Powerful Inspiration for Powerful Portraits

Powerful Inspiration for Powerful Portraits

Portrait photography isn’t easy. Anyone can point a camera at a person and make a quick image. If you’re technically accomplished, you can even get your lighting spot-on and make a great-looking photograph.

But the best portraits have an intangible quality to them that sets them apart. They have soul, that most overused yet accurate of words when it comes to describing photography. They speak to an innate part of the subject’s character, allowing the viewer to see not just what that subject looks like, but also what he or she is feeling and thinking.

Brian Smith is one of those photographers who can pull this off, and do so with applomb. He is perhaps one of the most accomplished portrait artists working today, and his portfolio, which drips with celebrities ranging from Anne Hathaway to Richard Branson and then some, attests to that accomplishment.

So it’s always with a lot of eagerness that I look forward to any kind of information – a book, video tutorial, whatever – from an artist like Brian. Fortunately for us, he has delivered a book on the subject of portrait photography, and what a whopper of a book it is.

I’m going to start by telling you what this book is not. This is not a technical manual for your Canon or Nikon flashes. It’s not a thorough explanation of lighting or posing techniques. And it is certainly not an explanation of gear and how to use it.

What it is, is something that David Hobby put it perfectly in his review of Brian’s book. “… you can pretty much think of SGPP as in internship in a bottle.”

That pretty much sums it up. This is a book about the experiences of a fantastic photographer. From shooting Richard Branson in a space suit at the crack of dawn, to getting Kelsey Grammer to stick around for more than a dozen frames, this is an incredible insight into the challenges and opportunities thrown at Brian.

Looking at the table of contents in this book, you immediately get that this book is about ideas. The chapter titles sound like tips: “Find the Angle”, or “Sweat the Small Stuff”. In each chapter, he expounds on concepts by presenting an image, telling you the backstory, and providing advice you can walk away with and use in your own shoots.

The advice is plentiful, and boy is it good! Sometimes, it can be distilled down to just a sentence (“Sometimes the secret is interpreting what the editors ask for in a nonliteral way.”). Other times, you read the backstories behind the images presented and you learn that understanding and researching your subjects can be key to successful sessions.

And speaking of the images – this is a treasure-trove of fantastic portraiture. If the only thing Brian did was present these images and the brief stories behind them, the book would be worth the cost and then some. That he throws in fantastic advice that will leave you reaching for your highlighter (real or virtual, depending on whether you buy a print or digital version of the book) is just plain gravy.

Don’t expect lighting diagrams in this book, however; Brian’s notes on lighting are sparse, and thankfully so. The focus in this book is on practical advice for dealing with your subject and your location, and things like lighting diagrams and gear notes would perhaps get in the way of the core message. Gear is secondary in this book – only one chapter covers it (Chapter 12), and then too, in the most cursory of ways.

For the photographers who’ve got their technical stuff at a point where they don’t stress about it, and are looking for advice on the soft-skills side of things, this is the definitive book. It’s right up there with some of my favorites, including Joe McNally’s “The Moment it Clicks.” Equal parts inspiration and people skills manual, “Secrets of Great Portrait Photography” belongs on every portrait photographer’s bookshelf.

Brian’s book is now available in print or Kindle edition, and on the iBooks Store.

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Sohail Mamdani is a writer, filmmaker, and photographer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Follow him on Twitter or find him at anymedium.com.

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