DSLR setups for the portrait taker
Whether you want to take photos inside or out, every portrait photographer needs the same kind of gear
By Sebastian Anthony on January 22, 2011
Good portraiture that captures the essence, spirit, and emotion of a human face is perhaps the epitome of photography. Therein lies the problem, though: Because portraiture is more about the subject—the story behind the face—picking the right camera gear can be a bit tricky. It's entirely possible to take the most beautiful portrait the world has ever seen on a cheap disposable camera, but at the same time, a good camera and lens can massively increase your chances of producing a pleasing portrait. What I'm trying to say is that no matter how good your gear is, you won't magically take good portraits—but I'll list the camera, lenses and accessories that will give you the best chances.
In general, the bigger the sensor, the better—not more pixels, but actual size. You want a full-frame sensor, not a cropped APS-C, APS-H, or DX sensor. This restricts your options to either the Canon 5D Mark II or Nikon D700, or the Nikon D3s (which probably isn't worth the extra money). Keep an eye out for the Canon 5D Mark III and 1Ds Mark IV, which may emerge before the end of 2011.
If you're only just getting into portrait photography and you don't want to spend a few thousand dollars before you take your first photo, the Canon T2i (550D in some countries) is a good choice. It won't produce anywhere near the same image quality as the other three cameras, but it's a lot more flexible and a quarter of the price.
Bear in mind, just like landscape photography, the best studio portrait photographers actually use medium format cameras—and a good medium format digital camera costs in the region of $20,000!
The right lens
There are just two stand-out choices when it comes to portrait lens focal lengths: 50mm or 85mm. 50mm is considered the "natural" or normal focal length and produces photos with very little distortion and believable perspective. An 85mm lens produces similar images, and you might find the results more (or less) aesthetically pleasing—but it forces you to stand further away from the subject, which some portrait photographers don't like. If you chose a Canon DSLR body, the lenses you want are the 50mm f/1.4 and the best-in-class 85mm f/1.2L. If you chose a Nikon DSLR body, the lenses you want are the 50mm f/1.4 and the 85mm f/1.4 AF-D.
If you want to take photos of people, but not necessarily portraits, grab a flexible zoom lens or wide-angle prime such as the Canon 24-70 f/2.8L or Canon 35mm f/1.4L. If you're less keen on people and more more interested in taking photos of things—plants, insects, random objects—get a macro lens! The Canon 100mm f/2.8L can create some truly awesome effects, if you're into macro photography.
It's worth noting that some portrait photographers use 100mm, 135mm, and 200mm lenses, usually because of characteristics that are unique to a specific lens. With portraiture, it is often important to have beautiful bokeh—the blurred, out-of-focus parts of a photo—and every lens produces different bokeh. Remember, though, even the most expensive lens can't automatically produce a good portrait—but they can certainly produce some incredible contrast, sharpness, and bokeh.
For portrait photography, your accessories will depend entirely on what you want to photograph. If you want to do indoor photography or you're setting up an actual studio, you will need lights, reflectors, and backdrops. It's impossible to pick out just one or two of each, though, as the variety is so large. Do some Googling, check some forums, and read some reviews! In general, two or three 500W lamps should be enough for internal work, and you will almost certainly want a softbox.
Unless you are the kind of photographer who only shoots with natural light, you will also need an external flash. For Nikon cameras, the SB-600 Speedlight is a safe bet, and Canon has the Speedlight 430EX. A top-of-the-range flashgun can cost more than $500, so be sure to do your research before buying one.
After playing with lamps and reflectors and flashes, you really need a light meter. A good light meter will save you having to take tens or hundreds of photos to accurately gauge the best exposure, and they're pretty cheap too. For about $300, you can get the Sekonic L-358, or if you want to spend a little less, the Sekonic L-308 is very nearly as good but half the price.
Finally, you need a good tripod; anything made by Manfrotto should do the trick—but really, any tripod will do, as long as it isn't prone to wobbling. On the other hand, many portrait photographers prefer to hand-hold their cameras, especially if they are shooting outside or dealing with a nervous model.