Essential Portrait Photography Gear You Need When Starting Out

Essential Portrait Photography Gear You Need When Starting Out


My last post was on equipment to have when starting out as a wedding photographer.

I am not reiterating what I have touched on in that article, although there are some slight overlaps. Still, I recommend that you read that first.


In this article, I touch on the differences between wedding and portrait photography which I have not covered in the previous post. I also follow that with equipment you need for portrait photography.


1. Weddings are fast-paced. Portrait photography is slower in comparison.

2. Weddings require photojournalistic shots and a documentary style to the coverage. Portraits most often include must have looking photos or a well-composed artful photo.

3. Weddings can involve countless lighting conditions, many of which you have no control over. Portraits are more manageable than weddings, and you have more control and options.

4. Weddings require dealing with large numbers of people but with less personal face-to-face interaction. Portraits are the opposite – especially involving children.

Given the above differences, this is the equipment I suggest you have in your bag as a portrait photographer.


1. Zoom Lens – Wide and Long

An excellent example of a wide zoom lens is the 24-70mm f/2.8 or if you have a kit lens, the 18-55mm. While this lens is versatile for wedding photography, in a small studio, this helps when shooting portraits with many people in them. There is no need to change lenses every time you go from photographing one person to three or five. The important thing to remember here is the distortion you get when shooting with a wide focal length at close range to your subject. 35mm for a full body length is good, but you start getting distortions wider than that, especially shooting 24mm at close range.

However, if you have a big studio, then you could do with a prime lens like a 35mm for a crop-sensor or a 50mm/85mm for a full-frame camera.

The 70-200mm f/2.8 (Nikon also has an f/4 option) is an excellent zoom lens. I used this lens for the cherry blossom photos above. An inexpensive alternative is the 55-200mm f/3.5. Using long focal lenses are fantastic for separating the subject from the background.

2. Fixed Lens

Also called prime lenses, those with longer focal lengths, such as the 85mm, 105mm, and 200mm, are great for portraits. You get amazing compression and depth of field. If you only have a small studio, using these lenses may be tricky because you need to have enough space between you and the subject. However, if you are shooting outdoors, results can be dramatic and beautiful.

If you are a natural light photographer, having a prime lens with a wide aperture is your best friend. For example, you can shoot between f/1.4 – f/2.2 and still get sharp images. However, a word of caution, there are other factors to consider to get sharp images at these apertures. Including: how you hold the camera, your ISO and shutter speed settings, and the use of a steady surface or tripod/monopod where needed. Because you have more control over the time you spend on portraits, and it’s not fast-paced, you can afford to use a tripod. Slowing things down may help you to nail your focus or achieve the compositions you are after.

Here is an article I have written comparing natural light and the use of flash.

3. Tripod or Monopod

As mentioned above, using a tripod or monopod is helpful when photographing subjects using natural light – especially if you have a static set-up/backdrop. You don’t have to keep moving your camera, and you get the same frame and composition every time.

If you take the majority of your portraits in your studio, there’s no need to shell out for an expensive portable tripod. These tripods are generally expensive because they are sturdy and made from lightweight materials, and they are a small size. As long as your tripod is strong and stable, even if it is super heavy, it can do the job.


4. Artificial Light Source

If you don’t purely rely on natural light, consider other light sources such as continuous lights, LED lights, flashguns, and electronic flashes/strobes. With these, you can shoot at any time of day under any lighting conditions. You are then not dependent on sunlight, the weather or the season. This article on a portable started kit may help with how artificial light sources can look.

You may need remote triggers and receivers to work these with your camera. Unless, for example, you are using the built-in creative lighting system of your flashgun unit in the case of Nikon.

5. Light Modifiers

With the use of artificial light sources, it is crucial to pair them with modifiers to take the edge off and soften the light. There are many types you can go for and this article could help you decide.


6. Reflector

Reflectors are a handy tool for portrait photography, especially when using in a studio environment. Using the correct reflector has an undeniable impact on the image before applying any editing in post-production. Read this article for a side-by-side comparison of various reflectors. If you have space, it is a good idea to have one large reflector propped up on a stand in your studio (lockable castor wheels are handy).

As this is to do with portrait photography, this article on setting up a home portrait studio might help give you more of an idea of the basics.

I hope you found this article helpful. If there is any equipment you wish to add, share your thoughts in the comments below.

Top feature image by:

Alexander Dummer

Read more from our Cameras & Equipment category

Lily Sawyer is a wedding and portrait photographer based in London. Her absolute favourite past time is going on "mummy" dates with her kids and husband. Other than that, as a homebody, she is content curled up on the sofa, hot chocolate in hand, watching films with her family whenever she has a free weekend. Check out her work on Follow her on her fave social media platform Instagram.

  • very nice post

  • KC

    Portrait photography can take you into places you didn’t think photography went. Let me start with lighting. This is a long subject, so I’m going to oversimplify. Think “big lights and reflectors”. This line of thinking works with “hot lights” and flash units.

    To light an entire human body I bounce light off a large reflector. Since this is indoors, it can be something as simple as a white wall, or something a bit more controllable, like a “flat”. A “flat” can be nothing more than a white foam-core board. They come in 8 foot lengths. I’ve made fabric ones on wood frames, too. These are usually at the front 3/4 position. Opposite, and usually at 90 degrees to the subject is another flat, usually as a reflector, just to fill in some shadows.

    That’s the basics, but you want to kick it up a notch with backlighting. There’s two goals here. You want to light the background to eliminate any shadows, but you also want some light to outline the subject and separate them from the background. A barebulb light/flash works well here.

    Finally, this “trick” is ancient and I rarely see it used anymore: a front kick light r reflector. This is a relatively low powered and soft light, or silver reflector, down low in front of the camera. It throws some light under the chin, and the under the brow line.

    The catch-light in the eyes is a “big thing”. The big flat can be that reflection.

    This is just a personal preference. I learned my lighting way back in film days and with big “hot lights” (and they were hot). Models are used to flash. The average person finds it distracting. Yes, I used studio strobes but found the lighting too hard and too small (even with umbrellas and boxes) to give me the modeling I wanted.

    Lighting can be your “signature”. When I shot a lot of studio portraits I was very “Hollywood glamour” and dramatic for the more personal portraits. It was the “time”. People were familiar with these dramatic images from magazines.

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