There is very little you need for doing portraits with natural light. Here are two lists; one for lighting with natural light and the other for Off-camera flash.
First we'll go through equipment you'll more than likely require and then some optional items.
Equipment for Natural Light Portraits
- Canon EOS 6D camera and 24-105mm f/4 lens
- Canon EOS 5D Mark III camera and 24-105mm f/4 lens
- Canon EOS 70D
- Canon EOS Rebel T5i
- Canon EOS 7D
- Nikon D610
- Nikon D7100
- Nikon D5300
- Nikon D810E
- Pentax K-50
- Pentax K-5 IIs
- Pentax K3
You will also need some memory cards to record your images.
Always have more in your bag than you think you'll need. I recommend not getting cards that are too big, mine are all 8GB or 16GB. One crash with a larger card means you lose a lot more that
way – break it up into smaller ones unless you’re doing video (then you'll need large ones).
There is quite a range of price points when you do a search for reflectors.
I recommend not getting the very cheapest ones as I’ve heard stories of them coming unstitched, and the gold/silver surface peeling off after being folded up a few times. Brands I’d recommend are: Norman, Photoflex, Lastolite, and Photogenic (click to see a listing of those).
Ideally a 5-in-one is the best kind to get so you have more options, but a two sided one that has white and either gold or silver will do the trick nicely too.
Remember to look for ones with a gray card on the back of the case as a bonus.
A sturdy tripod is a must, no questions asked. To make sure it won’t wobble or tip over, research the brand and model online and look for its load capacity. Select one that holds at least double that of the weight of your camera and heaviest lens combined.
Note: Do not add the tripod load capacity and the tripod head capacity together. They each must be able to hold the weight of your gear alone. So if your setup weighs 6 pounds, make sure you get legs that will support at least 12 pounds, and a head that will also support 12 pounds.
Here are a few models that I suggest, but check their specifications for your individual needs, and read Stress Free Tips for Buying a Tripod to help you out.
- Manfrotto MT190 Aluminum 3-Section Tripod
- Induro CT214 Carbon Fiber 8X CT-Series 4 Section Tripod
- Gitzo GT1542T Series 1 Traveler 6x Carbon Fiber 4 Section Tripod
- Giottos Silk Road TYL8383 Carbon Fiber Tripod
One piece tripod legs and head
- 3Pod P5CFH 8X Carbon Fiber 5 Section FlatFold Tripod (great for traveling)
- 3Pod P4CFH 8X Carbon Fiber 4 Section FlatFold Tripod
- 3 Legged Thing X1.1 Brian Evolution 2 Carbon Fiber Tripod
- Manfrotto 496RC2 Compact Ball Head with rapid connect plate
- Manfrotto 057 Magnesium Ball Head with RC4 Quick Release
- Manfrotto 808RC4 3-way Pan / Tilt Head with Quick Release
- Manfrotto 327RC2 Lightweight magnesium body joystick head with quick release
Of course, you must have some kind of lens on your camera. For portraits we talked about focal length and what is most flattering. I suggest if you don’t already have a 50mm lens to start there. Whether you have a full frame or APS-C sensor you will find a lot of value in having one.
Read more here to help you decide on your next purchase when you are ready to upgrade: What Lens Should I Buy Next and Other FAQs about Camera Gear.
Lower budget 50 mm lenses
Bluring the background
Remember there are three factors involved in creating a blurry background for your portrait. The right lens is one of those:
- Use a large aperture (f/5.6 will work fine if that’s maximum on your lens)
- Get the subject a large distance away from the background. The farther away they are, the more the background can be blurred
- Choose a telephoto lens. The longer the focal length the more the background will appear out of focus.
In the example image here, notice they were all taken with f/5.6 and she is the same distance away from the house. The only thing that changed was the focal length, and my distance to her.
So, lenses that are slightly longer than normal, or short telephoto, work well for portraiture to create the blurred out background that’s so flattering. Here are some great options:
Other lenses to think about if you want to expand your repertoire:
Lenses for sports or action photography including kids and weddings:
Macro lenses for close-up work – handy for detail shots if you do weddings:
- DGK set of 3 gray cards (2 sizes).
- PhotoVision target-style collapsible gray card.
- Also note that many manufacturers make their camera bags gray on the inside – this is NOT a coincidence! You can pull out a removal panel from your bag and use that in a pinch.
It is really handy to have an incident light meter. If you don’t have one now here are some of the options available:
- Luxi for all – This is a slick little device that for only $29.95 turns your iPhone into an incident meter. I’ve tested it side-by-side with my regular meter and it was pretty close (within a third of a stop) most times. If a full handheld meter is out of the budget for now, you might want to consider this option.
- Sekonic L-308S – I have the predecessor to this model and it works great. This is about the simplest version of an incident meter you can get. It doesn’t do fancy stuff like store things in memory, or calculate ratios though so if you want advanced features look at one of the more expensive models.
- Sekonic LITEMASTER PRO L-478DR Light Meter: with PocketWizard Triggering and Flash Power Setting for ControlTL Radios – slightly more upscale model with more bells and whistles.
- Gossen Digipro F2 Light Meter – a model from another manufacturer that’s been making these things for decades.
- Sekonic L-758DR DigitalMaster, Programmable Digital Flash & Ambient Exposure Meter – top of the line. Probably more than you need if you’re just starting out, but there it is if you want to check out the cream of the crop.
- UV filters – Get the size that’s right for your lens (look inside the lens cap) and I recommend not to buy the cheapest option. Respected names in filters include: B+W, Hoya, Leica, Sigma, Tiffen (click to see a list and find
the right size).
Neutral Density Filters
Lighting Equipment for Off-Camera Flash
List of must-have items for off-camera flash:
#1 – A transmitter (master) and at least one receiver (remote). This could consist of any of the following combinations:
- One speedlight
- Two speedlights (one master and one remote)
- A speedlight commander unit and at least one speedlight
- A camera capable of being a master and at least one speedlight
- An off-camera sync cord
- Two or more radio triggers
Speedlights or Canon Speedlites
- Canon Speedlite 600EX-RT
- Canon Speedlite 430EX II
- Canon 320EX
- Nikon SB-700 speedlight
- Nikon SB-910 speedlight
- Nikon SB-300
- Nikon SB-R200
- Pentax AF-540FGZ II flash
- Pentax AF-360FGZ II flash
Third-party brands of speedlights
This is not an exhaustive list, but in addition to the big name brands like Canon, Nikon, and Sony, there are plenty of flash units from other manufacturers. Depending upon the features and functions, you may find that third-party brands are somewhat cheaper than their equivalent name brand counterparts. While it’s tempting to save a few dollars, don’t overlook the importance of things like warranties and the availability of parts and repair services.
Transmitters / Radio Triggers
Rechargeable Batteries and Chargers
- Eneloop LD-NiMH rechargeable batteries
- Maha C801D
- External battery packs
- Rechargeable external battery packs
- Quantum Instruments Turbo SC Slim & Compact rechargeable battery
#2 – A light stand (portable, air cushioned, C-Stands, etc). A few of the options shown in the video lesson include:
- Manfrotto 5001B Nano Black Light Stand
- Savage 13′ four section heavy duty air cushioned light stand
- Avenger A2030D 9.8′ Turtle Base C-Stand Grip Arm Kit
#3 – Mounting accessories to attach the flash to the stand (grips, clamps, umbrella bracket, etc.
- Umbrellas (different sizes, bounce, shoot through)
- Westcott 7’ Parabolic umbrella (White, Silver)
- Westcott umbrella – collapsible, optical white satin – 43″
- Umbrella softbox – Westcott Apollo 43″ Orb
- Softboxes – come in a wide range of sizes and shapes (square, octagon). Remember the larger the softbox the softer light it will produce. The shape will just dictate the shape of the catchlights in your subject’s eyes.
- Grids (egg crates)
- Reflectors – also come in a variety of sizes and colors. Getting the 5-in-one is a good option as you will have white, silver, gold, black, and translucent to work with. Get one that is at least 32”, bigger is better.
- Diffusion panels – these are large panels that fold up which you can use to diffuse the light. They are used often in studio settings and are a bit more cumbersome to use outdoors. It’s good to have a helper if you are using a diffusion panel.
- Dome diffusers – these are the funny things that look like Tupperware. You attach them on your flash and they diffuse the light by bouncing it everywhere. Not our first choice, but handy to have in a pinch if you have no other options.
- Beauty dishes – used more for fashion style photography than anything.
- Snoots – focus the light into a small area. Useful for making patterns on your background or unique spotlight effects.
- Barndoors – block the light from spilling where you do not want it.
- Gels – can be used for color correcting or special effects like a colored highlight or background spotlight.
Optional items for off-camera flash:
- Sandbags – to weigh down a light stand or tripod to avoid tipping over or other wind issues like blurry images.
- Boom arms – to extend your flash up over the subject’s head for a hair light, or to get it out of the shot.
- Casters – to make your stand more movable, best used indoors.
- Reflector arms – to hold your reflector in one place. They can be cumbersome and fly away in the wind if not weighted down. Best for use indoors.