Among other fabulous photographers, I had the pleasure of meeting and learning from celebrity portraitist Brian Smith at the recent San Francisco World Photography Festival.

Based in Miami, he came to the event to share some of the things he has learned from photographing celebrities, CEOs and models over the past thirty years.

A few things I took away from his style, which is very different from my own, yet he makes it work so well, you can’t help but admire his work in the same way you’d admire a Salvador Dali but may not want to hang it on your wall. 

There’s a fabulous shot that doesn’t look like much when you first look at it, but note the careful selection of white against white yet his shoes nearly match the floor; natural earth tone next to natural earth tone. And….it just works.

Whereas this one combines a natural look with a little glitz in the background, but glitz in a solid color making the whole thing feel unified and balanced.

A few other takeaways.

Use contrasts. If you’re shooting a boring subject – a traditional conservative CEO for example versus a Las Vegas singer, set him in a dramatic environment or change his / her clothing dramatically, i.e., outside the office and against a large gold pillar background or his example of putting Bill Gates in a black turtleneck.

OR combine the look of deep rich contrasting colors with contrasting images that don’t appear to go together — on the surface, such as what Brian did below. I LOVE THIS PHOTO btw. 


You can also put celebs or other subjects you’re shooting in different clothing, different backdrops (tennis player in a suit on the top of a large building or an athlete in a graveyard showing their strength/that the rest of the industry should fear them because they’re so good). He made some really interesting points about getting creative with ‘how you depict’ something.

For example, there are several ways outside of traditional thinking you could visually represent wealth or academia or entrepreneurship or design or glitz or fashion or beauty or health. You get the idea.

Other tips on speed….he says, “you don’t always need to shoot 10 frames a second or more, you can do it one shot at a time with a strobe.”

Apparently he uses strobes frequently and on touching photos up in the post shooting process, he had this to say, “I like to touch people up so that they still look real, but perhaps just left a really fabulous spa treatment – in other words, it’s not so dramatic that someone wouldn’t look at the subject and say it’s an unrealistic representation of them.” I thought it was great advice.

The keep it simple message kept coming up, which frankly is a message that works for most things in life. He also suggested not skimping on production or background since the environment (next to lighting) could make or break your shot.

I found him inspiring and down-to-earth, not to mention an easy listen. What I loved about his “show-and-tell” approach was the human part of the shot, i.e., not just what light or lens he used for the shot, but what the environment was like, the situation and occasionally adding funny add-ons throughout. Below is some video that I shot during the session.

Check out his work over at, where you can see countless images, ranging from travel, lifestyle and celebrity portraits to fine art and athletes.

footer creative commons