Jan 5, 2015

The Exquisite Mobile Portraiture of Tony Smith

If you have any doubt that you can shoot great portraits with an iPhone, this interview with Tony Smith should erase all of them! Be sure to pay attention to Tony's pointers for shooting portraits and making your subject comfortable. They came in handy today while on a photo shoot with my daughter-in-law. Tony's work makes me want to be a better photographer!

© Tony Smith
What is your name and where do you live?

TS:  I am Tony Smith, originally from Wales, now living in Winchester the ancient capital of England and 4 or 5 months each year near Marbella in Andalucia, Spain.

How did you get started in mobile photography? What device do you use?

TS:  When I moved from Windows to Macs, I changed from a Nokia to an iPhone 3. A “serious” photographer at the time I just didn’t see the iPhone as a camera, in truth I had a quite elitist attitude about ‘phone cameras (and compacts) in those days, for which I have honestly repented! Rarely did I take ‘phone photographs other than for recording street names, locations in car parks, domestic things, bits and pieces from newspapers and magazines, etc.

One day with the iPhone 4 (number 2), I took some photographs of my grandkids, imported them into Photoshop and was frankly amazed by the quality of the images – and I was hooked.

I upgraded to the 5s and I now use the smaller 6, which I like (photographically) but prefer the metal chunkiness of the previous model – the 6 is a bit too Samsung for my liking.

© Tony Smith

© Tony Smith

Do you have a traditional photography or art background?

TS:  Traditional Photography. I was never given a camera as child, we couldn’t afford such luxuries. I bought the first camera when I started work in the Hospitality Industry and I have owned one ever since. I spent a decade trying to kill myself in a badly ventilated dark room where I developed and printed in black and white, mostly portraits. As a hotel manager and later owner I learned how to take architectural, internal and product shots for my brochures and advertising and I photographed our growing family and wherever we travelled. I am an Associate of the Royal Photographic Society and hold the Diploma of the Photographic Alliance of Great Britain. Both achieved on the judged quality of my images.

The turning point for me was the digital darkroom and Photoshop. The excitement of being able to take a photograph, load it immediately into a very early Photoshop and work on it was a huge motivation. My penchant for environmental portrait photography started around that time and is still my major motivation.

© Tony Smith

© Tony Smith

Who or what inspires you?

TS:  The best way to start answering this is to say who doesn’t! That would be most of the “famous” portrait photographers, famous for taking ordinary photographs of celebrities. These images do nothing for me, see past the subject and author and you are often (not always) left with a very ordinary image, which if you or I had taken of an unknown person nobody would look at twice. The one great exception within this genre is, for me, Richard Avedon who just got that little more out of his subjects than anyone else – both in and out of the studio.

My inspiration is the likes of Tom Stoddart, whose work in war zones is quite legendary. His book Witness is a must for anyone interested in this genre. I had the pleasure of meeting Tom whilst photographing the Summer Solstice at Stonehenge in Wiltshire, England some years back when I dropped a Nikon 70-200 lens on his head, we have kept in touch ever since! Second in this genre is Don McCullin, another British war photographer for whom I have the greatest respect, as a photographer and human being.

For several years I have photographed Gypsy and Traveller gatherings in France, Spain and the UK, very interesting and photogenic people, who have been badly treated throughout history. In Romania, especially, they were simply ignored as if they didn’t exist. Josef Koudelka’s photographs, taken mostly in Romania, Hungary, France and Spain, are full of the emotion and sadness of people living on the fringes of society.

Also on the fringes of society are the street children of Bombay. These happy, dirty rascals survive against the odds with many of them becoming drug addicts at a very early age. Dario Mitidieri, in his book Children of Bombay, has opened up the world of these kids for us all to see. I just love his style and amazed at how he was accepted into that murky underworld to photograph them. I love India and visit most years to photograph religious festivals, in the streets and alongside the Ghats.

For searching out and creating artistic environmental portraits of interesting faces Steve McCurry must be the master. Check out his little book “Portraits”, published by Phaidon and see what you think. For me it is the bible for street portraiture – albeit his were taken with film cameras.

I have recently seen work by William Mortensen that I like very much. A photographer who experimented with pigments and processes to produce beautiful textured portraits that looks very much like stuff produced with iPhones and apps today.

There are many more who inspire me. I have kept the list short to those who inspire my portrait and festival photography.

© Tony Smith

© Tony Smith

Your portrait work is exquisite! What advice would you give to get the best portrait with an iPhone? 

TS:  First and foremost find a suitable subject, don’t waste your time with anyone who doesn’t have that little bit extra. Talk to them, tell them something you think they will be happy to hear, look them in the eye and say something like, “wow, that’s a great hat, what a super beard, you have such a pretty face, what a lovely baby (you don’t have to include the baby) etc” and “can I please take your photograph” When travelling abroad it’s not so easy but I normally learn how to ask in the local language, which helps. Even friends and family have to be relaxed.

Position out of direct sunlight if possible – the iPhone's worst enemy! Try to find an uncluttered background – depth of field is the other enemy. Frame the shot. Make sure the subject keeps still, get eye contact, focus, increase or decrease exposure with the new iPhone slider and take as many shots as you can get away with. When you say you are finished take a few more, relaxing often produces the best shot.

I like to switch off the volume, connect my earphones and use the volume button on the wires like a cable release whenever possible. This eliminates shake and they don’t see me taking the photograph.

Keep talking to relax your subject. Try not to look at your screen when shooting, maintain eye contact over the top of your iPhone (checking occasionally to ensure your framing is ok). Thank them afterwards and show them some images on the screen – if they want to see them.

If you are at a pageant, in a theme park, at a gay parade or wherever people dress up (or down) they probably want (need) to be photographed. In these situations your subject will be more malleable, so position them to your liking.

Most of the above applies whatever device or camera you are using. I do find far less resistance when using my iPhone compared to my DSLR and I get better photos as a result.

© Tony Smith

© Tony Smith

Do you "coach" your subjects on how to pose, or do you just capture them as they are?

TS:  Both. There are two main portrait scenarios. My preferred, where I am in control of the process and the subject knows he or she is being photographed. In this situation I must have eye contact. I don’t like portraits where the head is pointed towards the camera and the eyes somewhere else. I do take control of the situation as best I can, keeping them talking helps.

The other is when I am an observer capturing a moment in someone's life, without them knowing. This is not so easy with the iPhone, given the wide angle of the lens and having to get so close. Ideally I want to fill the frame with the subject, difficult if you are trying to be discreet! I get very few of these with the iPhone. It is much easier with a longish lens on a DSLR.

© Tony Smith

© Tony Smith

How do you process your work? Do you have favorite apps?

TS:  I have tried most of them! For a year or more I bought just about every photo processing app released, some I stuck with, others went to the trash quite quickly and some I have yet to try. If I was only allowed one app (at the moment) it would have to be Snapseed. For simply tuning and sharpening an image it works great.
My main objective is to get the best possible (straight) photograph using the following apps:

  1. Snapseed, to straighten and crop.
  2. Perspective Correct, to correct perspective.
  3. Perfectly Clear, to remove casts and correct the exposure.
  4. Noiseware for noise removal.
  5. TouchRetouch, to clone out unwanted elements.
  6. Pixelmator. I am trying hard to make this my go to app as it mirrors a lot of what I do with my other photos on the Mac with Photoshop CC and Lightroom. I can make overall adjustments by setting the white balance and adjusting curves and the histogram. I particularly like the Retouch Brushes. Lighten and darken to dodge and burn, brushes to saturate, desaturate and sharpen. Much easier and quicker than having to mask areas. The soften brush for gently blurring backgrounds, essential for most of my portraits and is, for me, the best of its type and produces a very natural effect. Nice black and white and sepia conversions too.
  7. Facetune, used sparingly, is good for removing facial blemishes, reshaping, whitening teeth and generally improving features.
  8. Superimpose is used to create and save cutouts. I use this when the background is so bad it needs to be changed (rarely), and to add something cloned from another photo (also rarely).
  9. AntiCrop is just magic. It allows me to add canvas on any or all sides of the image by duplicating the nearest pixels. Particularly useful if the image needs straightening or I framed too tightly and want to add a border.
  10. For mono conversion my favorites are Dramatic HD and Monokrom as both produce film like images
  11. PhotoSize is a one trick pony. In a second it will tell you the pixel dimensions of your image and if you need the next app.
  12. iResize. Does just that, it uses an algorithm to enlarge the image size, much like Perfect Resize (Genuine Fractals) does for your DSLR photos. I normally aim for 4000 pixels on the longest side, which is pretty big.

The above apps will do, more or less, for a photograph on an iPad what Photoshop and Lightroom will do on a computer. Apart from Snapseed, I find them just too fiddly to use on an iPhone.

When I attempt (usually unsuccessfully) to get “arty”, I go to these apps first;
  1. Repix is great for adding scratches, cracks, vintage stains and drips exactly where I want them. By opening up a plain colour image or texture and applying effects with brushes I can create a unique background created with the image it will be blended with in mind. I then blend them in Superimpose. 
  2. LensLight and Rays are my go to light effects - and Alien Sky when I feel really adventurous.
  3. I have lots of textures but feel a bit guilty when I use them! My photo club competitions and exhibiting background do not allow the use of anything in a photo that isn’t mine. I have a lot of textures and skies taken with my iPhone, which I prefer to use and I keep adding more. When I do “cheat”, I tend to go to Vintage Scene first followed by Distressed FX, but not very often to either. 
  4. Rarely used, but in my toolbox are; Stackables, Bleach Bypass, Fog Fx, Sunsetter*, Litely, Rainy Daze HD, Jazz!, PhotoArtistaHD Oil and PhotoCopier, to name but a few.
(*Geri's note: could not locate Sunsetter in the US App Store)

© Tony Smith

I'm sure my readers (and me too!) would welcome any advice for organizing photos - how do you keep on top of things?

TS:  It has taken a couple of years of trial and error and a couple of dramas to get to where I am now.

When I get home to my Wi-Fi my images automatically transfer to my iPad. If I decide to send anything to my Facebook or Instagram I will do so directly from the iPad.

My set up is a MacBook Pro with three external Thunderbolt drives connected; One drive holds my Lightroom Catalogue, another my Photos, (i.e. those not yet in or not going into Lightroom) and the third is a Time Machine Drive backing up the 1TB drive in the MacBook. I regularly back up these onto external drives with Carbon Copy Cloner and keep them outside my house. I am paranoid about losing my images!

I copy the photos off my iPhone by connecting it to the MacBook and importing them into Lightroom, where I have a section dedicated to iPhone photos. I never mix iPhone with DSLR. They go to a file “ALL FOR SORTING” from which I will delete the rubbish and move the keeps to appropriately named folders within “ALL IPHONE PHOTOS”.

On my iPad I move the best to various Albums inside Photos, deleting the rest. Once complete and my Lightroom Drive has been copied I delete all the photos on my iPhone, other than the family and other stuff I like to have with me. I have a Dropbox account and tend to use that for transferring between Lightroom and my iPad.

© Tony Smith

© Tony Smith

Have you ever sold or exhibited your work? If not, any plans for the future?

TS:  I have never intentionally tried to sell any of my images, DSLR or iPhone. Time is more important too me than the potential income. I have been approached on several occasions and have sold to those wishing to buy stuff, usually my travel photos wanted for travel publications.

For several years I have been exhibiting DSLR images, both printed and DPI (digitally projected images), in the UK, and internationally, with some success. In my Photo Club I compete in both Print and DPI competitions and have entered iPhone photos in both DSLR and iPhone photography.

© Tony Smith

What area of mobile photography would you like to explore that you've not yet tried?

TS:  I love good modern architecture but unfortunately there is not much of it within a 50 mile radius of where I live. Macro is interesting and with my new Olloclip lenses I certainly intend to challenge myself with in that genre in 2015. I love seeing images of very small things printed very large. I have an A2 printer and will be trying that soon.

© Tony Smith

Is there anything else you'd like to add? 

TS:  Just one. I am very sorry to see Art of Mob closing down. Your blog has been inspirational and helpful in my iPhoneography journey and I, like many more, will miss it greatly. Most of the apps I use and rely on were introduced to me by your featured photographers.

Thank you for your quite considerable contribution and good health and luck to you and yours for 2015 and well beyond.

Find Tony:  Website / Instagram / 500px / Facebook


  1. Tony, thank you for sharing. Your work is very inspiring! The tips for portraits will be used.

  2. Brent - I couldn't believe the change in expression when I looked directly into the person's eyes rather than through the camera. Also asking them questions or making comments helped get a more natural expression.

  3. This is one of the most interesting interviews I have read. Tony really knows how to capture the feeling as well as the image. I have made notes of all his go to apps. Thanks for introducing him to us.

  4. I was very excited to publish this interview! Tony's work is stellar!


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