Secrets of Great Portrait Photography

Brian Smith, a Politzer prize winning photographer. His portraits of celebrities, athletics executives were used in advertising.   Smith loves shooting portraits of people. In his book “Secrets of Great Portrait Photography” he explained how he first started and how the advice of a chief photographer at his state’s largest newspaper changed the way he takes photos.  He stated that when he first showed him his portfolio; the chief photographer shook his head and told him that his photos show that he knows how to shoot with a telephoto but if he wanted to be a good photojournalist he should approach people.  He advised him to take portraits of 50 strangers that revealed  something about each of their personalities.   Smith explains how doing so pays off and helps one gets over any fears.  It teaches to be comfortable with strangers and same time you put them on ease.

Smith was famous for shooting famous celebrities but he advises to treat everyone you want to photograph like a star.  All get the same share of Fame.

Art & Soul

Portraits of Celebrities for the Art & Soul in partnership with The Creative Coalition and Sony. © Brian Smith.


“Place add yet another storytelling element to a photograph giving the “who” a sense of  “where”.  A really great location even explains a bit of the “why.”  _ Brian Smith (p.18).

Smith states that location can often make or break a photograph. He advises to keep a virtual database of locations in our head for when we are in a bind.  He also advises on keeping the shot interesting by asking the subject to do something new.

In one of his portraits he shot Indy car driver Helio Castroneves dressed in his racing suit in his kitchen having his morning coffee.  Smith likes to give his portraits the element of surprise he explains:  ” Combine the expected with a dash of the unexpected”.  _ Brian Smith (p.24).

Helio Castronevis, Indianapolios 500 champion and "Dancing With the Stars" winner

(Helio Castroneves photographed in Coral Gables for Parade) © Brian Smith.

When shooting a portrait and you get into a chaotic environment; the secret is to know what to include and what to exclude from the photograph.  Sometimes creating order out of the chaos by arranging the elements can help.

The location should mean something to the subject being photographed or something that makes the subject and place match.

I liked how Smith made the portrait of Carol Channing, a consummate entertainer who came wearing her Bob Mackie gown for her portrait to be taken.  Smith had to find a location that would fit the theme and match the subject.  He eventually photographed her infront of a 1950s Miami Motel that featured Dolphins and a trio of Venus rising.  Smith explained his choice that it reminded him of the campy glitz of old Vegas.


(Carol Channing photographed in Miami for Entertainment Weekly) © Brian Smith.  Photo captured by the camera phone from the book.


  • In the book Smith talked extensively about finding the right angle for the shot but I would like to write about few of them which to me are new and out of the box such as shooting up from the rug’s eye view if the ceiling is the most interesting part of a room!  Smith stresses that there should be a reason to do that because it is a bit tricky and there is a fine line between doing so to make people look taller and shooting way down from the floor.

In the photo below Smith photographed Loren and J.R. Ridinger his Miami Beach Neighbors at their living room from the rug’s eye view after asking J.R. to take his wife for a spin on the dance floor.

  • Putting subjects on a pedestal and shooting them from below for a heroic look.


The book explains interesting and useful portrait information that I intend to write about after I finish reading it.


Bibliography / References:

Brian Smith.  Brian Smith Pictures [online]. Available from: [Accessed 17 September, 2016].

Brian Smith, (2013) Secrets of Great Portrait Photography. US: New Riders.



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