A PORTRAIT OF SUCCESS
from Imaging Edge Magazine – January 2014
Sony Artisan of Imagery Brian Smith says photo careers are built one little break at a time.
People usually think photographer Brian Smith is kidding when he tells them that winning a Pulitzer Prize was only a small career break.
“It helped,” he says. “It was the thing that got me in the door to see magazine photo editors. I got assignments, which led to other assignments.”
Photography careers don’t happen overnight—at least careers that last, says Smith, who has over the course of his own career shot for newspapers and magazines such as Time, Sports Illustrated, The New York Times Magazine, and Rolling Stone. “Careers result from a series of little breaks, not one big one,” he says. “You become noticed for something you do, and then you take that and move on to the next thing, and use that to open more doors. When young photographers ask me how to get started and how to get where they want to go professionally, I tell them, ‘Be patient. Do good work, and it will be recognized. And then do more.’”
You could say that Smith’s first little break came when he was in high school and was hired by the local newspaper to cover sports. “It was one of those things that can only happen in small-town America,” he says. Another break came later, when he was studying photojournalism at the University of Missouri. A photo he had taken was published in Life magazine.
“I took advantage of everything I could do outside of class, working as a staff photographer, the yearbook photo editor, and finally yearbook editor,” he says. He spent summers interning at newspapers, including the Cincinnati Enquirer and the New Orleans Times-Picayune. The latter offered him a job after he graduated. Six months later, a photo editor he’d met in Cincinnati, who had since moved to the Orange County Register in California, asked Smith to come work for him.
“At the time, the Register was really leading the way in how newspapers were using color photography, so it was a great opportunity,” Smith says. Or just another little one. It was while working for the Register that Smith, at age 25, won the Pulitzer Prize for Spot News Photography for his coverage of the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles.
Smith’s next stop was the Miami Herald, which offered him the chance to cover international news stories. “Working at newspapers meant doing all kinds of photography—news, features, photo illustration, and portraiture,” he says. “It required that you sometimes get out of your comfort zone. And that’s good. Everything new that you do, you bring something back.”
While working in Miami, Smith also steadily built up a freelance career shooting for magazines—sometimes putting in an eight-hour shift at the newspaper and then tackling a job for Time. Eventually he launched his freelance magazine career full time, creating the work he is best known for today—portraits of actors, business leaders, politicians, and athletes that are at once stylish and telling. Many of those images, and the stories behind them, can be found in his 2012 book Secrets of Great Portrait Photography: Portraits of the Famous and Infamous. The book evolved from a number of talks that Smith, a member of the Sony Artisans of Imagery group, has been giving at the PhotoPlus Expo event in New York since 2010.
“I wanted to tell people about all the components that go into making a successful portrait, from the preparation to the shoot itself,” says Smith. “It isn’t enough to know you should put a big light at the right-hand side of the frame and shoot at f/11. Obviously you want your shot to be well lit. But unless you do all the other things right, you’re going to end up with a very successfully lit, dead photograph.”
Each new step along his career path—each little break—has made Smith a different photographer. “My takeaway advice is, ‘What ever is expected of you, do more. And as you move along and you achieve more success, try to remember why you got into photography, as opposed to a more traditional career, in the first place. It’s just a really fun way to make a living.”
Case Study: The Perfect Portrait Lens
Brian Smith’s photo kit holds his workhorse cameras—two Sony α99 full-frame DSLRs—and his favorite lens for portrait photography, the Carl Zeiss Vario-Sonnar T* 24-70mm f/2.8 ZA SSM zoom.
“If I could only have one lens to work with, I would be very happy with it,” he says. “For me, as a portrait photographer, it’s the perfect range. If I want a lot of environment around the subject in a horizontal portrait, 24mm is about as wide as I want to go. I’ll shoot a lot in the 35mm-to-50mm range for a full-body or half-body shot. And for tight portraits I love shooting at 70mm. It makes the photo session a little more intimate—you’re in close with the subject, having a little conversation, and not shouting from across the room.”
Recently, Smith has also been shooting with the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX1, a tiny full-frame camera with a fixed 35mm lens. “I love its image quality, and also the experience of shooting with a fixed 35mm lens,” he says. “It really comes down to seeing, rather than zooming and any kind of whiz-wow stuff. It makes you concentrate on moving in and around subjects to find the picture.”