digital photography tips with Digital Photo Mentor Darlene Hildebrandt

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Equipment Needed for Portrait Lighting

You need very little gear 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 Portrait Photography

Camera Bodies – DSLR

Mirrorless cameras

Memory Cards

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 images 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.

Tripod Legs

One-piece tripod legs and head combined

Tripod heads


Of course, you must have some kind of lens on your camera. For portraits, 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.

Blurring the background

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.
All shot at f/5.6
All shot at f/5.6

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:

Optional Items


Gray cards

Light meters

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-858D-U Speedmaster Light 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

  • 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

flashList 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

Brand Name Speedlights

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

These are wireless devices that will trigger your flash when you take a picture. Make sure you get ones that are compatible with both your camera and flash.

Rechargeable Batteries and Chargers


Light stands

Portable, air cushioned, C-Stands, etc. A few of the options include:

Mounting accessories to attach the flash to the stand

Grips, clamps, umbrella bracket, etc.

Light Modifiers

  • Umbrellas (different sizes, bounce, shoot through)
  • Softboxes (under $75 USD) – 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) this is something that helps shape and control the light from spilling and going where you do not want it. Make sure to get the matching size and brand as your softbox!
  • 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” or the largest you can afford, bigger is better in this case!
  • 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.


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