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Book Review: Secrets of Great Portrait Photography by Brian Smith

January 5th 2013 4:50 AM



Common wisdom suggests that one of the quickest paths to reach your goal is to learn from someone who has already achieved the same goal. If you are an aspiring portrait photographer, then Brian Smith’s new book, Secrets of Great Portrait Photography is a great book full of wisdom and inspiration.

If you have not heard of Brian Smith, for the past 30+ years, the Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer has photographed celebrities, athletes, political leaders, and executives for hundreds of publications from TIME to Sports Illustrated.

Secrets of Great Portrait Photography encompasses all of this invaluable experience behind Brian’s portraits in an easy-to-read book. Whether it is from shooting Bill Gates wearing a black turtleneck (a look that Steve Jobs adopted several years later) or shooting Sir Richard Branson in a space suit, there is a worthwhile lesson behind each shoot.

Other famous names that are featured in the book include Shaquille O’Neal, Jamie Foxx, Donald Trump, Anne Hathaway, Gene Hackman, Cindy Crawford, and Christopher Walken.

What makes this book different from many photography books is that it is not merely a “how-to” book. This 250-page book focuses on the “why” behind the image. As Brian had said, the “how’s” such as a lighting diagram “are essentially sheet music; they rarely provide much insight into the photographer’s motivation.” In fact, Brian hardly mentions any technical information for the majority of his examples. If you are looking for EXIF data, lighting diagrams, and the like, then you may be disappointed to learn that Brian does not provide such details until the end. You don’t even get a gear breakdown until page 224.

Instead, what Brian covers is the intangible skills that location portrait photographers should develop in order to become successful.

This includes how to deal with a wide-range of subjects from nude golfists to ego-filled stars by being a great “15-second psychoanalyst,” and how to evoke the honest expressions and hidden moments from your subject even when you only have 15 minutes to shoot him or her.


The book is organized into 12 chapters covering a variety of subjects from location, story, details, gesture, lighting, and creating your look.


Chapter 1: Connect with Your Subject

“Nothing is more important to portrait photography than connecting with the person you’re photographing – it’s the foundation of an extraordinary portrait.”


Chapter 2: Find the Place

A good location gives the subject “a sense of ‘where.’ A really great location even explains a bit of the ‘why.’”


Chapter 3: Find the Angle

“Your vantage point can make a huge impact on your photographs. If you’re used to seeing life at eye level, maybe it’s time to look at the world from a new point of view.”


Chapter 4: Tell the Story

“Learn the ways to convey an idea though conceptual portrait photography to tell your subject’s story.”


Chapter 5: Sweat the Small Stuff

“When it comes to photography, every small detail matters. Read how styling, props, hair, & make-up can make a good shot great.”


Chapter 6: Don’t Mess with a Good Thing

“For all the planning that goes into a shoot, one of the smartest things you can do is to know when to stand back and let your subject take over. Learn how to strike the right balance.”


Chapter 7: Pose, Gesture, Emotion

“Posing is less of a science and more like being a good host. Make your subjects comfortable, relaxed, and engaged so their personalities can shine through.”


Chapter 8: Less is More

“Read how removing all the distractions from a photo can be important than the elements you put in. Clear the clutter. Eliminate the extraneous. Keep It Simple, Stupid!”


Chapter 9: See the Light

“Understanding portrait lighting begins with a few basic principles of how light works. This chapter shows how the quality of the light affects the mood of the photo and how to create the light you want in any situation.”


Chapter 10: Group Portraits without Formality

“Learn how to arrange group photos to avoid the deadly class photo shoulder-to-shoulder look and loosen things up so that each person in the shot feels special.”


Chapter 11: Create the Look

“Post is not an afterthought, but the continuation in the process – the “look” of a photograph affects how it makes you feel.”


Chapter 12: Lights, Camera, Lens

“Once you understand the tools of portrait photography, they become an extension of your vision so you can then devote all your attention to your subject, not your gear.”


So will Brian’s book make you a better photographer? The answer is no if all you are looking for is shooting and lighting technique. That is not what this book is about. This book is about how to become a more versatile photographer who can think on his feet and understand how to manage the photoshoot, the client, and the subject. Although nothing beats first-hand experience, learning from another photographer with so many years of experience is perhaps the next best thing.

Reading this book reminds me of having lunch with a photographer that you really admire and listening to his or her past photoshoot stories, except that all the stories involve A-list caliber subjects and very interesting individuals. In fact, Brian even has a section at the end of the book where he answers a variety of questions that you may ask him if you were to have lunch with him.

Brian Smith’s “Secret of Great Portrait Photography” is a great book to have for any photographer who regularly shoots people and especially on-location. It is an easy read and is full of nuggets of wisdom from a master photographer who readily shares his 30+ years of experience. We don’t all get to shoot high-caliber subjects as Brian does, but by mastering these secrets, you can be sure to be more ready when the opportunity arises.

Where to Buy

If you are interested in purchasing Brian Smith’s “Secret of Great Portrait Photography,” you can purchase it in Amazon in paperback format or in the Kindle Edition. The retail price for the book is $49.99, but online prices are generally far less.


Joe is a rising fashion and commercial photographer based in Los Angeles, CA. He blends creativity and edge with a strong style of lighting and emotion in his photographs. Be sure to check out his work at and connect with him on Google Plus and on Facebook

Comments [1]

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  1. SteveLig

    I can’t help but think at least *some* technical detail is essential to any discussion of portrait photography. After all, he had to think about that stuff at some point. Most of the images displayed above rely on the lighting for their impact. At a minimum I’d hope to see the type and placement of his light sources. Is there any of that in the book?

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