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Portrait Photography - Best Nikon Camera and Lens

Erin Mathias , Sep 01, 2011; 03:52 p.m.

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!


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Robert Body , Sep 01, 2011; 04:04 p.m.

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 .

Matt Laur , Sep 01, 2011; 04:37 p.m.

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.

Erin Mathias , Sep 01, 2011; 04:46 p.m.

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!

Robert Body , Sep 01, 2011; 04:58 p.m.

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.

Henry Posner , Sep 01, 2011; 04:59 p.m.

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

Eric Arnold , Sep 01, 2011; 05:00 p.m.

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.

Kent Staubus , Sep 01, 2011; 05:09 p.m.

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

Eric Arnold , Sep 01, 2011; 05:15 p.m.

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.

James Youngman , Sep 01, 2011; 05:16 p.m.

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.

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