The Very Least You Need to Be a Pro Portrait Photographer

We always want our YouTube videos to both educate and entertain but sometimes, we also want to push ourselves beyond standard reviews and try something different. For our latest photo challenge, we wanted to see just how minimal we could go with our gear and still be able to pull off professional-grade images.

I foresee this becoming an ongoing series, encompassing many different genres of photography. But this time around, the focus was portrait photography. The results of this challenge also surprised us, and illustrated how necessary knowledge and experience are compared to equipment. Not everyone has the budget to buy the latest and greatest gear and many of us may also rely on used equipment to run our photo business. In terms of high-end equipment, how little can we get away with while still capturing great images, and how much difference does the experience of the photographer and the model make?

A woman with long brown hair wearing a white top, black skirt, and gray checked blazer is reflected in a glass pane on a city street.
Having a talented model like Kamryn is essential to making good portraits.
A photographer takes a picture of a female model on a city street while an assistant holds a reflector to direct light toward her.
I was quickly enlisted as the prestigious holder of the reflector.
Close-up of a sony a6300 camera with a 50mm lens, focusing on the lens and camera controls against a warm yellow background.
The Sony a6300 with a cheap Sony FE 50mm f/1.8 can cover many portrait situations.

It Takes a Talented Photographer

In our test, it turns out that experience was crucial, so we worked with one of the best. Our good friend Nathan Elson has been a professional portrait photographer for over 15 years and a guest on our channel many times. We were also fortunate to work with Kamryn, an accomplished and talented model.

So, what gear did we decide to give Nathan? I quickly decided to go to the used market. Pre-owned cameras often have plenty of life left in them, and frankly, most high-end brand-new cameras the average photographer purchases are criminally underutilized.

A young woman with long, wavy brown hair, wearing a houndstooth jacket and a white top, stands against a white wall, gazing intently at the camera.
Nathan looked for interesting light and used shadows creatively.

Used Cameras Still Have a Lot to Give

A quick search at KEH revealed many attractive options, and we knew the cameras would be in good shape. At first, I looked at used DSLR cameras like the various Canon Rebel bodies, which are ubiquitous on the used market and generally have very capable 24-megapixel sensors. I also knew that Canon would have many affordable lenses available to keep costs down. However, in the end, I found a Sony a6300 kit with a cheap and cheerful Sony FE 50mm f/1.8. I decided on this kit because the price was only marginally more than an older Rebel body with a similar lens. It also offers an early version of eye-detect autofocus, which many users would find useful for portraits.

A close-up of a young woman captured on a camera's viewfinder screen, displaying various photography settings such as focus mode, aperture, and iso. she has light makeup and a subtle smile.
The Sony a6300 has a very early version of its now famous eye-detect autofocus. Although cumbersome to use, it does work.
A monochrome image of a woman walking confidently down a tunnel-like corridor. she's dressed in a stylish outfit with knee-high boots, holding onto the railings.
Nathan likes to convert much of his work into black-and-white.

So we handed Nathan our weapon of choice and unleashed him on the streets of downtown Calgary. Nathan had no additional lighting available, but I offered to hold a reflector for him, a handy tool anyone can afford.

He quickly familiarized himself with the camera and started to chase light. Not having access to a studio with a full light setup and multiple backdrops is okay if you have a keen eye for finding interesting light. Nathan, in particular, looked for light bouncing off buildings or areas where light and shadow created interesting backgrounds for his compositions. Having a reflector in the bag becomes a great way to fill in harsh shadows or provide diffusion to break up direct sunlight.

A young woman in a stylish trench coat smiling, standing on a city street with buildings and an iron railing in the background.
Sometimes the softer light of a shaded street can provide a very even and natural looking tone to an image.

Chasing the Light is Everything

The Sony a6300 did a decent job maintaining focus on the subject’s eyes, and the 50mm f/1.8 offers a 75mm full-frame field-of-view on the 24-megapixel APS-C sensor. The lens proved acceptable for shots from head-and-shoulders to full-body pictures.

Nathan typically shoots on the full-frame Nikon Z6 II but found the simple Sony body functional and even began to appreciate the eye-detect AF feature as an alternative to classic focus and recompose techniques. Nathan had no issues with the smaller sensor. He continuously reiterated throughout the experience that light is the key factor beyond any technological advantage that a more modern camera can bring to the table.

The Nikon Z6 II that Nathan normally uses is 24-megapixels. In good light, the same amount of megapixels in the Sony a6300 delivers similar results.

As usual, Nathan’s images turned out stunning. It seems that to really succeed in portrait photography, it’s far more important to have talented models to work with and know how to pose them than to buy expensive gear. Learning to hunt for good light or to manipulate it properly in the studio is also critical, and growing your experience in a portrait situation can be done without breaking the bank.