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What Equipment do I need to start a Portrait Photography Studio?

  • Tutorials
  • 12/03/24
  • 15 minute read
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Embarking on a career in Portrait Photography involves more than just a camera and a subject. The right equipment is crucial in setting up a professional studio that enables photographers to achieve high-quality results. This guide will introduce the essential tools – from lenses to lighting and backdrops – needed to build a Portrait Photography Studio. Tailored for both aspiring and seasoned photographers, we aim to outline a comprehensive equipment list that ensures you’re well-equipped to tackle any portrait session.

  • Selecting Lenses for Portrait Photography
  • Mastering Portrait Lighting
  • Utilising Tripods in Portraits
  • Backdrops: Setting the Scene
  • Post-Processing & Tethering Software
  • Shopping list

Selecting Lenses for Portrait Photography

The first question you’ll likely ask yourself is whether you want to shoot primarily with flash, natural light (usually meaning window lighting in Portrait Studio Photography), or both.

Zoom Lenses: Modern Zoom Lenses have vastly improved in terms of sharpness and clarity. If you work with flash, you’ll typically shoot at smaller apertures like f11 or f16, meaning you don’t need expensive Prime Lenses that excel at wide apertures of f1.4 or f1.8. We would recommend a good zoom lens, like a f4 24mm – 105mm or a f2.8 24mm – 70mm, plus maybe a 105mm macro lens if you intend to shoot close-ups.

Prime Lenses: These are recognised for their wide apertures and are therefore perfect if you intend to use window lighting for your portrait studio and want to take portraits with a shallow depth of field. A classic trio of a 50mm, 85mm & 105mm primes are indispensable for portrait photographers looking to achieve beautiful background bokeh. Opt for f1.8 versions which are typically a fraction of the cost of the wider f1.4 models without compromising the background blur too much.

As a general rule for achieving the “classic” portrait look, in our Portrait Photography Course we recommend 50mm for full-body shots, 85mm for upper-body shots, and 105mm for close-ups on Full-Frame cameras. For APS-C sensor cameras, divide the focal lengths by the crop-factor of 1.5 to get the equivalents: 35mm for full-body shots, 50mm for upper-body shots, and 70mm for close-ups.

Mastering Portrait Lighting

The choice between using flash as your main light source or window lighting is crucial.

Window lighting: If your studio boasts large windows, you’re in luck! North-facing windows provide consistently soft lighting almost all day. If your windows are east- or west facing, you might get direct sunshine in the morning or afternoon respectively during the summer months, perfect for portraits with that magical golden sunlight that are all the rave at the moment. In such cases, the only equipment you’ll need are reflectors & black flags (see below) and possibly a black curtain to adjust the place and size of the window’s light and a thin white curtain to diffuse direct sunlight.

Flash units: With a variety of brands and models, choosing can be overwhelming but we can guide you towards what professionals use. Although newer companies like Godox and Neewer surely offer good products at a reasonable price point, the downside is that these manufacturers are usually not supported by the mayor photography equipment rental companies like The ProCentre, Direct Digital or Fixation. Nowadays photographers tend to have a rather small set of core lighting equipment and then hire additional equipment dependent on the shoot. The main flash manufacturer are: Profoto and Broncolor are top-tier and Elinchrom as medium-tier option, all supported by major equipment hire companies so it should be fairly easy to hire additional lights or light shapers.

Starting with a single flash head and a few light shapers and reflectors can go a looong way! For beginners, we recommend the a single Elinchrom ELC 500 with a Skyport Transmitter Plus, offering a good balance of power and affordability. You can use it for Rembrandt, Butterfly and front-lighting. “500” in the model name usually describes the intensity of the flash in Watt seconds (Ws) and 500 Ws is perfect for portrait photography. For more complex lighting we would recommend 3 heads of the same model to cover clamshell lighting, hair and independent background lighting and as a portrait photographer you will rarely need more.

Reflectors: A quintessential both studio and daylight portrait photographers, reflectors are incredibly versatile tools that can transform the quality of your images. By reflecting light onto your subject, you can lighten shadowy areas, soften harsh contrasts and imbue your portraits with a natural glow. Reflectors come in various sizes and surfaces, including silver, gold, white, and translucent, each offering a different effect. Silver surfaces increase specular highlights, adding crispness to the image and are much brighter than white surfaces that produce a softer, more natural fill-in light. You can either use hand-held disc reflectors that are available from various manufacturers or use white Polystyrene boards (short poly-boards) with stands for your studio. Photographers often paint one side black to be used as a flag to absorb stray-light and darken the shows.

Light shapers: When it comes to flash studio lighting, softboxes and umbrellas are fundamental in achieving a flattering, soft and evenly distributed light. Both act as diffusers, spreading the light over a larger area and softening the shadows for a more uniform illumination with softer shadows. Softboxes are more efficient than umbrellas but both achieve similar results. What really matters is the size: It directly impacts the softness of the light, with larger ones creating softer light and vice versa. A 2 – 3 feet softbox size is generally a good compromise between flattering and character portrait lighting and also ideal for lighting backdrops. Other useful light shapers are Standard Reflectors and Honeycomb Grids for harder, more focused and accentuated lighting.

Utilising Tripods in Portraits

A tripod is essential for stabilising your camera in low-light conditions or when precision in composition is required. Combined with a remote shutter release connected to your camera, they allow you to sort out the technical stuff like exposure, focus and composition beforehand and allow you to focus entirely on interacting with your subject during the shoot. We particularly love Manfrotto’s classic 055 Series in it’s aluminium version as a reliable, affordable, and stable option.

Backdrops: Setting the Scene

The backdrop against which you shoot can dramatically alter the mood and impact of your portraits. Having a variety of backdrops allows for creative experimentation, from seamless paper to textured fabrics, enabling a controlled environment that complements your subject. If you want to have several different papers at your disposal we recommend Manfrotto’s 045 paper background triple hooks that can take 3 different rolls and can be mounted either directly to a wall or, if you require more flexibility, to a pair of Manfrotto Autopoles. Attach the background roles to the hook with pairs of Calumet Expansion Drive Sets and you can change between different backdrops within seconds. Or, for a more low-tech approach, you can use a Calumet Background Support System Extension Bar that simply mounts the paper backdrop on top of two stands.

When it comes to the paper backdrops, the obvious choices are either Calumet’s or Manfrotto’s 2.72m x 11m rolls that are available in a myriad of different colours. For a single choice, go for white. With the use of the light shapers and other tricks you will be able to modulate it to grey and even black! If you are looking for a range of different tones we would also add a grey and a coloured backdrop for a wider creative choice.

Post-Processing & Tethering Software

In the realm of portrait photography, post-processing plays a pivotal role. Adobe Photoshop and Lightroom Classic stand as the industry standards, offering powerful tools for editing and refining your images. Capture One is another excellent choice, especially favoured for its advanced colour grading capabilities. Post-production refers to the process of editing and enhancing photographs after they have been taken. This stage is where a photographer’s raw images are transformed into compelling works. We teach that post-production is not just about correcting mistakes or imperfections but is an extension of the creative process—a tool for photographers to further express their artistic vision and storytelling.

If you’re working in a studio, shooting tethered by connecting your camera directly to your laptop via a USB cable is highly recommended. This setup allows for immediate feedback and adjustments. The two primary applications for tethering are Adobe Lightroom Classic and Capture One. While Capture One is often the preferred choice among professionals and is undeniably the industry standard, it’s notably more expensive than Lightroom Classic.

Shopping list

Basic set

1 – 3 x Elinchrom ELC 500 head
1 x Elinchrom Skyport Transmitter Plus
1 – 3 x Elinchrom Rotalux Squarebox 70cm
1 – 3 x Elinchrom Standard Reflector
1 – 3 x Calumet Light Stand 3.9m
1 x Godox 110cm 5-in-1 reflector
2 x 2m x 1m Polystyrene boards with one side painted black & stands
2 x Manfrotto Autopoles
1 x Manfrotto’s 045 paper background triple hooks
1 x Calumet Expansion Drive Sets
1 x Calumet 2.72m x 11m paper backdrop white

Optional

1 x Elinchrom Honeycomb Grid-set
2 x Calumet Expansion Drive Sets
2 x Calumet 2.72m x 11m paper backdrop grey & one colour
1 x Laptop with Lightroom Classic or Capture One (for tethering) and Photoshop
1 x Tether Tools USB cable

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