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.

  • Katy

    Can’t say that I enjoyed this article too much. As someone who’s only been doing this for a couple of years, I almost felt like this was an overwhelming read, and it made me feel like all of my gear isn’t good enough to get the job done.

  • Stu Catz

    Wow so inspiring. I can’t believe you started out on a borrowed camera & lenses as WELL as buying 2nd hand equipment. Really enjoyed this post thanks for sharing

  • Kaliopy

    such sage advice and generous too…each artist has their own way and aesthetic and it is great to read what works for an individual. I found these tips useful when going out to purchase an additional lens for my camera recently. love your work Gina!

  • Lisa Ryan

    Thank you so much Gina! I’ve been a fan for years and especially love how giving you are, getting right down to what it takes! I’m all revved up and ready to go!

  • Zoe

    ‘SNAP SISTER!’ Awesome article for beginner just starting out!! Thanks for sharing x

  • Gina Milicia

    Sorry to hear that Katy. Did you read the start of the article where I said great gear doesn’t produce great images? Or the part of the article that explained I got my start as a pro using only second hand/borrowed entry level gear for many many years?
    My aim was to inspire and share some info about the gear I use and why.
    Apologies if you saw it as anything other than that but thanks for sharing your opinion. I will take it on board for future posts.

  • Gina Milicia

    Thanks so much Kaliopy, so pleased you enjoyed my blog.

  • Gina Milicia

    My pleasure Zoe.

  • Gina Milicia

    That’s so awesome to hear Lisa. Thank you very much.

  • Gina Milicia

    Thanks Stu, I’ve still got a few of my old second hand cameras. I’m rather fond of them. They are like family 🙂

  • Pille

    I love reading about photography and gear, however, unless you are not Numbnuts or Strobist (you know whom I talk about), you cant expect someone who has average salary to afford this kind of gear. Yeah, “holy trinity lenses”, light modifiers, stands, flashguns, FX bodies and pretty much everything here mentioned is for someone who can afford it. Which on the other hand pretty much nullifies the purpose of the article since people who have this kind of gear usually know this stuff. Why nobody ever (apart from the stuff David Hobby do with his AMAZING DIY suggestions and few others) put some alternative. Im not Canon shooter, but for a fact know that Nikkor 70-200 which is rather expensive piece of equipment, can be “substituted” with rather good for its price tag 70-300 lens. Yes, you will lose IQ, and above ~200mm lose its sharpness, f-stop and what not, but its more affordable to lots of hobbyists out there than 70-200. Few time cheaper that is. And everyone keeps telling that gear doesnt mean your photos will be better, well it does. Portrait shot with f2.8 at 200mm and portrait shoot at 5.6 at 200mm are not even comparable when it comes to bokeh for example. Quality of light as well. Wee I have alien bees! Wee I have pocket wizard! All stuff that is mostly used by photographers that will probably return its value in 2-3 shooting sessions. Dont get me wrong, advices are good, just for completely wrong target audience. Yes you mention how gear doesnt produce good photos. Well, then take for example some Digital Rebel (again very fine equipment), YN flashes (also good bang for a buck), some kit lens, or something in lower price range and post how to make great shots with that gear, since that is what 70% of population have. Take some Fujiyama or Marumi CPL (again amazing filters for the price) instead of B+W of other expensive ones and show us how to avoid flare and so on.

    Again, thanks for the info, but interwebs is already full of those.

  • louise

    Hi gina..thanks for sharing. I shoot with a nikon d80 with plans to upgrade to my dream camera the d4. Short of selling a kidney that won’t happen soon. I have a 24-70 and 70-200 non VR. If a financial decision has to be made, is it awesome lens (in my case i’ve been eyeing a 70-200VR) vs next step up body?

  • Mark

    Great article. Even though you have your own gear preferences, I really liked that you emphasized its not really about the camera, especially when your beginning.

  • Mark

    Katy don’t feel overwhelmed.. Its now about camera or how new; Gina mentioned the light meter she’s had for decades. I started almost 5 years ago with a little Sony kit – that kit got me front stage media pit shooting for a small indie radio station- felt pretty tiny shooting beside the BBC that’s for sure, but once I got passed that, it didn’t matter what they were shooting with.

    Only now as I look to taking more courses and exploring portraits (LOL which really intimidate me far more than the gear) that I would consider switching up a bit; the lens I have is too slow, too worn, and nowhere near a 2.8

    Take your time.

  • Mark

    Well, aren’t you a pleasant one.

  • Absolutely top-notch post, I really like your about.me page very attractive indeed.

  • Mike

    Gina, I read your previous ebook and really enjoyed it as well as this post. Thank you for pointing out that you started with second hand gear, and it took you 25 years to accumulate your overall gear and accessories. I think some readers might have missed that. I agree that gear isn’t the only factor in what makes a great photo, it’s the photographer. But I also realize there is a difference in the quality of the photo you can produce with better gear. My first and currently only upgrade has been from my kit 18-55mm to a 50mm f/1.4 prime lens. I went with that because I eventually plan on upgrading to a full frame body. After about 2 years with my 50, being excited about the better quality of photo I was getting over the kit lens, I wanted to get a zoom lens for more range. Looking at what the pros use (pros being defined as people who make their living as photographers), I tried to find cheaper alternatives. Then I found out you could rent lenses, which I have since been doing, until I can afford one. Renting allows me to try before I buy, and if you are shooting an event and would like a specific lens, rent it. I’d like to add that there are also third party lenses which can be significantly cheaper than the OEM versions. Again, thank you for the article as I do enjoy finding out what the pros use, even if I currently can’t afford it.

  • Barry E Warren

    Enjoyed reading these tips on gear. Shooting tethered is some thing I really need to get next. I can see how this is a useful tool.

  • Lenny

    Hi Gina,

    I have really enjoyed your books! I especially enjoyed the shoot with the business man in the rain with an umbrella with no fabric! You shoot great photos and are real
    artsy but you seem to place a lot of emphasis on high end gear. Many of us will never
    be able to afford a BMW and will have to stick with Fords. My entire
    kit starting with a t3i and 430EX flashes cost less than one of your
    lenses. How about listing the items in a kit of new, not used,
    equipment that would be in the price range for those of us on a
    budget in the 2500 to 3000 USD range?

    Lenny

  • Averlie

    As a serious hobbyist with several classes and a couple years of daily practice under my belt, I enjoy peeking in on pros’ equipment and techniques. Then I kind of pick & choose what I want to, or have the ability to, try or buy. Your article was very helpful in finalizing a decision to ask Santa for a Canon 70-200 lens. Been toying with the idea for portraits since following Meg Bitton and Annie Manning. Bitton especially echoes your preference for respecting the subject’s personal space with a long lens. Although the average person may not need or aspire to all this gear, many of us are slowly building. Thank you for sharing your equipment and also the rationale behind your choices. Much appreciate your article! PS I have tried tethering but can’t find a way to get the photo to the screen without 3 or 4 steps in between. Is there a way to view the images immediately after each shot?

  • Gina Milicia

    Thanks so much for your comments Averlie, I hope Santa brings you a 70-200 lens 🙂

    Re tethering I use Capture One Pro http://www.phaseone.com/capture-one and have been for using it for the last 12 years. My clients insist I shoot tethered and for me this is the best option. Images appear on the screen about 3-5 seconds after they are shot.

    You can download a free demo for 30 days and try it out.

    The other great tethering software is Adobe Lightroom http://www.adobe.com/au/products/photoshop-lightroom.html They also have a free 30 day demo.

    Both are well worth checking out and considering for the future.

    There is also free tethering software that comes with your Canon camera-Canon EOS Utility software do you have that?

  • Gina Milicia

    Hi Lenny, thanks for your feedback. Much appreciated.

    If I had 2500-3000 USD to spend I would buy the following

    Canon EOS Rebel T3i

    Canon EF 85mm f1.8.

    Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L USM

    Canon EF 24-105mm f/4 L IS USM

    2 x Yongnuo YN-560II Speedlights

    2 x Yongnuo RF-603N Flash triggers

    Manfrotto 190XPROB

    Lastolite LL LS2420S Ezybox Speed-Lite

    Hope that helps!

  • Gina Milicia

    Thanks Barry, I highly recommend you download a free Lightroom or Capture One 30 day demo and try out shooting tethered.

  • Gina Milicia

    Thanks Mike, appreciate your comments. I totally agree with your renting gear approach. It’s a great way to work with high end gear and also get a taste for the style of lens you may like to work with. I also agree with your point about 3rd party lenses. There are some amazing ones out there well worth looking into. Great post!

  • Gina Milicia

    Thanks very much Praddy 🙂

  • Gina Milicia

    Thank you. It’s never about the camera. It’s the person behind the camera. Appreciate your comments

  • Gina Milicia

    Hi Louise, I’ve been using the same lenses for 12 years and in that time have upgraded my cameras 4 times. You should always buy the best lens you can afford and hang onto it. My choice is awesome lens over next step up body. Good luck!

  • Gina Milicia

    Thanks Pille, for your thoughts but I think you miss the point of my blog. I was asked to write about the gear that I use. If you are interested in my thoughts on entry level and intermediate gear they are all outlined in my book Portraits lighting the shot.

  • Gina Milicia

    Well,thank you 🙂

  • Did you miss this headline:

    “[Gina Milicia’s] portrait gear essentials – what’s in [Gina Milicia’s] bag”

    If you weren’t interested in hearing about what gear a professional uses and their reasoning behind it, you could have stopped right there and not wasted your time.

  • Mike

    Gina, like Louise I’ve been going back and forth between a upgrading to a ff body or a new lens. I think I’ll take your advice and go with the lens. Thanks again.

  • Gina Milicia

    My pleasure Mike, happy lens shopping!

  • Christian Campo

    Really nice article. Need to get a 70-200 I guess. I am currently looking into the topic of the camera bag itself. I saw on the picture something that looked like a large Lowepro Slingshot (which I also own as a smaller version). Any camera bag you can recommend. Slingshot vs backloader vs frontloader ?

  • Gina Milicia

    Hi Christian, I own 3 different camera bags and switch them depending on the shoot. I have a large Lowepro roller which fits 2 cameras,all my lenses and accessories. I use this bag on most of my shoots. I also have a smaller version that I can take as carry on to planes. I’m not a fan of lugging gear around so having the wheels is a huge bonus for me.

    Then I have a lowepro slingshot for my lifestyle and travel location shoots which is fantastic when you need to move around a lot and also lets you keep both hands free. I really liked the design as it allowed me to store everything I needed for the shoot and you could quickly access more lenses or cards as you needed them

    If I had to buy today I would also check out the range of backpacks from Thinktank which many of my photographer friends rave about.
    I guess in the end you need to consider how much gear you are lugging and where you will be shooting mostly.
    Hope that helps. Happy shopping!

  • Zach

    I always find it interesting to see articles that focus on established professionals. I feel like most readers of DPS (it’d be interesting to see a DPS poll on this) are hobbyists or beginners. It’s different to see an article that talks about 12,000 dollar setups.

  • pincherio

    The most important ingredient in portrait photography is light (and in all other forms of photography as well). You will need equipment to understand, control and shape light to achieve your vision. We don’t all have the same vision and thus, don’t need the same equipment. If her setups overwhelm you, there are several other ways to get the job done. Instead of the lenses she uses, look for one more affordable but achieves great quality as well. For the price, the 50mm f/1.8 can’t be beat. Instead of a camera with a full frame, use one with a crop frame. Instead of speedlights, strobes and softboxes, use the sun, shade and reflectors. No light meter? Download an app to your smartphone (lots of free ones out there). While equipment helps you achieve your vision, imagination will go a lot further getting you there.

  • Michael

    Quick question. Why do you choose the 85mm f1.8 on a Canon T3i when the 50mm f1.8 is the equivalent of an 80mm f.18? An 85mm on a 1.6x sensor is technically a 136. Just curious because I have the 50mm but I have heard many good things about the 85mm, however I am unsure if these individuals are using a full frame camera.

    Also, thank you so much for checking in on the comments section and replying to your readers!

  • what about a good reflector

  • Gina Milicia

    Great tips Pincherio, thanks for sharing and I totally agree.
    I started out learning my craft using sunlight secondhand cheap zooms and a borrowed basic SLR.

    My advice was about the gear I use and why I use it. Take any parts that resonate with you and adapt to suit your budget and shooting style.

  • Gina Milicia

    Yes! Totally forgot to add that one in. Thanks Bryan.
    A good reflector is an absolute essential in any portrait kit. I use a 5 in 1, that has gold,silver,black,white and translucent.

  • pincherio

    The 135 f/2 L of Canon is one of the best lenses in the line up of Canon and 135mm is a popular focal length of portrait artists so maybe that would explain why the 85 1.8 would be a good addition. I personally own both and recommend them too. The 50mm 1.8 may be a good beginner’s lens but as one progresses, faults may be found with that lens. I can’t say the same of the 85 1.8. Not hating on the “thrifty fifty” but I’m not a big fan of the “rings of confusion.” That’s what I refer to the look of drops of water or light in the background when it’s all blurred out due to shallow depth of field. With the 50 1.8, they come out in sort of a pentagram shape. This is personal and if it’s ok with others, that’s their choice. Just sayin, not hatin.

  • Lenny

    Thank you Gina! Would you please tell us which backpack is pictured here?

  • Hugo Fox

    If you are happy to go third party the Sigma and Tamron 70-200mm F2.8 will be more than adequate for the hobbyist. Especially if you stop down to F3.5 or F4. Still not cheap though. They should be plenty sharp at this setting.
    Again for the hobbyist if you want to get into using inexpensive flashes go to the Strobist website. Plenty of great ideas for the budget person. Wireless flash is also obtainable using cheap eBay triggers and old second hand flashes or offbrand flashes. You’ll probably have to set the flash power manually though. A bit of work but if you appreciate good photos very rewarding.
    As for the so-called nifty fifty (50mm F1.4, or thereabouts) I am personally unconvinced on this as a portrait lens on APS-C (non full frame DSLRs). Better than the kit lenses but longer is a bit better in my opinion.

  • Gina Milicia

    Hi Michael, in my opinion portraits look better shot on a long lens. I often shoot at a focal length of between 100-200 and generally end up mostly on about 150. This suits my style of shooting. As far as I’m concerned there is no right or wrong lens. It’s whatever works best for you.
    If you are unsure about the 85mm, test one out by hiring for a day. In the end it has to work with you and your style of shooting.

    One of my best friends only shoots his portraits on a 28mm because he loves that look and it really suits his style.

  • Facebook User

    This is a great straight to the point, clear, very useful post. A little intimidating, partly exciting and partly frustrating. I just started my studio as a second career with a basic Canon EOS T1i kit, upgraded recently with a 50mm f/1.4. I have been working a lot which is great but when I see what I COULD be doing with better equipment I get impatient.

  • m4tt_thomas

    I may of missed it, but what lighting stands do you use on location? Something light and small I presume? What about booms for the softboxes? Travel with an assistant?

  • Gina Milicia

    Hi Lenny, It’s a lowepro slingshot

  • Gina Milicia

    We all get impatient and suffer “gear envy” but I really believe the most important thing to focus on at first is learning your craft.

  • Gina Milicia

    Hi m4tt_thomas I have quite a few different stands,booms and poles for my softboxes depending on where I am shooting ( studio/location/travel)

    These range from cheap and cheerful to second hand to higher end work horses. I do find the cheaper ones tend to break with everyday use so stick to name brands ( manfrotto)

    If you check out my last FB post you can see my DIY travel MacGyver inspired boom
    https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=594547000592804&set=a.196089590438549.46737.129878907059618&type=1&theater

  • Johan Bauwens

    5D Mark II second hand isn’t that expensive anymore. And you don’t need a 85 mm f1.2, the 85 mm f1.8 is very good and not expensive.

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