What’s the best equipment for taking amazing portraits?
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
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
- Manfrotto 190XPROB – small, light-weight tripod that I use when I travel
- Manfrotto 475B Pro – great sturdy tripod for location shoots
- Manfrotto 058B – heavy duty tripod for studio use
- Manfrotto 679B Monopod – for film, TV stills, and theatre
Remote flash triggers
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.
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.
I 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.
My complete travel location portrait photography kit:
- One Canon 5D MKII (much lighter than the Canon 1Ds Mark III
- Two Canon 580EXii speedlights
- Four PocketWizard remote flash triggers
- Six 8GB memory cards. I prefer smaller cards because I don’t like to have an entire day’s worth of images on one card. I’ve had several cards fail over the years ,and also lost one once.
- Minolta IV light meter (this model is no longer available, try one in the Sekonic line)
- Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS lens
- Canon EF 85mm f/1.2L lens or Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS lens
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.
If 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.
Rotalux 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.
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:
- Portraits: Making the Shot
- Portraits: Striking the Pose
- Portraits: Lighting the Shot
- Portraits: After the Shot
You can buy one for $19.99 or grab the whole bundle for only $49.99 (save 38%) from any of the links above.