also received honorary degrees from the Brooks Institute and the Smithsonian Institution. While living in New York City, Bernstein met and married Ford model Kay Sutton York (later renamed Lena Harris). She collaborated on Bernstein's first book Burning Cold with Bernie Taupin and was the sole model to appear in the book. The two are still married.
Bernstein has operated studios in New York City, Los Angeles, and Chicago. In 1982, he became one of only forty members in the Cameracraftsmen of America organization and was named a Master of Contemporary Photography by the Smithsonian Institution in the early 1980s. In 1984, Bernstein's book Pro Techniques of People Photography was reviewed by Alex Thien of The Milwaukee Sentinel, who wrote of his instruction technique that, "He doesn't wander off on esoteric tangents, dealing with the theory of photographic chemistry or the resolution power of various lenses. Instead ... everything he does can be worked on a smaller scale at home, in the yard or at the beach, wherever you're likely to have your camera and want to photograph people."
In 1985, Maria C. Phillips published a broad overview of Bernstein's career, writing that, "The history of his photographic career is a pictorial composite of famous names and admirable accomplishments recognized by both professional photographers and the general public. His fashion and commercial photographs have appeared in Vogue, Harper's Bazaar, Esquire, Gentleman's Quarterly, and Playboy." Commercial clients of his, according to Phillips, included, "Revlon, Fabergé, Avon, Max Factor, Pirelli, Hart, Schaffner and Marx, Jean Paul Germain, Virgin Island Rum, and Pierre Cardin." Phillips described the list of celebrities photographed by Bernstein as including, "Kenny Rogers, Victoria Principal, Johnny Carson, Farrah Fawcett, Linda Gray, Valerie Perrine, Larry Hagman, Lee Majors, Dyan Carron, Ali MacGraw, Björn Borg, Reggie Jackson, and Natalie Wood." He had also photographed Cybill Sheppard, Linda Evans, Paul Newman, and Joan Collins.
However, he is perhaps best known for his photographs of Elizabeth Taylor, used frequently for commercial use. He also supported AIDS charities alongside Taylor in the late 1980s. For example, in 1988, a photograph of Taylor taken by Bernstein was featured on the cover of Orange Coast (a photograph that was reprinted on the cover of the magazine's 15th anniversary the following year), and that same year photographs of Taylor taken by Bernstein for Taylor's perfume line were used in a national advertising campaign. He also took a photograph of Taylor that was featured on the cover of People Magazine in 1990. Zoom Magazine described Bernstein as Taylor's "favorite photographer". He was introduced to Taylor by Robert Wagner, and Taylor became one of Bernstein's first celebrity clients. In 1989, Woman's Own labeled Bernstein the most sought-after celebrity photographer in the world, and reporting that he earned more than $1 million per year in fees and royalties. That year he also photographed Maureen Reagan for the cover of her memoir First Father, First Daughter. Other books his photography graced the covers of include books by Jay Leno, Danielle Steel, Kathie Lee Gifford, and Wilhelmina Cooper.
Bernstein continued to take celebrity photographs and photographs for international ad campaigns. In 1994, Bernstein also took the photo for the cover of Joan Collins' memoir My Secrets. In 1997, he produced a CD-rom entitled Secrets of Professional Photography, a how-to instructional program on photography using celebrity pictures as a guide. Entertainment Weekly wrote that, "Secrets offers an elegantly simple interface and tons of useful tidbits for amateurs. Flash back to the pro's enviable selection of portraits, from a glam Elizabeth Taylor to a pre-Tonight Show Jay Leno, accompanied by audio and video guidance by the photographer." In the early 2000s, Bernstein co-created the website Zuga.net with Monte Zucker, a co-author of Bernstein's second book Four Photographers. The intention of the website is to attract young people into the photography profession and teach them photographic techniques. The site featured on-demand programming to help individuals learn various photographic techniques.
Bernstein also provides public and academic lectures on the subject of photography. In December 2013, he presented a lecture entitled "A Light on Life: The Art of Photography" at Palmer Museum of Art for the Penn State School of Visual Arts. His recent clients have included Revlon, American Express, Cartier, and Ford. On May 15, 2014, an exhibition of Bernstein's celebrity photography was put on sale at the Grumman Gallery in New York City. He has also produced network programming and is the Content Producer for The American Health Journal and other shows on PBS, and as of 2015 has half a million books in print.Burning Cold, (Crown Publishers, 1978)
Four Photographers, (Trinity Publishing, 1983)
Pro Techniques of People Photography, (HP Books, 1984)
Pro Techniques of Beauty & Glamour Photography, (HP Books, 1987)
Ten Secrets for Taking Dynamic Photographs, (HP Books, 1988) with foreword by Johnny Carson
Portrait Hollywood: Gary Bernstein's classic celebrity photographs, (Woodford Press, 1994) with foreword by Elizabeth Taylor
The Glamorous World of People Photography, (Marathon Pr Inc, 1997) with foreword by Jay Leno