Portrait Photography - Best Nikon Camera and Lens

Discussion in 'Nikon' started by erin_mathias, Sep 1, 2011.

  1. Hi,
    I am just getting started in my own portrait photography business. I currently own a Nikon 3100, but I feel it is time to upgrade. I want to get sharp images, and a lense that will offer low apeture to get a good background blur. I am willing to pay a bit more, but don't want to get the most expensive one out there either. I shoot mainly kids and families, but have also done senior portraits and maternity. As I mentioned, I am new to this...a career change to follow my passion. So any advice on equipment, or even starting your own photography business is much appreciated!
    Thanks in advance!
  2. Lots to say.... lots to read [for you, here and in other threads]...
    50mm f/1.4 or 1.8 and 85mm f/1.8 or 105mm f/2.8 macro
    d200 body
    buying from Adorama/B&H
    flash - a whole new topic. umbrella, soft box, 2 lights. lots to learn there, need an assistant too... maybe without a flash or a single flash off camera at start
    light quality....... technique..... large aperture [small f-stop], like f/2 or so
    [no flash, June, 5:52pm, sun filtered by a tall tree leaves]
    sooner or later you will need a flash, or 2, I would minimize the body/lens expense, keep the body, use a 50mm f/1.8, get that used in mint condition.... and I would spend a lot of time [and money, maybe used stuff] on flash, speedlights or Alienbees, not sitting on top of camera though.
    Otherwise, without a flash, you're at the mercy of the quality of sunlight, shadows, missing a bit of a standing out of the faces against the background .
  3. Erin: Note that the 50/1.8 that Robert mentions is probably the older (non AF-S) version that will not autofocus on your D3100. There is a newer 50/1.8 "G" from Nikon that will work on your camera, though it's not really stellar when it comes to the background blur aesthetics. Before mentioning which ones are, some more general observations:

    First, I agree that you don't want to spend money too early or incorrectly on a camera body. Your D3100 can make perfectly sharp, nice looking images. It's about the lens, and about the quality of the light (and how you use them, of course). Early on, spend money on lights, light modifiers, and lenses. And mostly, spend time on technique.

    Presumably you have one or two of Nikon's kit lenses, that came with the camera you're using. You can use those zoom lenses to find out what focal lengths feel like a good fit for your subjects, your comfortable working distance from them, and the style/look you're after. You probably already have lenses that will let you shoot at 30mm, 50mm, 85mm - just what you need to see what you'd lilke in a sharper/faster lens.

    If you plan to shoot lots of full-length standing adults, head-to-toe, in landscape orientation (think... wedding party shot), that's a very different focal length than head/torso single portraits. Use your existing zoom lens at different focal lengths, and treat it like a laboratory to see at which length you think you'd best be able to improve things.

    If I were in your shoes, and trying to decide what to do next, it might very likely be an 85mm lens, or a 30mm lens - either of them in the f/1.4-ish neighborhood, because you're after the ability to render those buttery backgrounds. But such lenses ain't cheap, and it's good to experiment at those focal lengths first, to see if you like the compositions you could get with them. A fixed-lenth ("prime") lens may feel limiting, if you're used to zooms.

    That said, you might in fact be better off with a good quality 24-70mm f/2.8 zoom. Something that will take care of most any portrait on a DX-format body like yours.
  4. Thanks so much for the feedback! I really appreciate the advice! It sounds like lighting and lenses will be the first step. I have little to no experience with lighting, so I should probably take a class there. For the most part all of my sessions have been outdoor using natural lighting. I like the effect of natural lighting, but I also live in the pacific northwest, so we do get some rainy days and I don't want to have a summer only business. Thanks again!
  5. The "demo" shots taken by pros for marketing any lens/camera is many times aided by flash. So a $400 camera and $200 lens can be supplemented by a $200 or $500 flash setup and with the right technique can make a huge difference.
    That's why your current camera and a given lens could be enough, as long as you can control the light, and that takes time and more than a class can teach you by itself. There is nothing wrong with a class, but it's not enough by itself, you need to be learning by doing, taking many pictures every day and developing a style with whatever gear you have, then identifying the weakest link [which is your technique at the beginning] and improving on it.
    I didn't think about the cameras without AF ability, like Matt pointed out, that changes things. I never had or would want to have a body without AF ability, but i have bought a lens that doesn't allow me AF [a Nikon lens on Canon body, with an adapter]. There is a definite need for AF in portraits (which doesn't mean you should always use it, sometime manually focusing might be better, it's just good to have choices].
    Money allowing i would prefer a body with AF, a lens of 50mm and 85mm focal length and then focus on flash, bouncing it, filtering it, reflecting it with reflectors to supplement and add to the amount of light - there are YouTube videos to get you ideas on flash photography.
    Slow steps at first, but practice practice..... 1 light, 1 lens, 1 subject and then introduce variables like distance to subject, f/stop, shutter speed... and you should be in Manual mode, controlling the numbers, same with flash, manual, and practice.
  6. What lenses do you now own? What other studio equipment? Traditional portrait photography means four light sources in the studio plus light modifiers, light stands, tripods, backgrounds and stands and a host of other equipment beyond the camera and lenses.
    Henry Posner
    B&H Photo-Video
  7. here's my tip: the tamron 28-75/2.8, an excellent portrait lens on DX. (you'll need the built-in-motor version to AF on a D3100.) i would recommend that over a 50/1.8 as it allows for more versatility in shooting and covers a wider range of focal lengths. the 85 and 105 primes are good portrait lenses on FX but on DX they might be a little long, especially indoors. the 28-75 also has much better bokeh than both versions of the 50/1.8 and the 85/1.8. best of all, it's a full-frame lens, so if and when you get an FX body, it will still be useful. and,you can't beat the price. spending $1700 on a 24-70 might not be practical at this point, and that lens wont balance all that well on your current body; OTOH, the tamron does 85% of what the nikkor does for less than 1/3rd the price, and is much lighter and more compact.
  8. I have some thoughts. First, I really doubt the camera itself is going to make any difference. Second, are you sure you want sharp portraits? You are of course aware that since photography started in 1840 that the quest has been to create lenses that are not really sharp--the Heliar, the Imagon, Softar, Nikon 105mm DC, on and on. For the past several years the "hot" lens has been the Petzval, famous for its soft look. Photographers are buying these lenses made from 1850--1900 and adapting them to digital bodies. As for lighting, that is THE thing that separates a "snapshot" from a pro portrait. As for rainy days, those are the best for portraits. The light is soft and even. I would skip buying a camera now for sure, and would probably suggest skipping buying a lens right now too. Start checking into lighting, and most of all I think you would benefit from reading up on this and maybe taking a few classes. We all start somewhere, and often it's easier once we have a better idea of what we want to do so we can then find the "stuff" we need to accomplish it. BTW, my very favorite portrait lens is my Rodenstock 250mm Imagon, designed in 1928. It is creamy smooth, giving an other wordly dream like quality to portraits. They are incredible! Consider rethinking the "sharp" thing for portraits, anyway. I'll also mention that I agree with Henry P above that one light one do much for you. A sort of "standard" is three. Get a good book on portrait lighting and start reading. You will save a LOT of money and frustration by starting with some solid knowledge from books like "Light: Science & Magic." Don't get too wrapped up in lenses and especially cameras.
    Kent in SD
  9. That's why your current camera and a given lens could be enough.​
    Robert, i agree that adding an external flash to a kit lens goes a long way. But kit lenses have slow vari-apertures, which aren't good for subject isolation. The OP specifically mentioned shooting @ open apertures, so a 2.8 or faster lens would be a good choice. cheapest way to get there is a 50/1.8, but if you're serious about portraits, you'll want something with better bokeh.
  10. If you're going to be using studio flash, you will often be shooting at f/8. Most lenses have ample image quality (including the sharpness you are worried about) at f/8. Since you would be in control of the background in a studio, you also don't need to worry about using large apertures to achieve subject separation.
    If on the other hand you're definitely going to need to do outdoor portraits I'd suggest going with the 50mm f/1.8G lens. It's a good length for head-and-shoulder portraits on a D3100 (upper-half portraits too if you have enough room), not ruinously expensive, and works on NIkon cameras all the way up to the D3x. If you also want to do family group shots, try doing this with your kit lens for now, or try the 35mm f/1.8G.
    Avoiding changing the body for now and not buying mega-expensive lenses is going to save you some money. Spend it on training, backgrounds, lighting, and lighting modifiers.
  11. Kids wiggle. You'll appreciate flash to keep them 'frozen'. I've had to resort to that chasing my grandkids around. I'm just a grandpa with a camera.
    The below photo was shot outdoors, kids corraled on a bench, in the shade with the river behind them. I used one flash on camera and another (slaved with CLS) behind and above them clamped to a tree branch. Camera is an older Nikon D200 and the lens is a 50mm F1.8 AF. I like the 50 on a Nikon APS body for this sort of informal portrait. The 50s are the cheapest and perhaps the best bang for the buck of any Nikon (or anyone elses, for that matter). {Note the boy is less focused than the girl as he's further back and I focused on her eyes. Here it was F5.6, maybe I should have gone F8 or moved over and aligned myself better. Dang.}
    So, whichever way you go, it's not so much the gear but just practice (and some luck) :eek:) The others above have echoed this more elegantly.
    Best of luck with your biz!
  12. bms


    I think it depends how "traditional" you want to be...... Starting with lighting is a good idea, but good portraits have been done with just natural light. You can certainly invest a few $k in lights (as well as lenses and a new body)...... Important is that you know what you want your portraits to look like. If you want to get the hair-think depth of field, creamy background look, your kit lens will not serve you well.
    I think a 35 f1.8 and 50 f1.8 would be a good start if your budget is low, maybe pick up a minty 105 f2.5 (manual focus). As stated above, practice, determine your style....
  13. I want to get sharp images, and a lense that will offer low apeture to get a good background blur.
    I think the 50/1.8 AF-S would be the immediate lens of choice, with something a bit longer for tight head shots (maybe a Micro-Nikkor such as the 60mm, 85mm, or 105mm). The 85/1.4 is probably the most popular portrait lens on FX cameras but it's a bit long on DX and ... well it's quite expensive. But if you do portraits a lot then an FX camera and the 85/1.4 would be ideal (in the future when you can afford it). You can get almost the same thing with your current camera and the 50mm lens - not quite the same thing, but close enough to serve. And it'll still be very useful on an FX camera should you go with that. FX has the advantage that the sharpness at the widest apertures is better and it's slightly more lenient on focus accuracy since the surface area is greater.
    As to making group shots I think the 35/1.8 DX would be perfect for your current camera, and then you may need a wide angle on occasion for which there are multiple choices. If you plan to stay with a DX camera for several years the 17-55/2.8 DX is the perfect shorter focal length portrait lens. It has very beautiful rendition of both skin and background (especially for a zoom) and works well in controlled studio light also. The more recent FX zooms such as the 24-70 have better sharpness and contrast wide open at f/2.8 but they're not, in my opinion quite as nice as portrait lenses - a little too hard on the skin and the background rendition could be a bit better also, though it's not bad. I'm not trying to criticize the 24-70 just that I think for a DX camera I think the 17-55 is a great portrait lens. For a family group shot I personally use 45mm or 50mm lens on FX, or the 24-70mm, and they work fine (I prefer the 45 PC-E and 50/1.8(D) in terms of rendering for this application). For DX I would lean onto the 35 DX and the 17-55. You can use the 24-70 but I'd get this lens only if you are planning on an FX camera in the future. Others recommend it also for DX so there is clearly some subjectivity here.
    I would get both the 35/1.8G AF-S DX and the 50/1.8G AF-S since they both are inexpensive and very good optically. The next lens I would choose would be a Micro-Nikkor for tight framings and partial faces or close-ups of body parts e.g. hands, feet etc. Depending on budget I would then consider one of the f/2.8 zooms. But I think the primes are more important as they give you more lighting and depth of field options. The 85/1.8D is also a possibility (something of a bargain) but it won't autofocus on your D3100 so that could be a problem. But since Nikon is going with AF-S for all primes eventually I would not consider this a severe issue for someone starting out.
    The D7000 (DX) and D700 are cameras that you can consider but I think the lenses should come first. A kit zoom is just not going to give the kind of clarity you're looking for. It's not just about "sharpness" but what kind of rendering you get. A good portrait lens gives a gentle rendition of skin but renders the eyes and main facial features very cleanly and sharply. They're not "soft" in the sense that a kit zoom is soft wide open, but a different, controlled kind of, soft that is designed to render people beautifully.
    I have found the D3100 to have a little glitch regarding the use of CLS (Nikon's current TTL flash system). If you use a CLS flash on i-TTL mode it will emit preflashes to determine correct exposure. I've found that when doing this on the D3100, there is a very high probability of fully or partially closed eyes when the actual picture is taken. I have not found this to be a problem with my FX cameras or the D7000. When I view the preflash + main flash sequence by eye on the subject side of the flash, the D3100 seems to emit a very sharp preflash, then pause, and main flash, whereas the D7000 emits the preflashes over what seems to be a longer period but then follows the main flash right after the last preflash, and this seems to produce fewer eye closures. The D7000 (and the other higher end models) have also what is known as Flash Value lock, which allows you to perform the preflashes in advance and lock the exposure so that you can take multiple shots without having any more preflashes. The exposure will stay constant as long as the geometry of the camera + flash + room + subject stay the same. When working in this way, eye blinks are much more rare during the actual exposures. I intend to measure the intensity vs. time of the preflashes and main flash from both cameras soon; it's just that I will have access to a suitable photodiode on Monday and I'll try to get it done then. My initial impression however is as described above but don't take this too seriously until I show the actual measurements to prove my point. Otherwise the D3100 camera is fine.
    Regarding adaptation of 19th century and early 20th century lenses on small format digital SLRs, I cannot see the point of it. I think appropriately chosen Nikon's lenses render people very beautifully and they also offer autofocus, which is very important when using small DX viewfinders and their "modern" focusing screens which do not help much with focusing especially at wide apertures which you may sometimes want to use. For small aperture portraits in the studio, these old lenses may be fine but again so do Nikon's.
  14. Taken in studio with D300+85/1,8 + 3 Ellinchrom BXRi flashlights :
  15. Taken in studio with D300+85/1,8+3 Ellinchrom BXRi flashlights :
  16. I shoot with a D700.
    My lenses of choice for portrait photography are
    24-70mm f2.8
    70-200mm f2.8 VRII
    Occasionally I will use my 85mm f1.4
    I am doing more location based portrait photography than in the past.
    I supplement light with SB900 and SB800's controlled with pocketwizard mini TT1, AC3 and FlexTT5.
    You can see some results on my website http://www.e2photo.net
    Business advice... make sure you have enough capital (money) to survive 3-5 years and have a clear business plan
  17. look at this folio - it could enlighten you a bit.
    pictures was made with Nikon D50. It's not a camera who take a picture...It's a person behind it. I could recomend to work on a technique and light.
    here you got lots o pictures taken with D70
  18. Erin over the last year and a half I've been walking this path. Based on my experiences and the ton or research I've done, as well as priceless input from alot of experienced togs, I'd recommend the following:
    The 3100 is more than adequate of taking good photos. The 18-55 lens is not bad at all either to start with.
    A telephoto is a must. The 55-200 is cheap and quite good. You get a far greater blurring of the background at longer focal lengths.
    A small fast lens like the 50 1.8G is useful. As for other primes or zooms work with the basic 2 zoom kit 1st and see what works for you. Then you have a better idea of what other lenses to buy.
    Get at least 1 decent flash or strobe to start with. SB-400 is too limiting, so maybe a SB-700 or 2nd hand SB-600. I got a friend of mine a Nissin D622 Mk2 and she loves it. Very simple interface, does off camera CLS, and alot more powerful than the SB-6/700. And cheaper.
    Get a 5 in 1 reflector. Extremely useful and cheap.
    Then study, practice, practice. Technique and understanding your tools is far more important than equipment. There's a huge ammount of reading material online (David Hobby, Neil vNiekerk, etc.) Hands on workshops can be very valuable.
    Start simple and master the basics. Then when you are ready you can upgrade and add, knowing why you need the new gear.
    Hope this helps.
  19. I just want to thank you all for such excellent advice to a newcomer! Some people can be quite critical, but you all gave very helpful and constructive feedback! I will keep you posted!
  20. 70-200 f/2.8 either version

    Any Nikon body that will work with the lens and your lighting setup

    Aperture range: f/2.8 to f/11 depending on the DOF that you need for a particular composition.
  21. I wouldn't recommend the 105mm Micro-Nikkor for portraits, as is so often done--I'm not sure why the 105 Micro-Nikkor is so popular for portraits. Yes, it can do them, but the AF DC-Nikkor 105mm f/2.0D is a much better-suited portrait lens, and would be my first choice. The 85mm f/1.8 is a good value, and is also great for portraits, especially on a DX body. But to take advantage of these lenses, you'd need a screw-drive body, like a D90 or better.
  22. All this is good advice, but all are forgetting the most important thing in portraits: work with your sitter/model. Get ideas, get creative, come up with interesting concepts. Bring out personality, beauty, emotion, or anything else you have to say about the sitter/model. That's where the great portraitists (photographic or otherwise) stand out from the crowd.
  23. Best lens for portraits is frequently occuring question.
    In one of prior discussions, there was recommendation of a 24 mm lens for portraits.
    It would be perhaps benefitial if you could search and read older discussions on this subject, though there is not much to it, just various and original or odd opinions, and rationale to support them.

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