Interview: Brian D Smith

“Film is romantic. It’s timeless. It can be wildly perfect and simultaneously imperfect. I think this last sentiment is what I find most captivating about film.”

Brian is a wedding photographer who lives in Charleston, SC. His portrait work is absolutely stunning and clearly demonstrates a lot skill in shaping light. His work has pushed me to try new things with my photography. You can find his website here and his Instagram here.

JM – Tell me a bit about yourself.

BDS – I was born and raised in Ohio. I worked as an engineer for 2 years in Ohio before I moved to Charleston to work for Boeing. I spent 4 years there before I became disillusioned with working a desk job and I began to feel disconnected from my work. It was fulfilling and challenging, but I longed for something that was more deeply personal. Around this same time, I reconnected with photography and began pursuing weddings. I became consumed by photography. This feeling led to a swift realization that it was time to move on from my engineering career. I put in my notice, traveled the world, and began putting together the pieces of a photography business. This whole journey has been trial and error. I’ve figured it out as I’ve gone. I work really hard and have had a lot of successes, but I’ve had so many more failures and wasted energy on pursuits that haven’t provided any return. What hasn’t changed, however, is my love for photographing people. I never expected that an introvert would develop such a deep connection with portraiture and human connection. 

JM – Why do you shoot film?

BDS – I initially started shooting film because I wanted to use my Grandfather’s hand-me-down camera. I pursued film professionally because it just seemed to be the thing that elite wedding photographers do. I have continued to shoot film because I’ve fallen in love with the process, the aesthetic and the tangible feeling it brings to my work. Film is romantic. It’s timeless. It can be wildly perfect and simultaneously imperfect. I think this last sentiment is what I find most captivating about film. Film handles imperfections so gracefully, to the point where they become something you appreciate in the work you just created. For me, this is where I find the most meaning in photographing people. Pretty photographs exist in plenty, but if you truly connect with a subject and capture their beauty, you capture them in their entirety – imperfections and all. Film feels like an extension and a romantic depiction of the complexity that is the human existence and personal beauty. 

JM – How would you describe your style?

BDS – My style is a mix of sophisticated portraiture and gritty experimentation. I appreciate a well executed beauty portrait just as much as I do a conceptual artistic work. My style evolves a lot, and I still don’t feel like I have a good grasp of who I am as a photographer. As frustrating as that can be, I think that is what makes the pursuit so rewarding. At the end of the day, what I care most about, is that my work reflects me through my subjects. I want people to see my images and see my own depth, just as they see the depth of the subject being depicted. 

JM – What is your favorite film?  Camera?

BDS -My favorite film is Kodak Portra 800. I returned to the film stock this past year and completely fell in love. It so brilliantly tip-toes the line between refined beauty and surreal. I love the brilliant teal blues and the vibrant oranges. When I shoot Portra 800, I feel like the film stock is  contributing so much to the artwork, then simply capturing the light from the scene. It feels like it is applying it’s own artistic interpretation to the surroundings. My favorite camera is my Leica M-A. It isn’t the easiest or quickest to use, but I am just so drawn to the mechanical feel of it. I think it’s beautiful, and it is the closest thing I have ever felt to a camera just being an extension of myself. I’ve probably owned about 20 film cameras and I still feel like I am on a quest to find the perfect kit. It also depends on what I am photographing, but here is a quick summary.

Portraiture/Documenting/General – Leica M-A + 50 Summilux
Studio Strobe Portraiture – Contax 645 + 140mm F4 Macro
Studio Portraiture – Hasselblad 202FA + 110 F2

JM -Do you prefer to take portraits in or out of the studio?

BDS – I much prefer the studio, honestly. Studio portraiture has been the most rewarding pursuit of my photography career. I love the outdoors and I love those dreamy backlit portraits, but I just hate location scouting. I really don’t enjoy it or the added stress of it. I feel like when I have too many other things to worry about, I don’t produce my best images. When I am in studio, I get a chance to slow down, connect with the person I am photographing, and build something from the ground up. 

JM – What drives you to photograph?

BDS – I love just about everything about photography, but my greatest drive is building something that is fulfilling and rewarding for myself. I want to love the work that I do in life. I want to have an outlet for a voice and photography is the only thing I have ever found in my life that has even come close to that. I was a really good engineer, but I want to be brilliant at something. 

JM – What is a personal goal you have for your photography? 

BDS – I HATE defined goals – hate them. It was one of the biggest reasons I left engineering. I was tired of being chastised for not having a concrete 5 year plan. I’ve learned a lot about myself in my 3 years as a photographer and one of those is that I am a bit all over the place. I change what I want and what I want to pursue frequently. The closest thing I have to a goal, right now, is that I want to open a high end portrait studio and coffee shop. I want to marry my two loves and create a space that is welcoming, full of positive vibes, and an atmosphere that I truly want to live and work in. It’s an idea I haven’t been able to shake, and one day I know I’ll make it happen. 

JM – What do you look for in a photograph?  Is what you find compelling in a photograph different when it’s one of your photographs compared with one from someone else?

BDS – I tend to be more of the “I know what I don’t want in a photograph” type and that leads to creating something that I want. I see so much imagery every single day and, while it is all so beautiful, it all looks pretty similar. I am drawn to photographs that push creative boundaries and look like something I have never seen before. In this way I value the same things in my own work that I value in others, with one major exception. I take great pride in connecting with portrait subjects to make simple “character” portraits – portraits that capture the depth and breadth of a subject. While someone looking in from the outside might not be captivated by or inspired by the photograph, I know the personal connection that went into creating those photographs and I see so much of the subject reflected in the imagery. I value these images immensely and they are some of my favorite photographs. In a day and age where social media rewards consistency in works, it’s so hard to market a brand that produces clean portraiture and conceptual works. I can’t say that I have figured out how to do it yet, but I’ll never stop trying. 

JM – What is your favorite shot you’ve ever taken?  What’s the story behind it?

BDS – Man that’s such a tough question. I honestly don’t think I have a single photograph that stands out as a undeniable favorite, but this portrait in particular is special to me. This portrait was from the first ever successful shoot I had using film with strobes in studio, and probably the first time I have ever truly been captivated by expression in a portrait. It was perfection from the time I first laid eyes on it and I still view it the same today. The lighting, the colors and crushed shadows of the expired film – everything just seemed to work harmoniously. 

JM – In what ways has your photography grown and improved since you started shooting film?

BDS – I have learned to appreciate grit and imperfection. This has been the biggest evolution in my photography journey. I recently revisited some 35mm photos from an Iceland trip 2 years ago. I shot them on portra 800 film and they are muddy and grainy, but with oh so much character and color. I remember not liking them when I first got the scans back because they didn’t reflect the perfect beauty that I always expected from film. Revisiting them now, they are my favorite travel photographs, and some of my favorite photographs in general. I think this appreciation for the imperfect has greatly improved my ability to tell a story and create images that are more feeling that perfection. I know the old cliché of “film slows you down” is a bit overused, but I find it rings true. I am more patient with film. I take less photos and get more usable images. I am more likely to experiment with film because I can’t immediately see the results of the experimentation and start tweaking every endless little variable. When you start to over analyze your experimentation, it starts to lose it’s enjoyment. With film, I think about what I am doing before hand and I just go for it. I can’t begin to tell you how many of my favorite images have been the result of film experimentation. 

JM – Do you have any advice for a film photographer looking to get into studio portraiture?

BDS – Learn lighting!  Don’t be afraid of complex lighting. Most studio work you see is natural light driven, and while beautiful, I tend to find it a bit boring. I am more drawn to drama, in both lighting and expression. Natural light is a great way to start to help you learn studio posing and how to communicate with a portrait subject in a studio environment, but there is so much more potential to unlock when you get creative with lighting. Keep it simple to start. Put a subject in front of a backdrop in a dark room (so you can see your light) and use an LED light. Move the LED light around to see where the light falls on the subject and find what lighting style you are most drawn to. My favorite photographers are fashion photographers from the 1940s through 1970s. They were masters of lighting techniques and shot everything on film. When I look at their works, they have unlocked so much more creativity just through lighting. Think about all of the beautiful natural light studio portraits you see, but how many of them truly inspire you?  Does that image stand out from the rest that you see?  It’s okay to start out simple, but always try and experiment. Always try new things. 

More of Brian’s work can be seen below:

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