What Equipment Do I Need for a Basic Portrait Photography Shoot?

Photography is an art form, and just like all art forms it takes practice to get better. I have been dabbling in photography lately, and finding that it’s something I really enjoy. Video may be my first love, but photography is definitely making its way into my heart.

In my line of work I get the opportunity to field questions about videography and photography all the time. When I started to actually take photos, I realized that a lot of what I understand in video can be applied to photography. It makes me think of something a lot of my photographer friends always say to me, everyone’s a great photographer….until they have to shoot in manual.

portrait photography, basic portrait photography, photography tips

For me, manual is second nature because videographers are control freaks. We always shoot in manual (or at least we SHOULD be) because we want as much control over the image as possible. Sure the camera can dial in adjustments if we want, but for video this is not ideal. Manual is my friend 🙂

But I digress, one question that I get ALL the time is “What Gear Should I get for a basic portrait shoot?”. In fact, recently I gave a suggestion to someone who then said, “I don’t want to go that in depth, got anything simpler?” To which I replied with an even simpler set up.

Basic Portrait Photography

Some of the things i’m going to mention here will be similar to some of the things I mentioned in my Emerging Vloggers Series, because when it comes to videography and photography, a lot of the same principles apply. The first thing we need to discuss is your camera and lens choice.


If you are just starting out, you can go with a few point and shoot type cameras, but I strongly suggest upgrading to a DSLR and lens when you are ready. If you really want your photographs to pop and have that professional look, DSLRs are the way to go!

When it comes to the brand, that doesn’t really matter. That seems to be more based on preference of the photographer. Canon isn’t “better” than Nikon and Nikon isn’t “better” than Sony. However, I will say that most of the professional photographers I know use Canon or Nikon, so for the purposes of this post I will speak mostly about those.

For portrait photography, you do not need a specific type of camera. Really any camera will do but here are the top 2 from each brand that I would recommend:

Canon T6i Nikon D7200
Canon 5d Mark III Nikon D810

These are just a few choices, I gave one “moderate level” recommendation and one “professional level” recommendation for both brands. Of course, there are many other choices out there that will suite you just fine, but these choices are a good place to start.

What is arguably more important for portrait photography is your lens choice.


As you probably know by now, there are hundreds of lenses to choose from out there. This can make things really overwhelming when you are trying to decide what to do. Hopefully I can help with that! I’m going to come right out of the gate with my suggestions and then I’ll explain why.

85mm 50mm

These lenses are available in both Canon and Nikon. I recommended the 85mm and the 50mm because they are what we call prime lenses, which are lenses that have a fixed focal length. These lenses are a great choice for portraits because they will give you a tack sharp image, and they have lower aperture ranges. This is not to say that zoom lenses will not give you tack sharp images, but the build of prime lenses allows for them to have less mechanisms inside.

This simplicity, allows them to have that extremely sharp image. In addition, the lower aperture ranges allow you to dial in a stronger bokeh (blurry background) or not. I recommended the 70-200mm, because this lens is also known for it’s ability to create strong bokeh.

Now, onto what I believe matters most, and that is your environment and lighting!


Lighting is THE most important thing for photography and videography, I don’t care how fancy your camera and lens is….if you’re lighting is terrible, your images will be terrible. If your lighting is really good, it can make your images look great, even if you don’t know what you are doing.

The first thing you should think about when choosing your gear is what environment you are shooting in. That dictates what type of gear you need not anything else.

Outdoor Photography/Natural Light

One of the best things you can do when you are starting out is to try photography using natural light. Photography (and videography for that matter) is the art of capturing/using light, and the best way to get familiar it is using what is naturally available! Lots of times, if you have a good camera and lens, you won’t need any additional lighting when shooting outdoors. But, if you pick a poor time of day to shoot (like when the sun is beaming or when it’s too dark dark) you may need a little help to make sure the lighting is evenly distributed and softened.

Most times, you can get away with a standard on camera flash and diffuser. My favorites to recommend are:

Canon Speedlite 580 EX II Nikon SB-700 Speedlight

There are a lot of diffuser and light modifiers /out there, but a fan favorite is the Gary Fong Diffuser.

If needed, you can also use speedlights off camera, which can give you more versatility. For that set up you just need a light stand, speedlight and two triggers (one for your camera and one for the speedlight)

In most cases, this is all you will need as far as adding light, but I might suggest shooting early in the morning or towards the evening when the lighting is a bit softer. Cloudy days are also great because the clouds can act as your diffuser!

If you find yourself shooting during a day with too much light, you can block it out by using skrims or a black reflector. If you are shooting where the light is perfect on one part of the face but dark on another part and you want to add more light to the darker side, you can use a reflector to bounce the light off of.

These lighting techniques will cover you in most outdoor situations. Now, to indoor or studio shooting.

Indoor Photography/Studio

One of the perks about shooting indoors is that you have the ability to have allll the control which gives you SO much freedom to be as creative as you want! But, when you just want something basic there is a traditional set up you can do. To have a portrait with little to no shadows, kind of like your standard actor’s headshot, you want to get the following:

Two Lights Two Light Stands
Two SoftBoxes 3 Triggers

Notice I didn’t give you any brand names on the lights, stands or triggers. Because this is again up to the preference of the photographer. However, what I can say is that alienbee lights and pocket wizards as triggers are pretty popular. You will position the two lights on each side of your subject at the same height and power. This will give you clean and well lit portraits. However, you can also do a setup with one light, which is what the person I mentioned earlier ended up doing. If you just go with one light set up you can get the following:

One Light One Light Stand
One Softbox Two Trriggers

If you position the light on one side of the subject, then there will be a little shadow on the other side. Some people like this look, some do not. If you want to avoid shadows as much as possible you can position the light right above your camera but try to make it as even as possible to your subjects face so that the light is evenly distributed.

This is a good time to say that positioning your light is very important when you are doing indoor or studio shooting. If you position the light in a bad place then it can throw off your image.

There are a TON of creative and beautiful lighting techniques you can do, if you want to learn more about different lighting set ups let me know in the comments below!

In Conclusion

I hope this helps you as you go out and start to learn about portrait photography! I hope you found value in this post and as always, thank you for reading!

What gear do you like to use for portrait photography? Feel free to leave a comment below, let’s chat!

Olivia J

Olivia J is a video producer, writer, and director specializing in corporate video, events, documentaries and film. To see some of her work visit oliviaj.me