Essential Equipment for the Portrait Photographer

Sir Patrick Stewart Rory LewisPortraiture is all about Expression, Mood, Light and Shadow. If you look at Classical Portrait lighting styles you will see that each is defined by not only how the face is lit, but also by the shadows on the face. In order to achieve your desired style in a professional studio or in your own home studio , here are a few pieces of equipment that will help I can’t do without.


320x320A good light meter is essential, you will be surprised, I have taught a great deal of budding photographers in my workshops, and many have never used a light meter. Your digital camera can do significantly more than film cameras, but it is not a light meter. It has no lumisphere, it cannot measure the light output of flash prior to capture, it cannot measure the light output of multiple flashes in relation to one another and as a percentage of ambient light. Precise calibration for accurate digital exposures is essential in portraiture to create the right look and mood. You can’t meter flash/strobes by eye alone. I recommend the Sekonic L-308S £130.00, it’s simple to use and will ensure accuracy in your metering.  

Posing StoolPosing stools and posing tables play an important role in my portraiture, a portrait session is after-all called a sitting. Therefore ones model or subject should be seated.  Having a stool instead of a chair can be helpful if you don’t want the chair back to be visible in the pictures. Also when the client is sitting, options for placing his/hers arms and hands can be limited, so a posing table can help finding more poses.


ReflectorWhether you’re shooting in studio with strobes or outdoors, in bright sunlight or under clouds, the direction and strength of the light has a big impact on your images, and making the most of the available light can be the difference between a good photo and a great one. Reflectors are your secret weapon in portraiture, put quite simply reflectors bounce light. They enable you to control your lighting more effectively. With so many reflectors available its impossible to talk about them all. I prefer Silver/White reflectors. Silver/White Reflectors create a bright more detailed portrait. If you don’t fancy holding your reflector and camera at the same time its worth investing in a telescopic zip disk holder.


320x320-2Umbrellas are collapsible lighting modifiers that spread the light output into many different directions.  Silver Umbrellas throw light everywhere within a 180 degree radius. The wide and even pattern of light created by a silver umbrella makes them perfect for lighting portraits. Umbrella’s will give your portraits a softer look, they are portable and easy to use, and very affordable 36″ (91cm) Silver/White Umbrella.

Strip Softboxes and PortraitureStrip Softboxes enable you to shape and control the light more effectively, especially in a low key studio environment. If you want more control than an umbrella or larger softbox can provide and add drama to your portraits; strip softboxes are a great way to go about it. Ranging from £55 to £400 the cost depends on your model of lighting, they are well worth the purchase. On a recent sitting with Sir Ian McKellen (pictured below), I employed two Profoto RFi 1 x 6′ (30 x 180 cm)  strip softboxes to create the dramatic lighting effect. As you can see the ability to control your lighting really gives you the edge when it comes to dynamic low key portraiture.

One of the most unique was my Portrait Sitting with Sir Ian McKellen back in May this year for Northerners. It was wonderful to work with Sir Ian, such a professional and lovely man. After discussing the style of portrait I wanted to achieve I directed Sir Ian in several poses and expressions.

In conclusion I hope these essential equipment tips give you the edge in your next portrait photoshoot. If I can teach you anything from this article its accurate metering and I can’t emphasise enough the need for a good light meter.



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