Gear — Portraits

Read our portrait how-to guide

Cameras

Most pros prefer full-frame cameras for portrait work, but whether you use a full-frame or crop-framed one like APS-C or Micro Four Thirds, you have the same needs. You want good image quality, a camera that feels comfortable and that makes sense to you. I use a Canon 1D X Mark II, but honestly, if I weren’t a professional, it probably wouldn’t make much sense to spend $6,000 on a camera body.

Canon EOS 5D Mark IV press
Canon EOS 5D Mark IV

Choose the brand you feel comfortable using—some people have very distinct opinions about the design and interface of a camera—a camera you’re comfortable with will allow you to take pictures more easily. Let your budget determine the model.

With $1,500 to spend, I’d recommend a Canon 6D or Nikon D610. With $3,500, I’d recommend a Canon 5DS, Nikon D810, Sony a7R II, Sony a99 II, Canon 5D Mark IV or Nikon D7500. With an unlimited budget, I’d get a Canon 1D X Mark II or a Nikon D5. With less than $1000, I’d look carefully at the Sony, Fujifilm and Panasonic APS-C lines.

Lenses

The most commonly used portrait lenses are in the 50m to 200mm range. Wide-angle lenses cause distortion up close, so they should be used sparingly.

My go-to portrait lenses are a 50mm/1.2, 100mm Macro, and a 70-200mm/2.8. Any good camera company will have these three choices available.

Portraits - Canon lens
Canon EF 50mm ƒ/1.2L USM

Most of my lenses are Canon brand, and most Nikon shooters have Nikon glass, but high-end third-party lenses from Zeiss, Sigma and Tamron make fantastic after-market lenses. I even have a manual-focus Rokinon 14mm for wide-angle environmental work.

“Kit” lenses (the ones that come with cameras) are good general-purpose lenses, but they’re usually not as sharp as higher-priced lenses.

Modifiers

There are countless light modifiers used by the portrait-photography. The must-have tools are umbrellas, soft boxes and reflectors. Some good brands to look for are Paul C. Buff, Westcott, Chimera, Elinchrom, Lastolite and others. Every strobe and light-modifier company has their own line of modifiers. Higher prices usually signify more durable fabrics and easier setup, and a good quality modifier will last for years.

Westcott Rapid Box - 26" Octa Softbo

Lights

There are two typical portrait types, studio and location, and the lighting gear for each is different.

For location lighting, I prefer first to see if I can get away with using speedlights. I use Canon’s Speedlite 600EX II-RT, which performs similarly to Nikon’s new SB-500 system. I have four lights and they cost almost $600 each, plus the ST-E3-RT Transmitter, around $300.

The portable kit isn’t exactly budget-friendly, but there are serious advantages to this setup, notably weight and flexibility.

Even with just one or two speedlights, this setup is extremely versatile. If I need more output than a single unit provides, I set four lights on a Foursquare modifier from Lightware. Four strobes provide enough power to shoot high-speed sync outdoors. The primary issue using speedlights is keeping up with all the batteries.

Interfit S1 Studio Light
Interfit S1 Studio Light

New battery-powered monolights, like the Interfit S1, Profoto B1 and Bowens XMS provide studio power in a compact, transportable package.

For studio work, you’ll want a high-power studio pack or monoblock. I’d recommend a two-head Interfit S1 kit or a two-head Profoto B1 kit. If you’re only occasionally shooting portraits, renting might be a good option.

Many photographers swear by Paul C. Buff’s lighting lineup. They make about everything a photography would ever need. The prices are incredibly affordable, and their service is legendary. If budget is of no concern, the high-end gear from Elinchom, Profoto and Broncolor are advanced and feature rich. This equipment isn’t intended for amateurs, but is designed for high-volume, high-end professionals, with professional builds. Some of the top-of-the-line systems are well over $10,000 and that doesn’t include a head or modifier.

Read our portrait how-to guide

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