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Secrets of Great Portrait Photography – Review

I’m going to come clean here – before I read this book I’d never heard of Brian Smith. In fact I can probably name the famous photographers I know on one hand. This is due in part, in coming to photography late, but also to the fact that I have kind of wanted to make my own way and not spend too much time ‘studying the masters’.

Well, that may have been a mistake. Brian has written something of a classic here, for anyone even slightly interested in portrait photography. Covering a whole wealth of information, from lighting to post-production, Brian doesn’t skimp when it comes to insider secrets, but at no point does this read like a technical manual. Even when talking about lighting setups, Brian manages to keep the tone anecdotal and reading feels like chatting to a ‘tog friend about their workflow, but with funny stories thrown in, and it’s this element of Brian and his work that jumps out from the page – that a big part of being a photographer is about rapport and putting people at their ease.

When discussing a shoot he did with Dulé Hill early on in the book, he mentions the importance of doing your homework:

Celebrities get asked the same questions over and over again. If you really want to break the ice, ask them something they haven’t been asked a million times already.


In Dulé’s case, Brian asked him about tap dancing, having learned prior to the shoot that Dulé’s childhood hero was Gregory Hines. Brian says:

Without further ado, he broke into a tap dance, on carpet, in sneakers. No easy feat, I might add.


Brian showcases some of the wonderfully expressive shots of Dulé dancing, which would not have happened without some homework and some rapport.

Interestingly, I attended a webinar this evening, hosted by Photoshelter and featuring James Mullinger – the Photographic Director for GQ UK and he was talking about a photo of Arnold Schwarzenegger where the photographer had gotten him to jump into the pool, with his suit still on. The photo shows Arnie emerging from the pool, dripping wet and laughing. James commented that the photographer believed, ‘if you don’t ask, you don’t get’, but you don’t get someone to ruin a perfectly good suit by just asking without first putting them at ease and developing some serious rapport.

Anyway, back to Brian, who is an absolute goldmine of fantastic advice, like this gem he received from the chief photographer at a newspaper he worked for when starting out:

He told me to put away my telephoto lenses, introduce myself to 50 strangers, and shoot a portrait of each that revealed something about each person’s personality.


Along with great tips like ‘Always leave them laughing’ and ‘Give everyone their 15 minutes’:

If you want to photograph celebrities, start by treating everyone you photograph like a star …


and all this is just in the first chapter, comprising of the initial seventeen pages. He goes in subsequent chapters to discuss location, angles, telling a story, taking onboard ideas from the talent, (and running with it if they’re good,) being adaptable, paying attention to the details, posing, seizing the moment, keeping it real, keeping it simple, lighting, group portraits, creating a look in post, a chapter on gear, and even a Q&A transcript at the end.

It’s pretty much the perfect book for anyone wanting to improve their portraits, or are looking to get into the field. Brian doesn’t talk much about f-stops, or shutter speeds or camera settings at all, (and I, for one, would love to see some of his EXIF data, just to satisfy my geek’s curiosity,) so some prior knowledge is assumed and ideally you’d be pretty comfortable with the technical aspects of your chosen camera or at least looking elsewhere for that information. Brian himself says in the ‘About This Book’ section:

But this isn’t your typical how-to book. In this book, you’ll learn why as well as how I made the images the way I did. I’ve always been fascinated more by the why than the how of things.


Just flicking through the pages while writing this post has made me want to read it again, and I will certainly do so at some point in the near future.

I would have loved to have plastered this post with lots of images from the book, but those are Brian’s, so instead I will highly recommend you buy it, and check the images out at Brian’s website while you wait patiently for it to be delivered.


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