What equipment do I need to start portrait photography: Getting Started

what equipment do I need to start portrait photography

Photography may seem like an expensive hobby when you’re looking at the camera bags of a professional photographer. They have cameras, lenses, extra batteries, lighting equipment, triggers, tripods and so much more.

What equipment do I need to start portrait photography

The basic equipment you will need to get started in portrait photography is: a camera, lens, batteries, memory cards, and a device that will allow you to edit the final photos like a phone, laptop or computer. These are the basic items you will need if you want to start taking portraits, but you can always look at upgrading your equipment and adding more tools as you advance your skills.

Well, I’m here to help put your mind at ease. Let’s talk about the basic equipment I recommend getting so you can get started in portrait photography.

Over the last 5 years, I’ve worked with countless models and clients and I realized that there is a misconception about expensive camera equipment and taking professional portraits.

In this beginner equipment guide, let’s go over the basic gear you should consider buying for portrait photography and how even starting small will get you a long way in your photography journey.

How much does it cost to get started in photography?

You’ll need a budget of starting around $600-$1200 if you want to get some of the basic gear needed to start taking portraits.

Pricing of camera equipment varies widely so give yourself a range to work with if possible.

Also, you can purchase extra equipment as you save extra money for gear. For example, extra batteries and memory cards can be purchased at a later time as long as you have one of each to work with in the beginning.

Beginner Cameras

The biggest and most important purchase you will make will be your camera.

You want to purchase an interchangeable lens camera system so you will have plenty of options when investing in new lenses.

This will give you maximum flexibility for each portrait shoot so you can switch lenses if needed.

What to consider for a beginner camera?

I started my photography journey with the original Sony a7 full-frame mirrorless camera.

Years have passed and I’ve upgraded gear to the Sony a7riii and Sony a6400 crop sensor camera. (Yes, I shoot both full-frame and crop sensor for portraits)

I recommend going into a local camera store to hold and try out different camera brands. I tried the Canon 6D and Canon 5Dii but I wanted something smaller so I settled for a Sony mirrorless camera.

The ergonomics and weight were exactly what I was looking for. I found a great deal on a Sony a7 with kit lens and I started shooting from there.

As a suggestion, pick a camera you can grow with. Don’t feel like you need to purchase an expensive full-frame camera.

Try out crop sensor cameras or micro four-thirds. Every camera brand has different options to choose from and I’m sure you will find the one that fits your needs.

Do your research and also consider renting gear first before investing in camera gear.

Cameras to consider:

  • Sony a6100
  • Sony a6400
  • Sony a6600
  • Sony a7c
  • Sony a7iii
  • Sony a7riii

Lenses

Shoot portraits with Prime or Zoom lenses

If you want to shoot portraits with those blurry backgrounds, then you will want to find lenses with higher apertures. These can range from F2.8 to f1.4. This is where you will hear the term shooting wide open.

This is shooting at the largest opening or aperture that a lens will allow. The more light the lens let’s onto the sensor, the brighter and shallower depth of field you can get (subject isolation).

Of course, there are many other factors, but let’s keep this simple for now.

Zoom lenses like the 24-70mm f2.8 are a good choice for all around shooting, but I recommend trying out prime lenses like the 50mm f1.4 or an 85mm f1.4.

Prime lenses are lenses that do NOT zoom. You have to zoom with your feet and move around your subject.

There is a big debate with photographers about the sharpness of prime lenses versus zoom lenses, but for now just know that I prefer prime lenses for my portrait photography.

The first lens I invested in was the Sony 55mm f1.8 Zeiss lens. It was a big purchase but I used this lens exclusively for 2 years before I felt the need to try something else.

The 50mm range is commonly referred to as the nifty-fifty and can be used for environmental portraits or cluse up shots.

The f1.8 aperture allowed for blurry backgrounds and beautiful subject isolation that many photographers want in their portraits.

Portrait Lenses to consider – Prime Lenses

  • Sony 35mm f1.8 Lens – APSC
  • Sony 50mm f1.8 Lens – APSC
  • Sigma 35mm f1.4 Lens – APSC
  • Sigma 56mm f1.4 Lens – APSC
  • Sony 35mm f1.8 – FE Lens
  • Sony Zeiss 55mm F1.8 – FE Lens
  • Sony 85mm f1.8 – FE Lens
  • Sony 90mm f2.8. – FE Lens

Portrait Lenses to consider – Zoom Lenses

  • Sony 16-55mm f2.8 G Lens – APSC
  • Sony 16-70mm f4.0 Lens – APSC
  • Sony 18-105mm f4.0 Zoom Lens – APSC
  • Sony 24-70mm f2.8 G Master Lens – FE Lens
  • Sony 70-200mm f2.8 G Master Lens – FE Lens
  • Tamron 28-75mm f2.8 – FE Lens
  • Sigma 24-70mm f2.8 – FE Lens

Camera Accessories

Extra Batteries are a great idea

Every camera you purchase new will come with a single battery. It is a really good idea to pick up a second or third battery as a backup for portrait shoots.

Depending on the camera and your shoot time, some batteries will drain very quickly leaving you needing more power.

Having a second or third battery is a good idea especially when you are onsite or outdoors and you don’t have time to plug-in your camera or battery to a wall outlet.

Camera batteries can range in price from $20 – $50 so budget accordingly. If you can’t afford 2 extra batteries, then I recommend at least picking up 1 extra to have in your bag. You will thank me later.

SD Card – Memory card

In a simple portrait session, I can shoot 200-300 photos per hour. That’s a lot. Many photographers will only shoot around 100 photos per hour, but I move around often and I like to give myself a variety of angles and backgrounds.

If you’re like me, you will need a good memory card to keep up with fast shooting. I recommend getting at least a 16GB memory card to start.

You can also get 32GB, 64GB and even 128GB cards but these start to get pricey.

It would be good to have 2 cards just like you have backup batteries. You never know when a card will fail so have a backup just in case. Having two 16GB cards should last you for a long time.

A 24MP camera will create a RAW file that is around 6MB. So, a 16GB card will hold around 2,000 photos. Not exact but a pretty good estimate to keep in mind.

Some cameras will have higher resolution files and larger sensors but 24MP sensors seem to be normal in most entry level cameras.

Lighting or Flash (speedlights or strobes)

Do you need a flash to take portraits? Flash and strobes are a whole other article, but for now I would say start with natural light like many other beginners do. Don’t over complicate your portrait sessions.

Learn to balance and create correct exposures with the light coming from the sun and then when you’re ready add external flash sources.

Flash photography can be complicated, but it is much easier to learn when you have been practicing and shooting for a few months.

Learning to shoot in manual mode and learning to adjust your settings is the first goal you should have when picking up a beginner camera.

Tripods

Do I need a tripod for portrait photography? Unless you’re going to be shooting portraits in studio, you can skip the tripod for now.

A tripod is great for many types of photography including studio portraits. It can be limiting for portrait photography outdoors or on location, but don’t let that discourage you from getting one.

If you need the extra help holding the weight of a camera, then a tripod will come in handy. Especially when you are working along and want to help pose your subject but you need to keep your camera in place.

I know some photographers who use monopods to help with the weight and long portrait sessions.

Monopods can’t stand on their own (unless you find on with feet) but can help you keep your camera steady when using longer telephoto lenses.

Reflectors

A reflector is a simple piece of equipment made up of either cloth materials or harder boards that reflect the light back into your subject.

These come in handy when your subject has their back to the sun and the front part of their face is in the shadow. A reflector can bounce light back into the face when positioned correctly.

Having a reflector handy can help make your photography better in some cases. It is not something you need from the start, but it can help you learn how light effects your subject.

I normally choose to use natural surroundings or even wear a white shirt to help bounce the light back onto my subject when shooting close portraits.

I even place my subjects next to large white or light-colored walls or other light-colored objects to bounce light back into the photo.

Either way, it is not an essential piece of gear, but it is a “nice-to-have” when on location. If you have the budget for it, I would say go ahead and get an all-in-one reflector to carry around with your camera bag.

Camera Bag

Just like a purse or wallet, you will want to protect your investment. Finding a camera bag that fits your style and needs should be on your list of accessories.

Find a back that has plenty of space and also features compartments to hold extra lenses, batteries and more.

You will want to keep in mind the weather, so find a bag that also features a weather proof hood to protect your bag and gear from a rainy day.

Camera bags start around $30.00 and can range to a few hundred dollars so do your research and find a bag that fits your camera and extra gear.

Camera bags to consider:

  • Lowerpro Fastpack
  • Lowerpro Flipside
  • Lowerpro Hatchback
  • Peak Design Camera Cube
  • Peak Design Small

Getting Started

Sample gear lists you can use to get started?

Here are a few examples of gear collections you could consider when purchasing your first camera. These are great beginner cameras and will allow you to take portraits in natural light settings or the outdoors.

Option #1 – Total Package – $1068.00 (plus Tax)

  • Camera – Sony a6100 APSC mirrorless camera – Body Only – $748.00
  • Lens – Sigma 30mm f1.4 E-Mount Prime Lens – $300.00
  • SanDisk Ultra 16gb Memory Card – $19.99

I highly recommend this option because of the camera. The Sony a6100 comes with Sony’s new eye auto-focus technology that will make taking portraits much easier versus the Sony a6000 camera. Both have great quality, but the updated features on the Sony a6100 make it worth the investment.

Option #2 – Total Package – $719.00 (plus tax) (Basic Starter Kit)

  • Sony a6000 APSC Mirrorless Camera – Body Only – $399.00
  • Lens – Sigma 30mm f1.4 E-Mount Prime Lens – $300.00
  • SanDisk Ultra 16gb Memory Card – $19.99

Like the option above, the Sony a6000 is a widely popular mirrorless camera that came out a few years ago from Sony. There are newer versions of this camera available like the Sony a6100 above, but if you are needing to stay within a certain budget, this option can help.

The addition of the Sigma 30mm f1.4 lens will allow you to get strong subject isolation and really good blurry backgrounds with shooting wide open.

Option #3 -Total Package – $698.00 (plus Tax)

  • Sony a6000 Camera Bundle from Amazon.com – $698.00
    (Includes: Sony a6000, 16-50mm kit lens, 2 memory cards, 2 batteries and other accessories.)

If you’re wanting more of a solid kit and want to purchase an all-in-one solution, then you might consider this Sony a6000 bundle from Amazon while it is still available. It includes everything you need including a kit lens that zooms from 16mm to 50mm.

The aperture is variable meaning if changes as you zoom but this can be a big benefit for beginners looking to take more than just portraits.

Sony is a great option for beginner photographers

If you haven’t noticed, most of my recommendations for beginners are for Sony cameras. It’s the brand I have the most experience with and the one brand that I feel I can recommend.

If I knew more about Canon or Nikon, I would do my best to represent them in my articles, but since I don’t know much about them, I won’t act like I do and write about them.

The Sony e-mount system has grown over the last few years and Sony is continuing to innovate and change the way we shoot.

Eye auto-focus technology has grown and also general auto-focus technology making the camera smarter and faster.

Yes, it can be difficult to learn all aspects of a camera but this is part of the reason many people fail in portrait photography.

They fail to grasp the concepts of photography and rely on the camera to do all the work.

Cameras are nothing but tools

Keep in mind that a camera is a tool. Like a hammer is a tool. Yes, it is more sophisticated, but generally you want to lean that tool to the best of your abilities before upgrading to another tool.

Cameras will help you on your journey but will not do the work for you, so be prepared to practice, practice, and practice some more with your new equipment.

Why is camera gear so expensive?

Camera technology has grown in recent years, and with that, the price of new gear has gone up. Market value of camera gear fluctuates but many items tend to keep their value over time. This makes gear a long-term investment if you can properly take care of it.

Lenses and cameras are often bought and sold over and over again. The same can be said for lighting equipment as well. This helps keep the price of newer equipment up as the used market is always going strong. It can go up or down, but generally camera equipment is always in demand.

Buying used gear – Used Cameras and Lenses

As stated above, the used market is a way to save some money on camera gear. Buying a camera or lens that is even a year or two old can save you some money but be cautious and test the gear before you commit to purchasing.

I purchase gear second hand from companies like Adorama.com, BHPhoto.com and even MPB.com. they offer purchase protection in case the equipment does not work.

Even a 30-day guarantee is better than nothing in case something goes wrong.

These companies will test the gear they purchase and stand behind the gear they sell. It’s worth a try to check out.

Renting Cameras and Gear Online

Should beginner photographers rent gear? Yes, and many companies make it easy to do online.

Check out lensrentals.com and try out different camera gear for a few days. This is a great option if you don’t have a local camera shop to try out.

Go online and pick your items or look thru their recommendations. Then, select your dates and checkout.

The gear will be shipped to you and when you’re done, you simply return all the gear in the same boxes and do it all over again. Do this to try out new lenses or new camera bodies before you commit to buying gear.

If you do have a local camera shop, check to see if they have a rental program as you can normally get your gear faster and not have to wait for shipping.

I like to support local businesses so I always check around my area first.

The most important piece of gear you need as a beginner photography

Sounds lame, but your creativity. Photography is an art form, and an expression of your creativity and imagination.

Go beyond just shooting simple portraits and have fun creating concepts and exploring new ideas.

Conclusion

Beginner photography gear will vary in price and functionality. Don’t be afraid to save some money and then work your way into building your collection.

It’s ultimately an investment that will help you either make money as a side hustle, or will give you a creative outlet to create some photography magic. Either way, have some fun and happy shooting!

*Affiliate Disclaimer - I am a proud partner of the various affiliate programs including the Amazon.com Affiliate Program. When you click on my links and make a purchase I make a commision which goes to helping me support this blog. Thanks!

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