Brian Smith on How to Take Better Portraits

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Brian Smith is a Sony Artisan, and a world-famous portrait photographer. His client list includes many celebrities and major players in the entertainment industry, and he is a recipient of the Pultizer Prize. For the past thirty years, Brian has been in the editorial and advertising photography industry, after having a photo make it into LIFE magazine at the age of 20.

Drawing upon this experience, Brian will be giving a lecture at the B&H Event Space soon. He's also celebrating the release of his recently published book, "Secrets of Great Portait Photography: Photographs of the Famous and Infamous."

We got to talk to Brian for a bit about how to capture better portraits. Here are his tips.


B&H Photo: In your book, you discuss photographing diverse subjects within a short period of time; you shot Economist Alan Greenspan, and DMX immediately after that. You also cite getting to know different personalities, and working with. What can someone do to try to mesh with different personalities?

Alan Greenspan and DMX

Brian: Success at portrait photography is similar to being a good guest at a cocktail party—it helps to know a little bit about everything. You don’t have to be an expert; you just need to know enough to engage your subject. The chance to connect with all types of personalities—from internationally-known economists to multi-platinum rap artists—is my favorite part of the job. After finishing a shoot of Alan Greenspan in his Washington, DC office, I flew back to Miami to shoot rapper DMX for GQ.  Only when I was editing the two shoots did I notice how similar the final shots looked, and how well the images worked together.


B&H Photo: Environmental portraits can often tell us a lot about a person. How can we use a location to tell us more about someonewhether they’re a celebrity or a local librarian?

Darius Rice

Brian: Location adds the element of ‘where’ to the ‘who’ in the photograph.

When choosing a location, I often look for one with an element of the unexpected. ESPN the Magazine wanted Darius Rice photographed on the coolest court I could find—as long as we could pull it off in the hour we had for the shoot. I found a great court underneath a highway overpass 20 minutes from campus.

It’s a good idea to keep locations in mind for a time like this.

B&H Photo: In your opinion, how do colors, lighting, and the interplay between light and shadows play key roles in portraiture?

Brian: Light and color play a major role in the mood of a photograph. Shooting at dusk almost always results in interesting shots, because the light changes in the background.

I saved this shot of Jack & Elaine LaLanne by the rocks in Morro Bay for the last shot of the day because I wanted the sun setting behind them, with the rocks rising out of the water like the third biceps.

Jack & Elaine LaLanne photographed in Morro Bay, California

B&H Photo: How can location and props help us to know more about a person?

Burger King VP Russ Klein lunches with the Burger King

Brian: Props can give context to your portraits, and are a great way to add an element of the unexpected and a touch of humor.

When shooting portraits of executives, do whatever it takes to get them away from their desks. When Burger King offered to provide the Burger King for a shoot of their VP Russ Klein, I immediately began lobbying to shoot them together lunching over Whoppers.

When the King and Russ sat down to eat, we had Whoppers and fries delivered to their table, and I told the two of them to ignore me and have a great lunch. They quickly forgot about the camera, and were just a couple of pals having lunch together.

B&H Photo: Are there any specific methods that you use to pose your subjects?

Brian: The shoot of Richard Branson on the cover of Secrets of Great Portrait Photography brings together all the things we’ve just talked about. Our location was his private island in the Caribbean, the prop was a movie spacesuit from an LA prop house, and we shot at sunrise for great light. (Actually, 5:30 a.m. on the morning of Christmas Eve.) Richard is a photographer’s dream subject, and he takes direction really well. Even so, I always like to keep direction simple, essentially, “Could I get you to stand over here?” or, “Would you look up a bit?” I always want to see what they do naturally, and then adjust if I need to.

Richard Branson photographed in Necker Island, for Time magazine

B&H Photo: What are your favorite focal lengths to work with, and what types of modifiers/lights do you use to achieve your look?

Brian: I shoot virtually everything with three of Sony’s AF Zeiss lenses—the CZ 24-70/2.8, CZ 85/1.4 and CZ 135/1.8—though I’ll add the CZ 50/1.4  as soon as it drops next spring. I love the CZ 24-70/2.8 because it’s as sharp as primes in that range. It serves the whole range, from 24mm for horizontal environmental portraits with lots of location surrounding the subject, down to 70mm on the long end. I’m always bugging them to make a 70mm prime lens. It’s my favorite focal length for portraits, because it flattens perspective just a bit from the “normal” look of a 50mm, but still keeps you in close for that intimate look.

William H. Macy photographed with a CZ 24-70/2.8 at 70mm, for the 'Be a STAR' campaign by WWE and The Creative Coalition

If I want to flatten things out a bit more, I’ll reach for the CZ 85 f1.4 or CZ 135 f1.8. Both lenses are incredibly sharp even wide open, so go ahead and open up.

Rick Yune photographed with the CZ 135/1.8 for Art & Soul, in partnership with The Creative Coalition and Sony

Lighting on both shots is the same. The main light is a Profoto white beauty dish reflector with grid, and a slight fill from behind camera.

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Brian will be giving a lecture at the B&H Event Space soon, and he's also celebrating the release of his recently published book, "Secrets of Great Portait Photography: Photographs of the Famous and Infamous."