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Portrait photography is one of the timeless photographic subjects out there because capturing a person in a photo can tell a story, evoke empathy and emotions, and bring back memories. Photos of friends, family members, or children have a high sentimental value and it is only fitting that you have the right equipment for portrait photography.
Photo by L S G
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Digital SLR Camera Body - This is a must have for achieving nice professional looking portraits. Digital SLR camera sensors provide you with a shallow depth of field (DOF) so that you can separate your subject from their background by making the background blurry. Without getting overly technical, point and shoot cameras are compact and use tiny sensors which magnify a tiny portion of an image, capturing only a fraction of the actual "frame." This is how compact point and shoots can have long zoom lenses. Cameras with large sensors on the other hand, capture a wider area (field of view, FOV) which takes advantage of bigger optics.
A digital SLR camera body will allow you to use an external flash (both on and off camera) and control your aperture, shutter speed, and ISO (exposure) to create the image how YOU want it. Nothing too fancy is required. Use whatever you can get your hands on. The camera body is not a crucial part to portrait photography, more on this later. Great portraits can be had with even a 4 year old body.
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A good rule of thumb when deciding on which lenses to get (especially when renting) is to get the fastest (widest aperture) you can find or afford. This will allow you to decrease your DOF and get you the most separation from your subject and their background. The more expensive lenses generally have faster apertures, better build qualities, higher image qualities, and have more pleasing out-of-focus blurs (bokeh) which are all highly sought after for portrait photography.
Standard Zoom Lens - This can be your kit lens or something with a 35mm equivalent range of 24-70mm (roughly 17-50mm on an APS-C crop camera). This will be for those wider group shots or general pictures where you need a wider FOV and/or blurring the background is not a priority.
Fast Telephoto Zoom Lens - Either a 70-200mm F/2.8 or F/4 variant or similar lens is ideal. These zoom lenses serve as both an outdoor portrait lens and a sports/wildlife lens. For portraits, the longer focal lengths are more flattering on your subject and you will be able to create beautiful bokeh with the wide aperture and long zoom.
Standard Prime Lens - A 50mm (or equivalent) is good to have as a general purpose lens. These come in a variety of apertures (F/1.2, 1.4, 1.7, 1.8, 2, and 2.8) and can be had for under $100 for a 50mm F/1.8. It is a cheap, compact lens that will allow you to get started into portrait photography. A 50mm lens on a 35mm (full-frame) camera is said to be a "normal lens" that is, it has the FOV of the human eye. It is neither a wide-angle or zoom. If there is one lens to have for portraits, it is a nifty-fifty millimeter prime lens! This lens is perfect for a walkaround lens, portrait, and low-light photography.
Medium/Telephoto Prime Lens - 85mm F/1.4 or 135mm F/1.8-2 lenses are more specialty portrait lenses. These longer lenses allow you to achieve even creamer bokeh and shallower DOF than a 50mm normal lens, but they don't come cheap. They carry a hefty pricetag of $1100+. But, the image quality and bokeh they deliver are well worth the price. With the extremely wide apertures, they collect a lot of light and work well in dimly lit areas (like a church). Cheaper variants like the Canon 85mm F/1.8 variant allow you to achieve similar effect at a fraction of the cost. Choose this if you do not need F/1.4 or 1.2.
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Portrait Lighting Equipment
If there is one thing that makes an image, it's the lighting. Be it natural, reflected, or artificially created with a strobe (flash), this is the most important aspect to portrait photography. Even with the most expensive cameras and lenses, a photo is nothing without light. You must learn to control and use the light to your benefit. These few items here are only meant as a guide to get you started.
2-3 Flashes (Speedlights) with manual control - For portraits, it is a good idea to have at least one flash. Indoors or out it will allow you to bounce off of walls or ceilings or provide fill flash on a sunny day outdoors. By using a couple flashes off-camera, you can control the intensity, direction, and shape of the light on your subject. With enough flash power, you can even overcome the sun and light your subject strictly with artificial lights for very dramatic portraits. With a flash with manual controls, you can adjust the power of each flash individually to control the intensity. This will be important when we move the flash off the camera. The flash will lose the ability to communicate with the camera and meter automatically. It is now your job to think where, how much, and how the light will fall by manually controlling it.
Reflector - A reflector is a cheap and effective way to reflect back natural or artificial light back towards your subject from a different angle as where the light originated. Here's an easy tutorial on how to make your own reflector.
Flash Modifiers - This one is up to you. It can be as basic as an umbrella, DIY snoot (light tunnel), grid spot, gobo (go between), or bounce card or more advanced such as a beauty dish, ring flash, or softbox. This is where your artistic creativity steps in and you decide how to light your subject.
Wireless Trigger and Receivers - Professional portraits are done with multiple lights, off-camera. Now that you have several flashes set up, you need a way to fire them all at once. This is where a wireless transmitter/trigger and receivers (one for each flash) come in play. The transmitter sends a signal to the flashes to fire simultaneously when a photo is taken. Professional radio triggers (PocketWizards) can run up to $200 a pop. They are expensive because they just work 100% of the time. They are the gold standard when it comes to triggering remote flashes. Cheaper alternatives can be had for about $40 on eBay or from other companies (AlienBee's CyberSync Triggers and RadioPoppers). They may not be as reliable, but for the money you save, you can learn to live with them until you learn more and become committed (addicted) to off-camera flash.