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The Best Cheap Portrait Photography Gear For Your Camera

Portraiture is a big genre of photography. You don’t need a lot of gear to take good ones, but there are a few bits of kit that can help. Let’s look at some of the best portrait photography gear for your camera.

Gear Acquisition Syndrome (GAS)—the feeling you need to constantly buy the newest, shiniest, most expensive bit of kit—is a major problem for a lot of photographers so I’m always a little wary of writing any article about “must have” photography gear. The reality is, you can take great portraits with very little hardware.

The stuff I’m including on this list is mostly either a) cheap, or b) optional. If you can’t afford an expensive flash set up, don’t worry. That’s no barrier to taking incredible shots. Still, if you don’t mind spending a little extra, this gear can be quite useful while you’re shooting portraits.

A “Nifty Fifty” 50mm Lens ($125-$250)

A fast prime lens is the only essential bit of portrait photography gear. With one of these, you can easily blur the background in your shots while keeping your subject in sharp focus creating the classic portrait look. The good news is that there’s a cheap, accessible 50mm f/1.8 prime—they’re nicknamed “nifty fifties”—for pretty much every camera system going.

With a nifty fifty you’re making absolutely no compromises. They’re genuinely one of the best portrait lenses going. Yes, if you have more money you can get 50mm lenses that are slightly faster, sharper across the whole image, or sturdier, but in terms of bang for your buck, there is no better lens.

Canon’s 50mm f/1.8, at a cool $125, is the lens that started thouands of portraiture careers. I took the photo above with mine.

Nikon’s 50mm f/1.8 is a little pricier but, at $215, still entirely reasonable.

Sony’s “expensive” offering, is just $198. If you can afford a camera, you can almost certainly afford a nifty fifty.

Regardless of which platform you’re using, the ol’ 50mm lens is a bargain compared to the significantly pricier and more complex lenses on the market, like fast zoom lenses.

A Big Reflector: Neewer 5-in-1 40” x 60” Reflector ($27)

A reflector does exactly what it says on the tin: it reflects light. With one, you can control how light is hitting your subject.

For portraits, the most important part of the image is your subject’s face and, unless you’re going for a particular artistic effect, you want it to be well lit without any harsh shadows. If you’re shooting outside, that’s often impossible with unmodified natural light. With a reflector, you’ve got options. You can hold it and use it to bounce some light from the sun at your subject, an assistant can hold it and use it to block out the sun to cast an even shadow, or your model can even hold it if you’re going for a close headshot.

When it comes to reflectors, bigger is almost always better. With a small reflector, you get a small light source which can create its own problems. And since reflectors are cheap and light, there’s really no penalty to buying the biggest practical one. In my mind, that’s the Neewer 5-in-1 Portable 40″ x 60″ Reflector. For $27, you get a huge reflector with white, gold, silver, translucent, and black surfaces. That’s a lot of different ways you can control how your subject is lit.

Matte Face Powder: Maybelline New York Fit Me Matte + Poreless Powder ($6)

It’s just a fact of life that everyone has a shiny face sometimes. No one really notices until you take a photo and their nose is reflecting light like a mirror. The fix, however, is simple, cheap, and known to every professional in the TV industry: matte makeup.

If you’re working with female models, they’ll often bring their own but it’s always worth having some in your bag just in case. Just grab a powder puff and dab a small amount on your model’s face. You’ll barely notice the difference but it will take the shine right off.

I like Maybelline New York Fit Me Matte Powder for two reasons: at $5.79 it’s cheap and it comes in a wide range of colors. Powder works best if it closely matches the natural skin tone of your subject. Grab one or two that are close to the skin tone of the models you normally work with, toss them in your bag, and you’re all set.

A Hangable Backdrop: Neewer 6’x9′ Pro Photo Studio Backdrop ($12)

You don’t need an expensive studio to start shooting portraits against a blank background. A window for light and a cheap hanging backdrop are more than enough to get started. The great thing is that headshots like this for actors and business people are a really easy way to start making money from your photography.

While a bed sheet will do in a pinch, for $12 I think you’re better off with the Neewer 6’x9′ Pro Photo Studio Backdrop in white or black. It doesn’t come with a way to hang it so you can either just get busy with a roll of gaffer tape or buy a backdrop stand. You can get a reasonable one for around $30, so the whole set up is still less than $50.

Great portraits don’t take a lot of gear. If you want, you can spend a few hundred dollars on flashes, but it’s totally unnecessary when you’re starting out and, to be honest, often leads to really bad results as learning to properly light a subject with a flash (let alone multiple flashes) is a whole field of study unto itself. The gear we’ve outlined here is more than enough to get you started with everything you need to take amazing natural light portraits.

Have I missed any bit of kit you feel is essential? Let me know in the comments.

Harry Guinness Harry Guinness
Harry Guinness is a photography expert and writer with nearly a decade of experience. His work has been published in newspapers like the New York Times and on a variety of other websites, including Lifehacker. Read Full Bio »