If you’re just starting out in photography, researching what camera gear to buy can be downright overwhelming. There are endless options to choose from, and if you’re anything like me, the urge to buy something that you might need for a shoot someday is an ever-present force.
While different types of photography do require different gear, I’ve put together this guide for portrait photographers with a breakdown of equipment that I use daily. I’m not paid for any of my reviews or recommendations below, but if you do choose to buy something off the list and use my affiliate links, I’d appreciate it!
Sony A7R III
The Sony A7R III has been my go-to camera for the past couple years. Coming from a Canon 6D, the increased resolution and larger sensor size opened up so many possibilities in my photography, from low light portraits, to capturing an incredible amount of detail in high contrast street scenes.
There are many things that I love about this camera, but there are two that really stand out. First, the 42 megapixel sensor gives me more resolution than I’ll realistically ever need, but enjoy having. Want to crop way in for emphasis? No problem. Need to turn your image into a billboard? Consider it done. Sure, you may not need to do these things every day, but it’s still nice to have the flexibility.
Second, though it’s starting to become more commonplace in prosumer cameras, Sony’s eye auto focus is still undoubtedly the best on the market. When it comes to portraits, there are certain things we can accept being a bit blurry. For instance, a nicely blurred background ensures that all eyes will be on the subject. Also, slightly out of focus skin is a natural-looking way to hide little imperfections. One thing that should always be tack sharp however, is your subject’s eyes. It’s reassuring knowing that the A7R III can lock onto the eyes for consistent results.
I used to swear by zoom lenses. I loved the flexibility it gave me to cover a range of distances from a single spot. Admittedly, that’s still nice, but I have since fallen in love with prime lenses. Yes, you are forced to “zoom with your feet”, but this movement encourages you to see your shot from different angles. Also, what you lose in convenience, you make up for with a lightweight build that is brighter and typically cheaper than their zooming counterparts.
I try to keep my portrait sessions in Tokyo as uncomplicated as possible. Rather than worrying about different focal lengths, I want my focus to be interesting composition and lighting. Because of this, I tend to stick with two lenses for the majority of my shoots.
The first is the Sigma 85mm f/1.4. With the lens hood attached, it’s a bit large, but size aside, it takes gorgeous portraits.
As a general rule, longer lenses tend to be more flattering for portraits. The closer you stand to your subject, the more the image will tend to barrel out from the center, causing their face to look somewhat bulbous. I personally find 85mm to be the perfect balance between being long enough for a pleasing portrait compression, but not so long that you have to shout directions to your subject.
While an 85mm is my usual go-to for portraits, I always have the Sony 35mm f/1.8 on hand. I consider a 35mm lens to be the ultimate all-arounder. It has long since been the staple lens of photojournalists around the world due to its versatility. I’ve used this lens for everything from Tokyo street photography, to editorial photo shoots, to portrait sessions.
Typically speaking, this isn’t a focal length you would want to use for a flattering shoulders up portrait, but it’s perfect for capturing a wider scene that emphasizes the subject’s interaction with their environment. As a portrait photographer in Tokyo, I’ll often use this lens to incorporate the ambiance of the city in the shot for environmental portraits.
The battery on the A7R III is pretty good as is, and for the most part, can get me through any one hour portrait session. That being said, a battery grip serves a secondary purpose as well. In addition to giving you double the battery life, it also includes a second set of shutter and aperture controls. With the Sony battery grip attached, you can easily use the camera vertically oriented without straining your wrist and shoulder to take a photo. Before using a grip, I would often find that my portraits were slightly tilted due the the awkward angle I’d have to hold my camera. Now, it’s simple to compose everything exactly how I want it.
There are quite a few third-party grips available online if you’re looking to save some money, but having used the Neewer battery grip in the past, I can tell you from experience that it doesn’t feel nearly as good. The overall build quality feels like a toy, and the buttons are a bit stiff and unresponsive. That being said, it does work as advertised, so I’d still consider it a good alternative to the Sony batter grip.
In order to get the most data possible out of my images, I shoot in Sony’s uncompressed raw format. While this gives me plenty to work with when editing the photos later, the file sizes are a whopping 82MB each. On a 64GB card, that works out to roughly 750 photos.
When I shoot, I typically do so in burst fire mode. That way, if someone blinks during a critical moment, I can still catch them in the same pose when their eyes reopen. Depending on the length of the portrait session, 750 photos may not be enough. Thankfully, the A7R III has two memory card slots which gives you the option to write to both cards at once for a backup (which I do often), or to simply double your available storage.
The biggest thing to keep in mind other than card storage space is the write speed. If you are taking 82MB photos but your memory card can only write at 50MB per second, you are going to run into a bottleneck. If you’re shooting just one photo at a time, this probably isn’t an issue, but in burst fire mode, you’ll quickly find the camera slowing down or outright refusing to shoot if the memory card queue is backed up.
I have many different memory cards at this point, but my go-to are usually SanDisk Extreme 64GB SD cards with a write speed of 170MB/s. These give me more than enough space for lengthy portrait sessions and allow me to to take quite a few rapid photos before needing to buffer.
Black Rapid Sport Strap
If you’re going to be walking around with your camera all day, having a comfortable strap is a must. Pretty much every camera manufacturer includes a strap in the box when you buy a camera body, but these are usually thin and not all that comfortable. For a highly usable strap you won’t mind wearing for hours at a time, I highly recommend the Black Rapid Sport strap.
Unlike a traditional strap that centers the weight on the back of your neck, the Black Rapid strap is a sling style, allowing the weight to rest on your shoulder instead. It may not seem like much of a difference on the surface, but after an hour or so of walking around, you’ll be thankful for the change. The sling style also changes where the camera rests. With a traditional strap, the camera sits directly in front of you, often bouncing into your stomach with each step. With the Black Rapid strap, it sits to the side of your hip, almost like a pistol grip. It’s out of the way, but still easy to access.
The only downside of this strap is that instead of using the camera’s side strap loops, it screws into the tripod mount on the bottom of the camera. This doesn’t bother me, as I almost never use a tripod when shooting portraits, but for landscape photographers, this might be a hassle.
This one is simple, but an absolute life saver. I can’t begin to tell you how many times I’ve been on a shoot and found mysterious black dots showing up in all of my photos. Though it’s typically fixable in post production, dust on your camera sensor is an inconvenient eyesore, and something easily avoidable.
Rather than going through all of your photos later and carefully removing these annoying specks, bring a small dust blower with you on every shoot. It typically takes just a small puff of air to remove dust from your sensor, but you should never do this by blowing from your mouth. The moisture from your breath can easily damage the sensitive electronics inside the camera.
When I’m shooting portrait photography in Tokyo, I almost always stick with natural light. I generally prefer the look of it, and the simplicity of the setup allows me to focus more on my subject and their environment. However, sunlight is often unpredictable. There are times where I have no choice but to use a flash to capture the image.
A hot shoe mounted flash is undeniably easiest, but the easiest option rarely yields the best result. For the most control over your image, you should use a powerful off-camera flash. For this, I use the Godox AD200. I think it’s the perfect mix between being powerful enough for daytime shoots, and portable enough to toss in my camera bag and go.
To use the flash off-camera, I pair it with the Godox XPro TTL trigger. This attaches to your camera’s hot shoe and sends a signal to the flash whenever the shutter is released. You can also use this to control the intensity of the flash remotely. Also, If you start to add other flashes to your setup, you can control all of them through the one trigger.
Lastly, you’re going to want a way to diffuse the light for a more flattering look. If you fire the flash directly at your subject’s face, it will result in overly bright hot spots and drastic, hard-line shadows. I recommend getting a lightweight softbox for the best result. I typically use a Neewer 80cm softbox, as it’s easy to transport and doesn’t require any sort of assembly. For a standard shoulders up portrait, this size should be perfect, but for full body photos, you may want to consider 120cm or up.
Get Out There and Start Taking Photos
It’s a bit of a cliche at this point, but the best camera in the world is the one you have in your hands at the moment you need it. This holds true for most photography gear. Can a $3000 camera do more than a $300 camera? Most definitely, but a skilled photographer can always find a way to make the shot work no matter what. That being the case, think of the above list not so much as a “must-have”, but rather, a general guideline for covering most of your bases in portrait photography.
If you have any questions about gear or want to share your own recommendations, I’d love to hear from you. If you’re planning to visit Japan at some point and would like to book your own portrait session in Tokyo, please get in touch to inquire about rates and availability.