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Winter Reads: Secrets of Great Portrait Photography

UPDATE: Brian Smith gave a *90-minute* talk on the book at B&H Photo in NYC. It's excellent and I have embedded the video at the bottom of the post. -DH

Looking for a good book to curl up with this winter? You're in luck. There is a stream of great choices hitting Amazon this season. I'll be highlighting a few of them as we head into the holidays.

Because, you know, you gotta put something reasonable on your wish list, right? It can't all be $30,000 Hasselblad/Ferrari limited edition cameras.

This week: Secrets of Great Portrait Photography, by Brian Smith.

Short version: Don't let the generic-sounding title put you off. This book is dynamite—chock full of valuable info and experience.

Brian Smith has been an editorial location shooter since starting with the Orange County Register (where he won a Pulitzer) in the 1980s. Since then, he was worked his way through a magazine rack full of top-level editorial assignments. Those 25+ years of experience fill Secrets of Great Portrait Photography.

Near-ideally suited for the readership of this site, you can pretty much think of SGPP as in internship in a bottle. Smith mixes in equal parts technical, creative, how-to, problem-solving, care and feeding of subjects, etc.

(For a good sense of the flow of the book, check out the table of contents page, here.)

SGPP offers substance for experienced photographers and newbs alike. The only caveat I would offer is that it probably should not be your very first foray into lighting. Which is fine, because there is a ton of other stuff out there for that—some of it even online for free.

Smith's approach is rather like a cookbook in that it will spur many ideas of your own. His unselfish approach makes this book a core choice for any location portrait photographer's bookshelf.

He covers the importance of location, subject interaction, lighting (in detail, with its own section), format choices and even Photoshop. I was pleasantly surprised to see him include info on his wide-ranging post production, even going as far as to show several examples of straight-out-of-camera images right next to the finals:

That diptych, with which he begins a detailed section on tweaking photos in post production, is indicative of the openness throughout the whole book. If anything is missing in this edition, it is the healthy dose of ego that often accompanies celebrity portraiture books.

SGPP features a lot of famous people, but many of the examples are of people you have never heard of. Which is to say that these are not cool photos just because they are photos of celebrities.

That said, Smith is quite comfortable going toe-to-toe with the famous folk, who are themselves used to being in control of a shoot. Here's what evoked the sheepish expression from Frasier star Kelsey Grammer, above:

After a dozen frames, as Kelsey turned to leave, he said, “Certainly, you must have what you need." Without pause I replied, "Yes, I suppose, although we got a lot more out of [co-star] David Hyde Pierce."

Secrets of Great Portrait Photography is not just a lighting book, although it contains a generous amount of both lighting techniques and the thought processes behind them. Rather, it's actually a pretty darn good manual for being a location people photographer.

As a bonus, Smith includes a Q&A section that includes many of the questions you might well want to ask him over a beer—and six assignments with which to challenge yourself after reading the book.

UPDATE: Here's his talk on the book from B&H:

Secrets of Great Portrait Photography lists at $49.99, but is available on Amazon for $26.36. In addition to the double-trucks shown here, you can see more in the "reader photos" section on the Amazon page.


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