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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.