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 stiff 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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OpenID Joe said...

This sounds like a great read! It will certainly be #1 on my next to read list. Thanks David, for the recommendation.

October 11, 2012 9:40 AM  
Blogger Girish said...

Just ordered

October 11, 2012 11:09 AM  
Blogger Southern Skies Coffee Roasters said...

It's going on my Santa list!

October 11, 2012 11:35 AM  
Blogger Nick H said...

Looks good and looking forward to more recommendations, winter is long here in Sweden!

October 11, 2012 12:19 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

It's on my birthday list for the big 6-0!

October 11, 2012 2:06 PM  
Blogger Mark Adams said...

Ordered it just now for iPad Kindle! Thanks for the recommendation! I look forward to the knowledge!
Mark Adams

October 11, 2012 2:30 PM  
Blogger Jonh Hernández said...

i wonder how many books will this post sell!

i will order it on my next order of amazon..

thanks david.

October 11, 2012 3:31 PM  
Blogger p. said...

Looks great. I'm definitely looking forward to future recommendations as well. Thanks David!

October 11, 2012 5:23 PM  
Blogger Graham & Graham Photography said...

bought the book this morning. can't wait to read it.

October 11, 2012 6:50 PM  
Blogger Scott Free said...

David Hobby: The new Oprah Winfrey. :P will check it out.

October 11, 2012 7:07 PM  
Blogger Iain Anderson said...

Thanks David. Need this more than a new light or lens! Ordered and eagerly waiting :)

October 11, 2012 8:26 PM  
Blogger Ami Siano said...

Dear Mr. Hobby,
I find it great that you endorse another photographer's book. Must be very good.
I know it's an out dated form of media, but when is YOUR book coming out ?

I've bought Mcnally's a couple of years ago, I think I'd like a "Hobby" on my shelf as well !


October 12, 2012 12:44 AM  
Blogger Keith said...

Looks like a great book that I really need. Thanks for sharing. About to order it for my nook.

By the way, the nook version is $22.95. :)

October 12, 2012 6:02 AM  
Blogger ZPhotography said...

ARGH! I want to order this now, but I'll have to wait till next paycheck

October 12, 2012 9:09 AM  
Blogger David Hobby said...


Thanks, but no forthcoming book from me. For a variety of reasons, my two platforms are blog and DVD.

October 12, 2012 12:19 PM  
Blogger Nuidea said...

Wow this looks amazing cant wait to order it!

October 12, 2012 9:01 PM  
Blogger Matthieu Chauvin said...

There's a one hour video where he presents his work, the ideas and thought process behind the photos along with some technique. Great watch.

Secrets of Great Portrait Photography with Brian Smith

October 18, 2012 8:26 AM  
Blogger Maurice Etoile said...

Great read! I am about to finish it. So I had a look at the strobist 'bookshelf' - I think it should be updated :)

Do you have any more recommendations on portrait photography?

Thanks! Have a great day :)

November 06, 2012 4:23 AM  
Blogger Maurice Etoile said...

Great read! I'm just about to finish it. I had a look on the strobist bookshelf. It seems a bit empty :)

Do you have any more recommendations on portrait photography?

Thanks! Have a great day :)

November 06, 2012 4:25 AM  
Blogger Søren Bjørn-Andersen said...

Brian Smith now has a video on Youtube from B&H where he more or less talks through this book:

June 06, 2013 9:41 AM  

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