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
- Canon EOS 6D Mark II camera and 24-105mm f/4 lens
- Canon EOS 5D Mark IV camera and 24-105mm f/4 lens
- Canon EOS 80D
- Canon EOS Rebel T7i with 18-55mm kit lens
- Canon EOS 7D Mark II
- Nikon D810 FX-format (full frame) camera
- Nikon D7500 DX-format camera (crop sensor) with 16-80mm f/2.8-4 lens
- Nikon D5600 DX-format camera with 18-140mm f/3.5-5.6 lens
- Pentax K-70 Weather-Sealed DSLR Camera with 18-135mm Lens
- Pentax KP 24.32 Ultra-Compact Weatherproof DSLR with 3″ LCD
- Pentax K-1 Mark II 36MP Weather Resistant DSLR w/ D-FA 28-105 WR Lens
- Fujifilm X-T20 mirrorless camera with 18-55mm f/2.8-4 lens
- Fujifilm X-T100 Mirrorless Digital Camera w/XC15-45mmF3.5-5.6 OIS PZ Lens
- Fujifilm X-T3 Mirrorless Digital Camera with Fujinon XF16-55mmF2.8 R LM WR lens
- Olympus OM-D E-M10 Mark II Mirrorless Digital Camera with 14-42mm EZ Lens
- Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II Mirrorless Micro Four Thirds Digital Camera + Olympus M. Zuiko Digital ED 12-40mm f/2.8 PRO Lens
- Olympus OM-D E-M10 Mark III (Mark 3) Digital Camera [Silver] + M.Zuiko Digital ED 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6 EZ Lens (Silver) + M.Zuiko Digital ED 40-150mm f/4.0-5.6 R Lens
- Sony Alpha a6500 Mirrorless Digital Camera w/ 2.95″ LCD (Body Only) with Tamron 28-75mm F/2.8 lens
- Sony a7R III 42.4MP Full-frame Mirrorless Camera & Sony FE 24-70mm f/2.8 GM Lens
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.
- Manfrotto MT190 Aluminum 3-Section Tripod
- Induro CT214 Carbon Fiber 8X CT-Series 4 Section Tripod
- Gitzo Lightweight Traveler Series 1 Carbon Fiber Tripod, Silver & Black (GT1545TUS)
- Giottos Silk Road TYL8383 Carbon Fiber Tripod
One-piece tripod legs and head combined
- Benro Adventure 2 Series Aluminum Tripod w/ B2 Ball Head (TAD28AIB2)
- 3 Legged Thing X1.1 Brian Evolution 2 Carbon Fiber Tripod
- Tripod Review – the K&F Concept TC2534 Carbon Fiber Tripod
- Induro Tripods CLT203PHQ1 No. 2 Stealth Carbon Fiber Tripod Kits, 3 Sections
- MeFOTO Classic Aluminum Roadtrip Travel Tripod/Monopod Kit – Black (A1350Q1K)
- Promaster XC528 Tripod with Head – Black
- ProMaster XC328C Carbon Fiber Tripod
- ProMaster SC426 Scout Series Tripod Kit with Head
- 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, 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 35mm and 50mm lenses
- Canon 50mm f/1.8
- Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM
- Canon EF 35mm f/2 IS USM
- Nikon 50mm f/1.8G AF-S
- Nikon 35mm f/1.8G AF-S DX
- Pentax SMCP-DA 50mm f/1.8 Standard Lens
- Sony DT 50mm f/1.8 (for Sony Alpha cameras)
- Sony – FE 50mm F1.8 Standard Lens (SEL50F18F) for Sony mirrorless cameras
- Sony SEL35F18 35mm f/1.8 Prime Fixed Lens with 49mm UV Protection Filter
- Fujinon XF35mm F2 R WR – Black
- Fujinon XF50mmF2 R WR Lens – Black
- PANASONIC LUMIX G II LENS, 20MM, F1.7 ASPH, MIRRORLESS MICRO FOUR THIRDS
- Olympus M.Zuiko 25mm f1.8 Interchangeable Lens (Black)
Higher budget 35mm and 50mm lenses
- Canon EF 50mm f/1.2 L USM Lens for Canon Digital SLR Cameras
- Sigma 35mm F1.4 ART DG HSM Lens for Canon DSLRs
- Nikon 50mm f/1.4G AF-S Nikkor Lens
- Nikon AF FX NIKKOR 35mm f/1.4G Fixed Focal Length Lens
- Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 35mm f/1.8G ED Fixe Lens
- Pentax SMCP-FA 50mm f/1.4
- Sony 50mm f/1.4 a (alpha) Mount Standard Lens
- Sony SEL35F14Z Distagon T FE 35mm f/1.4 ZA Standard-Prime Lens for Mirrorless Cameras
- Sony SEL50F14Z Planar T FE 50mm f/1.4 ZA Lens
- Fujinon XF56mm F1.2 R lens
- Fujinon XF35mm F1.4 R lens
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.
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:
- Canon fixed focal length macro lenses
- Nikon fixed focal length “micro” lenses
- Fujinon XF60mm F2.4 R Macro lens
- Sony macro lenses and options
- Micro 4/3 macro lenses
- Extension Tubes
- White Balance Cards 18% Gray Grey Card. Use for Video, DSLR and Film. Custom Calibration Camera Checker Cards.
- PhotoVision target-style collapsible gray card.
- Neewer 2 Pieces Grey Card Set, Custom White Balance 18 Percent Gray Reference Reflector and Exposure Control Photographic Cardboard Kit (8×10 inches, 4×5 inches)
- Also, note that many manufacturers make their camera bags gray on the inside – this is NOT a coincidence! You can pull out a removable panel from your bag and use that in a pinch.
- ALSO – some ProMaster reflector cases come with a grey card on the back!
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 – 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
Brand Name Speedlights
- Canon Speedlite 600EX-RT
- Canon Speedlite 430EX II
- Canon 320EX
- Nikon SB-700 speedlight
- Nikon SB-910 speedlight
- Nikon 4814 SB-500 AF Speedlight (Black)
- Pentax AF-540FGZ II flash
- Pentax AF-360FGZ II flash
- Sony External Flash with Wireless Radio Control Camera Flash, Black (HVLF60RM)
- Sony HVL-F32M External Flash For Sony Cameras(Alpha Series). Value Kit with Accessories
- Fujifilm EF-42 Shoe Mount Flash
- Fujifilm EF-X500 Electronic Flash
- Olympus FL-900R High-Intensity Flash, Black
- Olympus FL-600R Wireless 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.
- Quantum Q-Flash
- Godox AD200 200Ws 2.4G TTL Flash Strobe 1/8000 HSS Cordless Monolight with 2900mAh Lithium Battery (this is a big flash!)
- Godox TT600 Flash Speedlight Compatible with Canon, Nikon, Pentax, Olympus and other digital Cameras with Standard Hotshoe (only $65 USD and works with most camera brands!)
- Godox V860II (get the one that works with your camera model)
- YONGNUO YN600EX-RT II Wireless Flash
- Nissin flashes
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
- Eneloop LD-NiMH rechargeable batteries (fast recycle time through full battery life)
- Maha C801D (AA/AAA charger)
- Canon CP-E4 Compact Battery Pack
- Quantum Instruments Turbo SC Slim & Compact rechargeable battery
Portable, air cushioned, C-Stands, etc. A few of the options 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
Mounting accessories to attach the flash to the stand
Grips, clamps, umbrella bracket, etc.
- Umbrellas (different sizes, bounce, shoot through)
- Westcott 7-feet Parabolic umbrella (White, Silver)
- Westcott umbrella – collapsible, optical white satin – 43″ ($21.90 USD)
- Umbrella softbox – Westcott 43 inch Apollo Orb Speedlite Kit 2340 (includes bracket and light stand)
- Umbrellas under $25 (many sizes and color options available, white, silver and gold)
- 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.
- Joe McNally books
- Syl Arena books
- Photography Q&A: Real Questions. Real Answers. (Voices That Matter)
- Books by or about Yousef Karsh
- Arnold Newman books
- Philippe Halsman books including (Dali's Mustache)
- Halsman at work (by Philippe's wife)
- Hurrell's Hollywood Portraits: The Chapman Collection
- George Hurrell books
- Richard Avedon books
- Steve McCurry books (especially “Portraits” by Steve McCurry)