The Gear I use for Portrait Photography
Oh boy! Another Gear article…
Yup, I’m writing what the world needs, another gear article. I’m writing this as “What gear do you use?” is pretty much the number one question I am asked on social media. As much as this question is hated by more seasoned photographers, it does have its value. Knowing what your favorite photographer uses can help put things in perspective. Some of your favorite photographers may surprise you by using more simple gear than you anticipated. Some may confirm your suspicion that they are using eleventy-billion dollar cameras and lighting equipment. Either way, it’s helpful for aspiring photographers to grasp what the range of gear is that is used by “the pros.”
Let’s get right to it. I use 2 Nikon D750 DSLRs and a Nikon f100 film SLR. I use all 3 cameras EVERY session I shoot. Throughout the article I include sample images from each body lens combo, but please check out my Instagram page, @maphoppingmac, for my most recent work.
The Nikon D750
My first paid gigs were weddings. Prior to shooting weddings I shot landscapes for the sheer joy of shooting them with no money to muddy up the “art” of it. I shot with a lowly Nikon D3200. It did everything I needed it to and I absolutely loved the images I was able to produce with it. I eventually tired of shooting inanimate objects and decided, like a lot of us do at some point in our “photographing stuff for fun” stages, that I wanted to make photography a career. After shooting a few weddings with a D3200 and D5300 (Yup! I did that), I decided it was time to go full frame. I mean, all the pros shot full frame and once I owned one people would have no doubts about my professionalism (sarcasm).
After a ton of research, I decided I needed to have the Nikon D750. It seemed as if every wedding photographer was using it. The claims of insane dynamic range, low light capabilities, and noiseless images at super high ISO ranges sold me. Once I started using the camera, a few other things people didn’t mention led me to fall madly, deeply, and truly in love with the D750.
My favorite things about the D750
Most DSLRs don’t necessarily have the best ergonomics. I have medium size hands with pretty long fingers. When I shot with the Nikon D800e, for a short stint, the grip was not very deep and it made for an uncomfortable relationship bewteen the camera and my hand. On the D750, with its ultra-deep grip, I am able to bury the fingers on my right hand, almost 100%, into the grip and gain a solid purchase on the camera. Ask a friend, or a stranger (aka a chance to make new friend!), to let you hold their D750. Odds are, you’re going to love it!
Highlight-weighted metering mode
This exposure mode exposes for the highlights, not allowing them to blow out. I love shooting in this mode when I can find the right spot to do so. Whenever I find a sliver of super bright light surrounded by shadows, I’m placing the subject in that bright light and making photo magic. It properly exposes the harshly lit subject while simultaneously throwing the shadowed area into complete darkness. It creates truly unique images that people assume you photoshopped to make them look so darn cool! Below are a few samples of photos shot in highlight-weighted metering mode.
Back when the D750 came out it was one of the first “pro-ish” DSLRs to have an articulating screen. There was some backlash that this was gimmicky and not “pro.” I absolutely love this option. I shoot crazy angles all the time and it allows me to get the shot no matter the obstacle or shooting position.
Some people complain that the RAW files out of the D750 are garbage. I honestly believe it’s the way they are shooting. I have, numerous times, sent a file to Photoshop for finishing without a preset because the file was so freaking polished and looked ready to go! Reds looks amazing on this sensor! Seriously, if you get the light right, the RAW files are second to none. Makes editing so easy!
Yes, they were right. The dynamic range on this camera is drool worthy. I default set my camera to -1.0EV. This ensures I never blow highlights (when I’m not shooting highlight-weighted metering mode). Shooting -1.0EV gives me rich tones and lots of latitude in post to take the image to where I think it needs to go from an exposure standpoint.
Yup! I LOVE this! I have FOUR D750s and 2 of them fall under the recall. I have shot 4-5 days a weeks since early 2015 with these cameras and have not had a single issue that keeps me from shooting. I plan on shooting 100K shots on the ones under recall then sending them in for a brand new FREE shutter. Nikon was so kind as to give me a free shutter replacement on my favorite camera, ever! THANKS NIKON!!! #HeartEyes
The f100 - #FilmIsNotDead
The film camera I shoot is the Nikon f100. It is as close to a DSLR as you can get while still shooting film. All the controls are very similar to my D750 and I can use ALL my pro glass on it! I picked mine up for $165 and wouldn’t part with it for anything.
I shoot film every shoot, paid or not. I do this 100% for me. I absolutely love film. The physical nature of it. How I have something that was in the same physical space with me when the photo was snapped. I love that it is not a digital representation of the subject. It is the subject burned onto a physical object, the film. On my second trip to Iceland I shot a good bit of film. I love knowing that the negatives I hold in my hand where there with me. They saw what I saw. What I saw was impressed upon them. I love how film forces me to slow down on every shot. I love how I can’t chimp and see my shot. I have to know how to run the camera.
A few months ago I pushed myself and did a TFP shoot 100% film (see the results here) and did not bring a DSLR with me. It was scary as shit, but such a rush. The model was so kind and understanding as I had to shoot at a much slower speed than usual, slowing down to meter shadows and highlights, determining what exposure I’d use for each and every shot. No spray and pray. It was glorious. I even created a film-only Instagram page (You can check it out here). I don’t ever expect it to have as many followers as my main Instagram page, @maphoppingmac, and I love that. As stated earlier, film is all about me. It allows me to make photography a little more interesting and break up the monotony. I could wax eloquent about film for hours, but I’ll spare you.
I shoot with 3 lenses. A Nikon 85mm f/1.4G on one D750, a Nikon 35mm f/1.4G on the other D750, and a Nikon 85mm f/1.4D that stays permanently affixed to my film Nikon f100. I rotate through the cameras non-stop on each shoot. I love having dedicated bodies for each lens as there is no downtime in changing focal lengths, I simply pick up the body with the focal length needed and fire away!
Nikon 85mm f/1.4G
The Nikon 85mm f/1.4G is the stuff dreams are made of. I shoot 90% of my digital work with this one lens. My loft studio allows me the room to get full body shots with my 85mm. The color, contrast, and sharpness all make me very happy. I find it focuses fast enough and really never misses a shot. I shoot it wide open and have no issues. Being that I’m shooting from about 16ft away, a lot more is in focus than you’d imagine at f/1.4. When close to the subject, the transition from in-focus to out of focus is perfect.
The Nikon 35mm f/1.4G
The Nikon 35mm f/1.4G is a recent acquisition. I use this to capture more of the environment, especially when shooting outdoors. I’d say 50% of every single shoot is outdoors. This lens enables me to tell more of the story of where the subject is and how they fit into the scene. The color and contrast match the 85mm f/1.4G, so editing is easy and it makes for a seamless portfolio of images. I shoot this lens wide open as well.
Nikon 85mm f/1.4D
The Nikon 85mm f/1.4D stays attached to my Nikon f100 film camera. I love the 85mm focal length. I knew I wanted to shoot film at 85mm, so I bought a dedicated lens for it. I did not want to buy another 1.4G, nor did I want to constantly be swapping lenses mid-shoot, so I picked up this lens used at a steal! It has pleasing bokeh, is very sharp, and has a unique character to it that the G equivalent does not. It has a metal body and the weight is apparent. The f100 is quite heavy as well, so this lens balances it nicely. I’m very happy with this lens and hope to get many years of use out of it.
That’s a wrap!
I keep it simple with prime lenses. I use natural light now that I no longer shoot weddings (I used OCF to light wedding receptions). I use a reflector on, maybe, 1% of the shots I take. I really like mastering these two focal lengths, as I’m always confident I’ll get the shot knowing my gear so well.
Is there anything I’d like changed? Well, I would like a shutter speed of 1/8000s. I prefer to shoot wide open and having to stop down in harsh outdoor light is a bummer. I’d also like a few more megapixels. The idea of being able to crop in post and still retaining a high-resolution image appeals to me. I’m interested in getting my hands on a copy of the soon-to-be released Nikon D850. From the leaked tech specs, it sounds like it is going to be quite the performer!
In closing, I’d like to say use gear that works for you. Nothing I’m doing is amazing or exceptional. I just went through a ton of lenses until I found what works for me. Now that I know what gives me the images I want, I no longer chase gear, and I keep pushing to improve my composition, posing repertoire, and communication with my subjects.