This past Sunday I had a portrait session with a previous client and I have been trying to get my gear for a portrait down to the essentials.
It’s easy, especially when working with an assistant, to just throw everything at the job, but it means you end up carrying around gear that might not get used. If you’re hiking around a lot, it can be a burden and just a lot more stuff to carry.
It made me wonder: “What is the minimum amount of gear that I can bring and feel like I’ve got everything I need?
Different photographers will have different needs, that is for certain.
My friend Jonathan Canlas, a film shooter (and medium format shooter to boot), shoots virtually everything with a normal focal length.
If you watch a video of him doing a shoot, notice that he only shoots the entire session with ONE lens (the 105 f2.4 on his Pentax camera; the 80mm on his Rolleiflex -- both are "normal" lenses). Pretty darn cool. (Click the link)
While I LOVE to shoot a portrait with just one lens, I do like to have a bit of flexibility. (Notice that Jonathan shoots with primarily one lens he also has a backup camera and a b & w camera too -- so he's got things covered).
Much of what I shoot with is the 55 or normal lens for my Sony, but there are times when I need more.
At Sunday's shoot I was trying an experiment to see if I can pare my kit down to the most essential for me.
Here’s what I brought for cameras and lenses:
Sony a7R II (Full Frame)
Sony a6300 (APS-C sensor with a 1.5X crop)
35mm f1.4 FE Zeiss
55mm f1.8 FE Zeiss
50mm f1.4 ZE Zeiss (Canon EF mount with Fotodiox Pro adapter)
85mm f1.8 Zeiss Batis lens
Think Tank Retrospective 7 to carry the extra gear including CF cards and 4 extra batteries.
Normally I would bring one or all three of my zooms but today I wasn’t feeling them. If I had to bring just one for portraits, it would most likely be the 70-200.
Still, with the cameras I have, I knew it will be fine because the a6300 will give me about a 135mm focal length equivalent (actually 127.5mm) when I put the 85mm Batis on it…but then I’ve got the full frame which gives me a bit more variety.
Prior to converting to Sony mirrorless nearly two years ago, with my previous DSLR system I would often shoot a portrait session with a 50 and a 135 so I will start today’s session with the 55 and the 85 on the a6300 (about a 135mm) and change as needed.
Here’s what I brought for lighting (I brought it and did not even use it -- and that's ok):
Dyna-lite Baja B4 (400 w/s monobloc. Like a Profoto B1 without TTL and HSS and also about $1400 cheaper. Weight though is about 6.1 pounds so it's not light, but it is self contained (battery is in the head) and the big bare tube shaped flash creates a wonderful quality of light.
Pocket Wizard to trigger flash; Dynalite remote for Baja to adjust power from camera position.
Manfrotto 12 foot light stand. I wish I could use something lighter but because the flash and the modifier can be close to 7.5 pounds, I need to have a pretty substantial light stand to hold it securely. Using a sandbag could be helpful but I sure don't want me or an assistant to carry it as we walk around the park. He was going to be "on the stand" so that alleviated some concerns. (TIP: Plus, I instructed my assistant to lower the flash and modifier on the stand to the lowest part and then loosen the top lever that would allow the flash head to spin if it were to catch a gust of wind.)
GoMo Box - 36" Octabox. My new favorite, go-to lighting modifiers. These are made by Godox and private labeled by Wisconsin portrait photographer Michael Mowbray. The one I used is priced at $149 plus shipping. A fantastic light that is solid and secure and creates a wonderful quality of light on the faces of subjects. Since I have had these lights I have not used my rectangular softboxes that used to be my go-to light sources. The mount on the box is Bowens which is the most ubiquitous of all light modifiers and what the Baja accepts. And, it's really easy to find softboxes, snoots, grid holders, etc. for very reasonable prices.
To save $20 on any GoMoBox use the code 20GOMOPG at checkout. This is an affiliate offer.
43” Neewer 5-in-1 triangular modifer. (Click here to see on Amazon)
At first I was going to only bring one (again the goal was *trying* to be lighter, but seeing how quickly the light was popping in and out (it had been very overcast most of the day (part of “May Gray” here in SoCal) but was starting to clear.
I know from previous experience that this can be problematic if you only have one modifier and it has to be changed (a PITA if you are trying to do it fast…So with a bit of a sigh I resigned myself to bringing the three reflectors and all was good.
Versaflex 36 inch padded bag. This is probably the most well-made “sling” bag that I have seen and is made by the good folks at Versaflex in Cleveland. This will hold everything -- lightstand, Baja 400, GoMox modifier.
In the Think Tank bag, I'll carry my extra lenses, batteries and cards and the triggers so they don't get damaged if bumped in the bag. (Click on Versaflex in bold to go to their site).
The portrait session went well. It was the first time using a new assistant, Hunter and he did well. He came to the studio about 45 minutes early and we went over the tools I was bringing, the why and then talked about some of the strategy and the way I work a portrait session.
He did very well and had a great personality with the subjects and their parents (THAT is HUGE).
On this shoot since the light was coming in and out, the only tools we used for all the portraits were the reflectors. I went from silver to white — not enough direct sun to use the diffusion — so it was strictly a reflector kind of day. And in retrospect I was VERY glad that I brought my usual three reflectors (one set for white, one set for silver and another for diffusion — as needed). No need to use the strobe, but we had it in case we needed it.
My goal is to make the light look great, look natural, make it easy for my subjects and the result is a better looking portrait and a more cinematic feel to it (using the natural light as the hair light, kicker or backlight — the reflector to add some fill and shape on the face in the foreground).
The cameras and the lenses worked very well. Didn’t feel any need for anything longer. And, having the different sized sensors gave me a distinctly different look.
There’s a difference to the look between aps-c and FF and that’s okay. I actually like the differences as it gives me choices. Filmmakers will probably be more at home with the framing on APS-C as it more closely approximates Super 35mm frame lines but us still shooters probably are more used to the FF look. Whatever works — they will both do the job.
Though I have to admit I still tend to prefer FF all that being said.
The goals of this session were to tighten things up, to simplify and it was successful and the photographs were fun and easy and was just a joy to work with these two (I hadn’t photographed them in a few years — they’ve grown up a ton since then).
So that's my story from my Sunday evening portrait. Please let me know in the comments what YOUR essential portrait kit is!