Great portraits can be made with minimal photography equipment and all different kinds of cameras and lenses and types of light. Of course, no piece of equipment can replace knowledge and creativity when you are trying to make a great image. However, there are some standard items and standard methods that are a great place to start and will give you results that are tried and true.
Photo via Bluprint instructor Neil van Niekerk
Here are the essential items to build into your portraiture kit:
Camera and lens
Obviously you need a camera — duh. Choose a lens that allows you to shoot somewhere between 70mm and 100mm on a full frame camera (44-63mm on a cropped sensor) for a head and shoulders shot, and at least 50mm for a waist-up shot. You can certainly shoot wider or narrower, but it’s my opinion that any wider creates too much distortion. Shooting a portrait up close with a wide lens changes the proportion of your subject and makes them look weird. The further away you shoot, the less distorted they look, however, if you get too far away, it’s hard to interact with your subject and to direct them. That’s why I wouldn’t go with anything much longer than 100mm for portraiture. And of course, although not necessary, it’s best to have a lens with a wide aperture to take advantage or more available light and greater depth of field.
White and black backdrops
Once I have my camera and lens set up, I would invest in white and black backdrops. You can find cloth ones for pretty cheap online, or you can make your own using regular sheets, curtains, fabric or paper. Keeping your background as simple as possible will keep all of the attention on your subject. What could be simpler than plain white, black or gray?
Speaking of gray, you can get any shade you like using the white and black backdrops. Position your subject right up against the white backdrop and close to a light source, like a window or a flash. Adjust your exposure until the backdrop looks white. Now move the backdrop, two steps back from the subject and the light. It should start to look light gray. Keep moving it backward and it will continue to get darker. This is because light falls off very quickly. Simply changing the distance from the light source to the backdrop gives you a huge range of shades.
For example, see the photos of my speedlight and wireless trigger on a stand below. I moved the stand and my light source incrementally from my white paper backdrop. The settings stayed the same but backdrop gets darker the further away from the light source.
There are some very cool 5-in-1 reflectors out there that give you a range of options for bouncing light onto your subject. I would start with a piece of white foam core board. If you use a window or the sun as your main light, you can use the foam core to bounce light into the shadow areas, acting as a fill light.
Lights and triggers
The easiest and cheapest way to light a portrait is to use a window or the great outdoors. There is soft, even light just about everywhere if you know how to look for it. If your location is limited or you want to set up a studio, start with a flash or strobe light. One light will make a huge difference. Start with one and build up from there. Position it high and slightly to the side so it shoots down on your subject and lights one side of their face more than the other. We are used to lights being above us, so that is a natural look, and having one side of the face brighter is an interesting and standard look for portraits.
Once you have one light down, add in another light to fill in shadows created by the main light. This is called your fill light. Once you have that down, add in a third light either as a backdrop light, to light up the backdrop, or as a hair light, to light up the top of your subject’s head and provide some separation from the backdrop.
You also need a way of firing the flashes remotely since they are not sitting on the camera. Depending on your equipment, there are wires that can connect everything, or wireless infrared or radio triggers. Wires are the cheapest route, but the radio triggers are the most convenient.
Sometimes one light is all you need. We used a white shoot-through umbrella.
Once you have one, two or three lights, it’s helpful to have diffusers to make the light soft and to wrap around your subject. Umbrellas are easy to use, cheap and make great light. I prefer the white shoot-through kind for portraits, but the silver ones work well too for a different look. Softboxes are great, but if you’re on a budget or don’t have a lot of space, the umbrellas are the way to go.
You might also enjoy our posts on light modifiers.