My Portrait Gear Essentials

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What’s the best equipment for taking amazing portraits?

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I’m often asked what the best equipment is for taking great portraits. Many people assume that a great camera will take great portraits. That is simply not true. A quick scan through Flickr, Instagram or any photo sharing site will reveal thousands of beautiful portraits, some taken on mobile phone cameras, and yet others using very basic entry level equipment.

A great photographer can take great photos using any kind of camera. A great camera in unskilled hands will still deliver mediocre photos. Before you invest the big bucks in high end gear take the time to learn the craft first.

I started out my professional career with a borrowed camera and very cheap lens. I worked this way for a few years and then invested in a high end second hand camera and lens. If I were starting out again now I would do exactly the same thing. My advice on buying a camera is always buy within your means and upgrade as your skills start to improve.

Most girls love buying shoes and handbags. I admit I’m a self-confessed gear-a-holic!

It’s taken me 25 years to accumulate this gear. My gear is subjected to punishing workouts, with my average shoot being approximately 2000-3000 images. I need gear that is built to last and won’t curl up and cry for its mama when I push it too far.

My portrait gear essentials – what’s in my bag

Cameras

  • Canon 1Ds Mark III – this is a pro-level camera, so it’s more expensive and a lot heavier but it’s designed to survive heavy usage. I would say I use this camera for 80% of my shooting.
  • Canon 5D Mark II – I’ll favour this camera body if I know I have to shoot with a high ISO (in very low light or on a night shoot). At 400-1600 ISO this camera is amazing.

Lenses

I like to work with a focal length between 70mm and 200mm. With a long lens, facial features are slightly compressed, which is really flattering for portraits.

The workhorse

Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS lens – this lens is my workhorse and I use it for 70% of my shoots. It’s fast, sharp and consistently gives amazing results.

I like working with zoom lenses because they give me the luxury of zooming in to get tight head shots and mid-shots, or zooming out to get full length shots. All without moving my camera. As a result, I can stay out of my model’s personal space, which can be intimidating or confronting, and keep the momentum of the shoot flowing.

The traveller

Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS lens – this is the lens I use for events, lifestyle and travel shoots. It’s light, compact and my go to lens when travelling.

Makes my heart skip a beat

Canon EF 85mm f/1.2L lens – it’s expensive, heavy, and slow to focus but I quickly forget all of this when I see the gorgeous results. I love using this lens for head shots, beauty, portraits, and events.

This lens will give amazing results in very low light conditions and the shallow depth of field will eliminate any background clutter giving me the luxury to use it lens in any location.

Tripods

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Most of my portraits are shot using tripods. I like to set up my shot, position my model and then focus on their expression. Keeping my camera fixed in one position allows me to do this and really suits my shooting style.

Having my camera on a tripod also allows me to focus 100% of my attention on my model and frees me up to gesture with my hands, or step away from the camera without breaking the shot.

I have four tripods:

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Remote flash triggers

PocketWizards

I have six PocketWizard remote flash triggers because I’ll often have three different sets running. I love the PocketWizards because they are reliable and rarely misfire.

Light meter

This model isn't available any more, try one in the Sekonic line

I believe the light meter is an essential tool in good portrait photography and would never leave home without one. When you use a light meter you know you have most accurate readings.

Minolta IV (not available any more) – I’ve had this light meter for over 23 years now and I’ve grown rather fond of it. As a basic meter it’s excellent, reading ambient light or flash, and it’s perfect for most lighting conditions.

Lighting

Speedlights

portrait-gear-essentials-01I use a speedlight off camera for about 20%-30% of my photo shoots. Like any piece of gear, they have their pros and cons, but they can light you out of some tight spots (quite literally).

I use Canon 580EXii speedlights as my preferred lighting when I am travelling or need to work quickly or in tight locations. I will also use a Photoflex medium size softbox that folds flat, and is perfect for lighting one person and couples.

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Portrait of Vito shot on location at my Sicily Photography workshop

My complete travel location portrait photography kit:

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Studio lighting

Elinchrom Lights

60% of my shoots require studio lighting, so I need heavy duty monolights with fast recycle times, and a high quality of light. When I’m working on location, I still need a great quality of light and I give my Elinchrom Rangers a work out in those situations.

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Behind the scenes for Piperlane.com

Large Softboxes

portrait-gear-essentials-08If I could only pick one light modifier to take to a deserted island, it would have to be a softbox. Small, medium or large this little puppy is my go to light source for 80% of my shoots.

Why? The quality of light is soft, flattering and malleable. Changing the angle and proximity of the softbox to the subject, easily changes the quality and direction of light.

A softbox, I feel, recreates the effect of soft daylight through a window.

I think what I like most about softboxes is that they are subtle. Highlights gently merge to shadows.

If it’s a studio shoot I love using my Chimira Medium softbox, with white reflective interior. The white interior creates a softer light and this particular softbox has an extra layer of diffusion on the inside, adding even more softness to the light.

portrait-gear-essentials-05Rotalux Deep Octabox

Rotalux deep octabox would be the result if a softbox married a beauty dish and made babies. This, as far as I’m concerned, is a match made in heaven for lighting single person portraits.

Laptop

MacBookPro 15”

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Shooting tethered to a computer has made my life as a photographer so much easier, because I can use my computer as a teaching tool. ?I can show my model a series of great images, with slightly different poses. We can talk about how the poses are different and what I want them to do in the next series. They can see what I mean and it makes more sense, straight away.


Gina is the author of four dPS eBooks including:

You can buy one for $19.99 or grab the whole bundle for only $49.99 (save 38%) from any of the links above.

Read more from our Cameras & Equipment category

Gina Milicia has been a professional photographer for more than 25 years. She has photographed some of the world’s most high-profile people including royalty, billionaires and A-list celebrities. Often travelling the world, Gina also runs photography workshops and private mentoring sessions. You can sign up for her free ebook on "Portrait and Post Production Essentials" and see more of her work here. Check out her podcast “So you want to be a photographer” on iTunes.

  • guitarguy23

    This was a really well thought-out article! Makes me happy to continue using my Canon 40D. 🙂

  • A fan

    I think this article is a fantastic window into the individual style and preference of Gina M’s photography, but unfortunately not colloquial enough for true beginners. It’s a great read packed full of tidbits for someone interested in pursuing a more professional form of portrait photography but only if you understand the vernacular. Love her style, though.

  • nima

    Do you have a filter attached to the lens?
    ????? ?????????? ???? ??????? ????????

  • Gina Milicia

    Hi Nima,
    I will use an ND filter for landscape photography but rarely use filters for portrait shoots.

  • gari

    I said great gear doesn’t produce great images?
    ???? ??????????? ????????

  • oj

    Next week I have to take 2,000 portrait photos in 5 days for a school yearbook. This is my first time being the photographer. What camera, lens and lighting would be best?

  • Michael D Skelton

    Nikon gear will work just as well

  • Michael Ireland

    I loved the article, but come on, essentials…. Once you have four tripods, I think you’re a little beyond “essentials”. 😀

  • Anthony

    Hello Fellow Photographers,

    I recently purchased a Lighting Light Video Photo Softbox Umbrella Photography Kit Backdrop Muslin from Jet.com at an amazing price and am excited to share it with other fellow photographers. (see link below)

    https://jet.com/product/Lighting-Light-Video-Photo-Softbox-Umbrella-Photography-Kit-Backdrop-Muslin/c5e1cfdb0681481ea79a769ffa44d410

    I have since started shooting on my spare time at home and quite frankly am making a substantial amount of money on the side apart from my regular 9 – 5. 🙂

    This has been one of the best investments I’ve made recently!

    I hope this helps others when making their next photography equipment purchasing decision.

    Have a great day!

    Sincerely,

    Anthony E

  • Craig Tidball

    Need some advice on setting up a hobby portrait studio. I use Mac and needing a laptop for using Lightroom and Photoshop. I was looking at the latest MacBook 15 inch which runs about $2500 and got to thinking do I really need all those bells and whistles. Why not buy a 6 month old version (without the fancy new tool bar that gets mixed reviews)? If I’m not doing video or real fancy graphics – just post processing and tethered shooting – that older set up should serve me welI for sometime I would think. I can get in for about half the cost. I would need to hook up a DVD drive, Wacom tablet and possibly a larger monitor but have portability for travel and on location shoots. Any thoughts on what Mac equipment will get this learning amateur underway?

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