My big break
Bruce Smith worked as a photographer’s assistant before stepping out on his own in London in the 1980s. Now based in Paris, he has established The Bruce Smith Photography Academy. He is also the author of Pro Digital Fashion Photography. www.brucesmithpho
Fashion photographer Bruce Smith reveals the Nikon, and the shot, that turned his career around
“The way I see it, Nikon saved my life!” So declares Liverpool-born fashion photographer Bruce Smith, when recalling the years when he struggled to focus the camera properly because of poor eyesight. Thirty years ago, autofocus was a developing technology, and was yet to feature in professional-grade SLR cameras. However, the launch of the Nikon F4 in 1988 changed that forever, convincing even the most sceptical of professionals that the days of manual focus were all but over.
At the time, Bruce was working for Carlton Studios in London, but not as a photographer. “My eyesight is very bad and I gave up shooting freelance and got a job in selling and production. I was getting work for seven other photographers at the studio.” Frustrated and depressed by not taking pictures, Bruce would set up a test shoot every month or two “to keep my hand in”. His camera of choice in those days was a Bronica medium-format camera. All that changed soon after the launch of the Nikon F4.
“One of my colleagues bought an F4 body as soon as it came out,” Bruce says. “It was the first autofocus professional body when it came onto the market, and I thought, ‘That’s my saviour!’ So I bought one with a few lenses. The way I see it, Nikon saved my life! I am in focus because of the F4.”
The image here was one of the first pictures Smith shot with his new F4, taken on one of his test shoots while still doing his production job at Carlton Studios. “It’s called ‘Tulip Angel’. It’s a very simple picture, black and white, shot on film. I’ve still got the contact sheet. Technically, it was very easy. It was shot in the studio at 1/250 sec at f/8 with a big Octalite with no diffusing screen over it.”
It may have only been a test shot, but this image led to something far more commercial that helped Bruce to the next level in his career. He explains: “The combination of that picture and an earlier picture of a model in a black patterned dress, called ‘Angela’, that I shot with a Bronica on my very first fashion shoot, got me a great job of shooting an advertising campaign for Häagen-Dazs. Lots of other jobs have come because of the combination of those two pictures: the emotion and feeling in one and the lighting and believable reality story in the other. This was when my career took off.”
Today, Bruce Smith is based in Paris and well established as one of Europe’s leading fashion photographers, with a client list of international lifestyle and fashion brands. Since having his professional life saved by autofocus and the Nikon F4, he has established his own photography academy teaching fashion, boudoir and fine-art nude shooting techniques. He has also published several fine-art photography books, including Pro Digital Fashion Photography (known as Fashion Photography: A
Complete Guide in the US). “Autofocus is so taken for granted these days now,” he muses. “Can you imagine how many people wouldn’t be photographers today because they couldn’t do without it?”