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Preview: Photographer Brian Smith's "Portrait Secrets"

By David Schonauer   Friday October 5, 2012

“Many times, you go into a photo shoot with a long list of things the client wants, but at the end of the day, you’ve got to ask yourself, ‘Did I get that one shot that I want?’” says Brian Smith, the Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer whose images have appeared in Sports Illustrated, Time, Forbes, and Elle. While Miami-based Smith has shot many different kinds of pictures, he’s best known for portraits of actors, business leaders, politicians, and athletes that are at once stylish and telling. That work is now collected in a new book, Secrets of Great Portrait Photography: Portraits of the Famous and Infamous (Peachpit Press), which will be of interest to pros and photo enthusiasts alike, because it focuses on what might be the essence of photographic creativity: problem solving—and getting that shot you really want.

 book     “I wanted to tell people about all the components that go into the making a successful portrait, from the preparation to the shoot itself,” says Smith. “It isn’t enough to know you should put a big light at the right-hand side of the frame and shoot at f/11. Obviously you want your shot to be well lit. But unless you do all the other things right, you’re going to end up with a very successfully lit dead photograph.” The other things include location scouting, making subjects feel comfortable, and the thousand little styling and posing details that Smith advises photographers to sweat over. He covers them in a dozen chapters illustrated with his own work. His aim, he says, is to show readers the before, during, and after of a photo shoot. For Smith, pictures don’t just tell stories; they are stories.

       The book evolved from a number of talks Smith has been giving at the Photo Plus Expo event in New York since 2010. (He will be speaking again at this year’s event on October 26.) “The first time I did it, an editor from Peachpit was in the audience, and afterward he convinced me it wouldn’t be all that difficult to adapt the presentation as a book, which I learned later was not so much the truth,” says Smith.

       Here we present four lessons from Smith’s new book that go behind the lens to show how a nimble and versatile photographer creates memorable portraits … by trusting in the power of faces, light, story, and relationships.

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Lesson 1: A Great Face Says It All

Sometimes you don’t need anything more than a great face. Actor Bill Macy was photographed for Be a STAR, an anti-bullying campaign sponsored by WWE. With his remarkable, expressive mug, there was no reason to embellish or over-think the shot. Simply let the face tell the story. Sometimes faces say it all.

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Lesson 2: Understand the Power of Light

Light is of utmost importance to photographers and viewers alike. The quality of light you use affects how viewers feel about your photographs. Hard light is more dynamic than soft light, and it packs a punch. But hard light doesn’t have to mean harsh light. Think of hard light as beautiful, late afternoon sunlight. It has distinct, hard-edged shadows that can be quite striking. You just need to put them in the right place. You learn about light by observing the light around you and determining how you can create it. When shooting burlesque dancer Inga Ingenue in Las Vegas, I wanted to re-create the look of a spotlight on stage. Light that comes from a low angle in the distance results in long, deep shadows, yet the light on the subject is beautiful, like late afternoon sunlight at the magic hour. Learn to take your cues from nature and create the right light for the mood you’re after.

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Lesson 3: Create a Cooler Reality

Group shots can become deadly boring, but you can add interest if you choose a location and props that help explain what your subjects do. Sports Illustrated was gathering together the Gatorade inventors at the University of Florida and gave me what I love best—an open assignment to do anything I wanted to do. The Gatorade inventors are legends on campus, so when I asked to shoot in their old lab, the university quickly agreed. We started clearing out the clutter, and then brought in a bunch of laboratory glassware from an adjoining lab. We filled the glassware with a special, extra-strength mix of Gatorade, which practically glowed neon yellow. I wanted the lighting to read as real, yet be prettier than actual overhead fluorescent lights, so the shot was lit with one big Octabank above and to the right. I gave this a blue tungsten white balance, which looked more flattering than the greenish cast from fluorescents. When the inventors arrived, we dressed them in lab coats, arranging them from front to back to give the photo depth, and let them have fun in their roles.

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Lesson 4: Stay in Touch

The first time I photographed the Williams sisters, they were 13- and 14-year-old tennis phenoms filled with promise. Even at that tender age they were simply overflowing with personality and star quality. I went back to shoot them a half dozen times and enjoyed watching them grow into greatness. A little over a decade later I got a panicked call from Time magazine asking if I could be in Palm Beach to shoot Serena before she jetted off to Rome. The timing was so tight. We made a quick call to a makeup artist who lived close to Serena and could get started right away. We loaded the car and hauled ass up the turnpike. I was sweating bullets as the sun faded, until she showed up right at dusk. She took one look at my wife and said, “Hey, I know you guys, tell me what you need.” Familiarity with your subjects can really pay off.

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