Affordable Portrait Photography Equipment – How to get started in portrait photography
There are SO MANY cameras available right now both used and new. As a portrait photographer, there are a few things that are important to me in a camera system: Image Quality (IQ), Usability/fit for purpose and cost. For the portraits I take, I need something that can deliver great IQ; something that clients can use for promotional material as well as web use. The images need to be printable up to A2, which is pretty big. But, the camera system needs to be useable. I shoot on location a lot, I shoot a lot of dynamic photos. I need small and portable lighting that is battery powered, I need fast sharp lenses and most of the time a camera that I can shoot hand held. Finally, I need something at the right price.
A Canon 1Dx for 5K + a set of 10K L lenses is not something I am likely to be able to get my hands on without getting a VERY big credit card. So I had a few options. Here is what I went for and why.
I think context is important, I am a portrait photographer. I shoot mainly bands, solo artists around the UK and family portraits photographs in Leicester. So most of my photographs are group pictures, which has a bearing on what I require.
Now, if I had all the pennies in the world, I would run out to the shops and buy a Hassleblad system, some Elinchrome lights and all the lenses I needed. Sadly, I am not rich, so I have to pick the equipment I actually need, rather than what I want.
I shoot Canon, and there is a really good reason for this. When I started out and I could not afford a camera, I borrowed my Uncle’s 450D until I made enough money to buy some better lenses for it, which were of course Canon fit. And so I continued with it. If he had lent me a Nikon, I would be shooting Nikon. Simple as. It is a camera, and perhaps the least significant part of photography in many ways. If you do not know how to use it, or even more importantly, if you do not have a good concept, idea or eye for the image it is all irrelevant anyway. Which is why I spend so much time trawling magazines, books and the internet for inspiration. Pinterest is the latest tool I am using to keep all of the interesting things I see localised. Which was an idea my partner Roisin had. It seems to be ideal for such use.
(One of my first portrait session taken using my uncles camera)
I ended up going for a Canon 5D mk1 as a main camera, the reason being was that it was full frame and I only shoot prime lenses, which I will get to later. The benefits of an old full frame over a new crop sensor are very apparent in portraits. The noise is more like grain; the depth of field is more of what you would expect. I always carry a spare camera body too. Currently this is a Canon 50D which is a 1.6 crop sensor. But it means that should I ever need to get more reach from a lens, I can pop it on that body. Both cameras cost me about the same when I got them from ffordes.co.uk. They both take the same compact flash memory cards and the same batteries. This makes for a great combination.
Lens wise, for most band shoots I end up using a 28mm lens. The distortion is minimal and the IQ is very good from f4 onwards. I also use a 50mm 1.4 lens. The reason I have this over the cheaper 1.8 lens is purely down to build quality. The optics on both are very good, but the build quality of the 1.8 is pretty poor.
(Canons 28mm 2.8 lens)
The 50mm 1.4 is great for everything from group photos, tight portraits, all the way through to environmental portraits. It is a very versatile lens and certainly worth the investment. Although the 50mm lens is great for individual subjects, the 85mm lens is often more flattering. This is a lens that I do not use a great deal, as I like to get lots of the surrounding environment into my images, but it is certainly a lens I could not live without. It is great from f2.2 onwards for either headshots or full length portraits of couples or solo artists. It is also lovely wide open for soft baby portraits.
(Tight headshot with a 50mm lens)
(Environmental portrait taken with a 50mm lens)
The final lens I own is the 20mm 2.8 prime lens from Canon. This is mainly used for band photography. It is soft at the edges, vignettes a lot and has a lot of distortion. All things which are supposed to be “bad” in a lens. However, this is exactly what I require from a wide angle lens.
(Example of a band shoot using a 20mm lens)
Besides lenses and cameras, the only other bits of kit I have are reflectors (anything that reflects light will work fine) and strobes. I use the Canon 430 ex2 and pocket wizard TT5s, which allow me to sync my flash off camera up to 8000th of a second. Which I really like being able to do. Next time I need some flashes, I will upgrade to the 580s so I can have additional power to them to increase recycling time. But these do a great job and they are affordable(ish) at 250gbp a pop. I the use soft boxes, grids and umbrellas + a few different sized light stands.
If I had to travel really light, or could only have 500GBP for equipment, I would go with: a 5Dmk1 and 50mm 1.8, with a cheap 5 in 1 reflector and be happy that I could actually photograph everything I need to with it. That 500 GBP if you were buying new would only get you a entry level DSLR and a kit lens, which is why I am always advocating buying used equipment from people like MPBphotographic, ffordes and The London Camera Exchange.
Now, as well as digital, I shoot a LOT of film (Here are some links to film related blogs). I shoot medium format film on a Bronica ETRSi. The film stocks I use are Kodak Portra 160 and 400. Kodak Ektar 100 and for black and white I shoot HP5+. I develop and scan all of my own film at home. It is something I use on pretty much every photoshoot and most of the time the best images come from this method of shooting!
(Taken with my Bronica ETRS and a 75mm 2.8 lens)
But all said and done, all of this kit is not all that important. Magazines always talk about kit and how good things are but it is very important to remember that a lot of their revenue comes from camera manufacturers and camera shops wanting to sell you the latest and greatest toys. I honestly think money is better spent on education. That could mean buying loads of magazines (National Geographic, fashion magazines etc. NOT photography magazines). Or head to college, university, workshops, courses and assisting photographers who know what they are doing. I am always wanting to work with better photographers so I can learn how they do things and why they are doing them. I would personally gain more making Annie Lebowitz coffee than I would buying a new Canon 5d mk3.