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5 Must-Have Items Every New Portrait Photographer Should Buy

By Hanssie on May 14th 2016

When you first get started in photography you will probably be on a budget, eye-balling the latest gadgets and gizmos, debating whether to spend your tax return on a new lens or to pay off your credit card. You may have a “beginner” DSLR and the kit lens it came with, and may not have much cash left or that you’re willing to part with even though you want to grow, so what should you buy next?

Of course, that’s a question that is contingent on what you are using your new Canon Rebel (or equivalent thereof) to shoot. Are you photographing inanimate objects? Birds? Your dogs? Your kids? The answer to that will determine what you need to spend your hard-earned pennies on, but for the sake of this article, we will focus on five must-have items a new portrait photographer should buy.

1. A Nifty-Fifty


It seems to be the question of every new photographer – what lens should I buy? If you’re on a budget, getting the latest G Master Lens for your new hobby/budding business is out of the question, but if you’re a new portrait photographer, look to purchase a 50mm lens, known in the photography world as the “nifty-fifty.” It’s an inexpensive, professional quality, fast and versatile lens, which is why practically everyone loves it

My first 50mm was the Canon 50mm f/1.4. I splurged with, you guessed it, my tax return. It comes in at $399 (it’s on sale at B&H for $329 right now), but if you didn’t get a tax return this year, the newly updated Canon 50mm f/1.8 is still an amazing lens, and you can’t beat the $125 price tag either!

Not a Canon shooter? Get the nifty-fifty versions from:

2. Reflector


If you shoot outdoor portraits, you definitely should get a reflector. A reflector can be used so many ways, especially if you get a 5-in-1 reflector like the Westcott Reflector Pye uses in the video below and in much of our work. For less than $40 you’ll have something that can be used for diffusion; to bounce light back onto your subject; to shield your subject from the wind; your assistant can use it for shade, and so much more.

3. Photography 101

What good is your new camera if you don’t know how to use it? Get some good photography books and learn! Or better yet, check out our Photography 101 tutorial. Photography 101 is great for new photographers because Pye uses basic gear to capture all the shots. Using a Canon Rebel or Nikon D5200 along with kit lenses or inexpensive primes, the tutorial walks you through various genres of photography; from food, sports, landscape, photojournalism and couples portrait photography.

It’s only $99 for the digital download or comes with your SLR Lounge Premium Subscription.

4. Off-Camera Flash


That dinky little pop-up flash on your camera isn’t going to cut it. As light is the foundation to photography, you need to invest in a flash (and a few modifiers). So much can be done with only one flash, but if you can afford it, pick up two.

With my Canon Rebel, I had the 430EX II and the Canon 580EX (which they replaced with the 600EX). They were around $300-450, and they were gifted to me by my parents. Now, Yongnuo has some fairly good flashes for less than $100 that can get you started, though reliability with these can be a problem (though I’ve never had an issue).

To learn how to use these flashes, be sure to check out our Lighting 101 and 201 workshops which will teach you the techniques you need to know. Both are also available for access if you are an SLR Premium member.

5. A Solid Camera Bag


You’ve invested a sizable amount of cash now in this new venture, and you need a place to put your gear. You don’t want to just toss it around so make sure you get a nice and sturdy camera bag.

Because I love bags, I splurged and spent around $200 for a bag that was sturdy and looked like I was carrying a box around my waist. The company is now defunct, and I’ve since owned about a million camera bags, but the one I choose to carry and I LOVE is the Peak Design Everyday Messenger Bag. Not only does it carry everything I need and looks great doing so, but it also holds the distinction of being the most funded bag on Kickstarter. They have a new 13″ version (for smaller laptops) and a 15″ version. They do run about $200-250, but while there are more affordable camera bags out there, many I’ve come across scream “CAMERA BAG!” or they are poorly made.


Bonus: Model Release & Contracts

One thing that many new portrait photographers don’t think about are model releases and contracts. Why do I need a contract if I’m not even a professional yet? The answers to this are many and far reaching. Safe to say that anytime you photograph anyone and those images have a chance at being made remotely public even on social media, these come in handy. You can learn more about the importance of these basic forms in the article linked below which should be required reading.

You can get a free photography contract from our friend, TheLawTog here or check out Michelle’s review of her Portrait Contract Bundle. If you are serious about turning your hobby into a business, make sure you read my article: 5 IMPORTANT THINGS YOU MUST-HAVE BEFORE STARTING A PHOTOGRAPHY BUSINESS.

What were some of your first purchases as a new photographer? Comment below!

This site contains affiliate links to products. We may receive a commission for purchases made through these links, however, this does not impact accuracy or integrity of our content.

Hanssie is a Southern California-based writer and sometimes portrait and wedding photographer. In her free time, she homeschools, works out, rescues dogs and works in marketing for SLR Lounge. She also blogs about her adventures and about fitness when she’s not sick of writing so much. Check out her work and her blog at Follow her on Instagram

Q&A Discussions

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  1. Bryan Ackerman

    When my wife and I shot weddings, we used the 50 1.4 for the majority of the portrait shots. Great little lens and big bang for the buck. For a camera bag I use the Timbuk2 bag because it doesn’t look like your typical camera bag and the size is great for what I shoot now.

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  2. Tom Barrett

    Wee! So many affiliate links and sales going on here…
    Saving up for a Profit B1 though…

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  3. Daeshawn Ballard

    Where is the hot plate for the messenger bag? Is that even called a hot plate haha?

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  4. Jason Davis

    oops i misread it i found the free contract

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  5. Mark Kelly

    Fair points Max, I have these lenses and know where you are coming from. I paid £125 for my 50mm 1.8 and £1800 for the other 2 lenses. I only meant to start out it would be a good option. Then yea of course you would be investing in more glass.

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  6. Cedric Labour

    sure good glass is good but nothing beats good lighting…i had my photography skills turn upside down once i started using(strobist/off lighting) technique. in my opinion its well worth investing/learning off lighting and light shaping…specially for portraits!

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  7. Anders Ångström

    You also need portrait lookbooks with great ways to pose your subject. I have sent countless hours building a number of them on Pinterest – male, female, groups, sitting, standing etc. Feel free to use them. Search for my Pinterest profile name “andersan” (Anders Ångström). Enjoy!

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  8. Ralph Hightower

    The kit lens that came with my camera was the Canon FD 50mm f1.8. I later added a “potato masher” style flash, Sunpak 522, to my Canon A-1. My camera bag is the Lowepro Magnum 35. I still use that gear today.

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  9. Max Chesnokov

    24-70 2,8f lens looks more versatile for me.

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    • Jean-Francois Perreault

      Well over 125$ for a beginner…unless you go with Sigma at around 750. But still, not the portrait lens you usually buy when you start.

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    • Max Chesnokov

      When I was started, I did a lot of mistakes :) One of the biggest was, buying bunch of cheap lenses, which you will sell later with discount, because after all you will not be satisfied with it. Lenses is a long term investment. Better to have from the top range, then bunch from the bottom. My personal opinion.

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    • Mark Kelly

      All of the 50 mm lenses above will give sharper results than any 24 70 lens as they are primes. Don’t think just because they are cheap they are bad quality it’s just simpler to make and has less glass and moving parts. Yea they don’t have the flexibility of a zoom but for a beginner will give good quality at a low price.

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    • Max Chesnokov

      I am not chasing for a sharpness :) What I like more is the overall feeling of the picture, which different lens makes. Second point is that I do not use a 50 at the full frame a lot. And third point is that 24/70 and 70/200 2,8F will cover all you needs for the years ahead if you shoot mostly people. Once again, I am just sharing my view on it and respect all others meanings, which can be different .

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    • David Hill

      Hey Mark. I must say that there is very little difference in sharpness between my Nikon 50mm f1.4 and my Nikon 24-70 f2.8. Benefits of the 50mm are clearly a shallower DOF for creativity etc and better ‘low light capture’ . Also, I know exactly where I am with the 50mm and ‘how my shot will end up looking’. By that I mean there is no chance of being a ‘little lazy’ and zooming in/out to an unflattering focal length etc etc……like most things, each to their own and what suits one wont suit another! Best wishes. Dave.

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    • Hanssie

      [Hanssie has deleted this comment]

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