Brian Smith: The Art of Photographing People

Jeff Gordon

Brian Smith is a portrait photographer who is recognized for his unique photographs of celebrities, athletes and politicians. With his photographic roots in traditional photojournalism, his career has blossomed into a unique voice in the world of portrait photography that has been in demand in both the editorial and commercial world. You can discover more of his work by visiting his website.

Phoblographer: In your recent book, Secrets of Great Portrait Photography: Photographs of the Famous and Infamous (Voices That Matter), you mention the creation of your initial portrait portfolio, which involved photographing 50 strangers. What did you learn from that experience and how did it make a difference in your development as a portrait photographer?

Brian Smith: Shoot a lot. Get a lot of people in front of your lens. Learn how to get them to relax, draw out their personality and for god sakes, make it fun! That’s pretty much the same thing I do on every celebrity portrait shoot I do.

David Willams, Fund Manager of the Excelsior Value & Restructuring Fund

Phoblographer: You shoot many environmental portraits. When you arrive at a location what are the qualities you are you looking for in a setting in which to pose your subject? Is it about story or lighting or both?

Brian Smith: That’s a great question. All those things are important considerations, but the first thing you have to decide – what’s most important? That’s where you place the emphasis and you build from there. At times the concept is pre-determined. Other times it’s left up to you to figure out how to best pull off a great shot once you arrive. It’s like the difference between working from a script and improv. You need to be comfortable with both.

Phoblographer: You have photographed many celebrities in your career. What is the biggest challenge that you often face when photographing such people?

Brian Smith: As with anyone, the key is finding a connection. You don’t have to become BFFs – in fact don’t expect that to happen. But make them feel they’re in good hands and you’ll take good care of them. Then relax and have fun.

Don King

Phoblographer: Your lighting is not overly complex, which often means you are using a single strobe in a light modifier. What’s your philosophy about using artificial light source on-location? Do you have a particular light modifier that you prefer?

Brian Smith: I almost always add artificial light to the shot because I can’t every always wait until the light is perfect. It lets me emphasize the subject and darken down the background. Think of it as burning and dodging in-camera instead of in Photoshop.

I usually base my lighting decisions on how I’d want the light to look if I walked into a perfectly lit situation. I think the best lit photographs are the ones that you don’t even notice the lighting when you first look at them. The emphasis should be on the subject and the light should just enhance that.

Kathmandu Nepal

As for modifiers, I’d say that less is more. Don’t rush out and buy every single modifier ever made. Instead buy a few great ones and learn how to squeeze every single drop of mojo out of them. The main modifiers that I use are a 6’ octabank, a beauty dish, 7” zoom reflector and ringflash. Those four things should allow you to create almost any look you want.

Phoblographer: Building rapport is an important part of a good portrait session. How do you develop this, especially with a subject you might not have very much time to work with?

Brian Smith: A lot of people have asked for a phrase they can use to get a subject to relax. But there is no magic formula that works every time. Just pay more attention to your subject than yourself.

Successful portrait photography is kind of like being a 5-minute psychologist.  Tailor you approach to your subject. You’ve got to take a completely different approach if you’re shooting Bill Gates than Donald Trump.

Donald Trump photographed at Mar-a-Lago

 Phoblographer: For photographers who aspire to produce portraits that are on par with what’s often published in a magazine, what is your biggest piece of advice that you can offer them?

Brian Smith: Learn to shoot under pressure in crappy light.

It’s really easy to take a beautiful portrait in late afternoon light when you’ve got the whole afternoon to do it. That’s kind of like making all your free throws in practice doesn’t mean you’re gonna hit ’em with 30 seconds to go in a tie game of the NBA Finals.

Great magazine portrait photography isn’t just about hitting the easy shots out of the park, it’s about making contact when everything is against you. Learn to do that and you’re on your way.

Secrets of Great Portrait Photography: Photographs of the Famous and Infamous

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