The One about Brian Smith’s “Secrets of Great Portrait Photography: Photographs of the Famous and Infamous”

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(Originally reviewed on October 8, 2012)

Are you a photographer who has looked at an issue of Newsweek, Time Magazine, GQ, Vogue and other major publications and wondered, how did this photographer capture this moment?

Author and Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Brian Smith has been a person who has had his photos of celebrities, business executives and major athletes grace the cover and also featured in major publications and with his book “Secrets of Great Photography: Photographs of the Famous and Infamous”, Smith shares his stories of how photographs came to be.

But what Smith does to help photographers learn from his experience by breaking down his advice in several chapters.

Featured are the following chapters in the book:

1.  Connect With Your Subject

In one example, Smith discusses the importance of connecting with the person you are going to shoot.  A photo shoot for “Art & Soul” and how he was able to capture celebrities laughing naturally.  And Smith discusses how he tries to keep people relaxed and try to get them to laugh.  But also how shooting strangers, especially many of them can help and more.

2.  Find the Place

Location is always important.  But what happens when you only have so much time or the weather is not exactly cooperating?  In this chapter, Smith discusses how one should get to know the area where a photoshoot takes place, to also try to capture what an editor wants.  For “Us Weekly”, Smith had to photograph “Burn Notice” star Jeffrey Donovan and capture the feel of Miami.  But with the clouds dark and gray, what can Smith do?  So, he found a blue mosaic tile and managed to use that as his shot as a backdrop and it worked!

3.  Find the Angle

Smith discusses how finding the right vantage point can set the mood for your photo.  One shot featured Calvin Ayre, CEO and founder of the online gambling site bodog.com and as a billionaire, he chose to shoot Ayre in pool for Forbes.  But to show the high life, feature a woman’s legs spread and you can see Ayre right between the legs in the pool and balancing the shot with two more women in bikini on his right.  The photo shot ground level, was able to capture Ayre but also the high life via poolside.

Another example was to capture pro golfer Camilo Vilegas in his Spider-Man push up move on the green, but to shoot with a wide-angle lens capturing the hole, the golf ball but behind it is Vilegas with his signature move.  And the decision to shoot via wide-angle led to the photo’s efficacy for the cover of “Golf Magazine”.

4.  Tell the Story

Smith knows that not every picture is worth a thousand words but the value of an image depends on how much you give it to say.  One example is of Burger King VP Russ Klein for “Advertising Age”.  Smith wanted to capture Smith eating a burger with the actual Burger King and not do the banal office shot but something fun and also related to the company.  Originally wanting to take Smith to an actual Burger King store, the franchise offered the company cafeteria and for the most part, achieving a successful photo.

5.  Sweat the Small Stuff

Sometimes to get the photo, you need to get someone to do things that is necessary for the shot.  For a “Business Week” photo shoot, Smith wanted to capture a photo of Bill Gates with stars in the background but didn’t want him wearing his button down shirt.  Back then (before Steve Jobs was known for his black turtlenecks), he wanted Bill Gates to wear one and his assistant was able to get him to wear one.

Another example is with tennis star Daniela Hantuchova for “The Players Club”.  With only two hours to shoot multiple shops and also factoring hair and make-up, Smith talks about the importance of scouting the locations and pre-light multiple setups.

Another example is being creative with a set budget that one has for a photoshoot.  And for The Bee Gees, he came up with an idea for having a room painted in gold, along with 100 LP’s painted in gold.  And then shooting all three men in the gold interior with LPS hanging on the walls, ceiling and floor.

Also, is behind-the-scenes information with Fazia Ali, producer and stylist with what is important duties for a stylist during a photoshoot, also behind-the-scenes on what crew may be involved in a major celebrity photoshoot and more!

6.  Don’t Mess With a Good Thing

In a photo shoot, know when to stand back and let your subject take over.  One example features Shaquille O’Neal for a photoshoot for “USA Weekend” and when actor Jamie Foxx came to visit.   And because of the height difference, instead of shooting closeup, Smith chose to shoot the two with Foxx on his tip-toes and it became a cool shot.

Another example was for “Premiere” magazine and capturing Antonio Banderas for “Desperado” and Banderas improvising on camera.

7.  Pose Gesture Emotion

Making your subjects relaxed, comfortable and engaged.  Examples include how Smith used a 70mm lens to shot a portrait of Anne Hathaway for “Art & Soul”.  How he wanted to focus on Hathaway’s eyes and the use of a wind machine to give a right amount of wind for the shot but how her hands were positioned.  Other photos show how hand gestures can make a shot.  From Antonio Banderas caressing a glass block to Meatloaf having his hand on his head.

8.  Less is More

Clearing all distractions from a photo can be very important.  Keep it simple!  An example features Smith working on a cover for “Forbes” and in order to get an eye-catching cover of Don King, he focused on the hair and the lighting with a black drop.  Keeping the photoshoot simple but capturing things brilliantly.

9.  See the Light

Understanding portrait lights is important and concentrating on what light can do and the quality of light can affect the mood of a shot.  An example features model Cindy Margolis as he had eight strobes used in the shot.  One at the model while six were gaffer taped behind the back of the large beach balls and how illuminating the beach balls made a difference.  Another example featured Mireya Manor for “National Geographic Books” and in a jungle with not much light.  So, he used strobist techniques to light the model.

The chapter has the most pages as it shows how Smith accomplished lighting for several photos.

10.  Group Portraits Without Formality

How to shoot group photos and position them.  An example would be with Crispin Porter + Bogusky who was agency of the year and would be featured in “Advertising Age”, and for this shot, Smith discusses how important it was to have subjects in various distances.  For another photoshoot for “Sports Illustrated” on the men who created Gatorade, Smith wanted too have the yellow Gatorade show up on the shot and how he used an Octobank to capture this group photo.

11.  Create the Look

This chapter deals with Film Look photo filters in apps such as Instagram and Hipstamatic.

12.  Lights, Camera, Lens

Brian Smith talks about the lighting gear he uses and discusses the various lighting gear used on the photos featured in the book.  Also, what kind of gear you would expect to see inside Brian Smith’s bag when traveling to a photo shoot.  Also, discussion on his favorite lens.

EXTRA: Assignments

Excited after reading the book?  Brian Smith gives you an assignment such as “One Lens One Week”, “One Light One Week”, “Shoot 50 Strangers”, etc.

EXTRA: Q&A with Brian Smith

A short Q&A with the Pulitzer-Prize winning photographer.


“Secrets of Great Portrait Photography: Photographs of the Famous and Infamous” is not a book about lighting placement or strobist techniques, nor is it a book about how one is able to setup a shot such as one of Brian Smith’s famous photos.  But what Smith provides the reader and photographer is how he was able to capture a shot and the story behind it.

How was he able to capture this athlete in this position?  Why did he use soft light to shoot an actress?  How did he get this actor to shoot at a local restaurant or bar?  There is a story behind every photoshoot but what makes this book quite special is you are learning from one of the well-known photographers out there, one who’s work has been featured on covers for major publications, featured in many articles and more than likely, shots that you have seen in one of the major entertainment or industry-related magazines.

The book is well-written, not to cerebral, easy to follow but most importantly down to the point of telling the story and possibly helping inspire the reader to go out and go out shooting and experimenting with various shots.

Granted, not everyone is going to have the kind of gear that Brian Smith owns, nor will they have a several thousand dollar budget for a photoshoot but what Smith wants to people to learn is how the basics apply to his work.  Keeping things simple.  Learning about lighting, learning about your lens, learning about how you can connect to your subject.

Overall, “Secrets of Great Portrait Photography: Photographs of the Famous and Infamous” by Brian Smith is a fantastic book written by a photographer who has taken well-known photos with great advice, but it’s important to note that if you are a photographer who wants to know about strobist techniques or learn of how he shot these images, this is not the book you are looking for.

“Secrets of Great Portrait Photography: Photographs of the Famous and Infamous” is about ideas but also that priceless advice that one can learn from a veteran and well-known professional photographer.

A photography book that is inspirational, full of ideas and enjoyable to read.  “Secrets of Great Portrait Photography: Photographs of the Famous and Infamous” by Brian Smith is recommended!

Dennis A. Amith