I want to share with you some useful tips for taking family portrait photos on a budget, including how I got into the satisfying world of portraiture after years of taking random (and disappointing) snapshots. Hopefully, this post will interest family photographers who want less expensive equipment, and any beginners to photography who simply want to capture nice photographs of people. Many amateurs cannot spend lots of money on quite expensive photography gear and do not have time to travel to “magical” locations, but none of that is necessary if you want high-quality pictures. Below, I will demonstrate how you can keep portrait photography inexpensive and enjoyable at the same time, both in terms of camera equipment and finding locations, based upon my personal experiences.
Table of Contents
The Portrait Photography Mindset
I believe that most people require some sort of impulse to change from a dissatisfied snap-shooter into a more advanced photographer. For me, my wife’s first pregnancy did it. I instantly knew I would like to photograph her and our family members as good as possible ever since. Early in her pregnancy, I started learning photography, observing our neighborhood, and planning my first photo shoot.
That is all it took for me – the proper mindset. Without it, I imagine that you can have thousands of dollars of equipment and still take snapshots. (Then again, I would not know, since I have never had the gear to test this theory!)
Finding Locations for a Family Photoshoot
I remember walking back home for a dinner every day around 6pm. It was late spring of 2014, and the sun was setting over a nearby building, with little trees on a hill lit up beautifully before sunset. You could enjoy this colorful magic only for around half an hour when the sun was low enough, but not yet hidden behind the building. Every now and then, someone would cut grass on that hill. The grass always looked the best when it was as tall and long as possible. It took a couple days for them to cut all the grass, so, whenever the smell of fresh greenery was in the air, it was time to act.
Another day, on the way to a shopping mall, I spotted a meadow that looked like it held some potential. There was tall grass and a split-rail wooden fence running along the street. Or, a different time, I would remember a nice lighthouse at the lake where we used to have picnics, or I would notice beautiful sets of flowers here and there.
The key is to pay attention to regular moments like these. Simple things like grass, flowers, and scenery you pass every day all have the potential to be good locations for your photoshoot, and they don’t require any extra money to visit. It was places like this that spoke to me when I was preparing for my first photoshoot of my pregnant wife.
I am not going to rediscover the world of portraiture in this article. There are many great basic and advanced articles about the aperture, depth of field, and perspective that altogether make portrait photography, including on Photography Life itself. (Check out this page for all the portrait photography tips on the site.) My only suggestion is to play with these parameters to control how your photo appears. You have a large amount of control over things like isolating your subject and defocusing the background, which lead to many different creative looks in a photo.
A lot of it is also down to your personal style and decisions in photography. For my own work, I like to use relatively wide apertures and step back some distance from a subject to isolate it well. This perspective also leads to more 2D, flat-like images. (Hence my favourite Sigma 85mm f/1.4 lens on DX camera, see below). Still, I will say this: No matter what, always keep the subject’s eyes in focus!
How to Pick Inexpensive Photography Gear
There are a number of ways to purchase photography equipment for lower prices than you will find with new top-of-the-line DSLRs and mirrorless cameras online. You always have the ability to buy secondhand, purchase an older or lower-end camera, or sacrifice on a few specifications, and your final kit still can be extremely high-quality and affordable.
Personally, I have never had problems with secondhand gear. I always do it using local buy-and-sell options so I can have a look and test everything before purchasing. However, buying secondhand is not the only way to save money on camera equipment if you are on a budget. You also can save big by getting a high-quality manual focus lens instead of an autofocus lens, for example, or sacrifice a bit on specifications (like getting a lens with an f/1.8 maximum aperture rather than f/1.4). Finally, you can save money by purchasing a “consumer” DSLR or mirrorless camera rather than a prosumer option, which will not give you as many buttons and dials, but which usually houses the same great camera sensor inside. Also, a crop-sensor camera rather than a full-frame option is an obvious choice when you are on a budget.
Below is a list of my personal equipment for portrait photography. Next, I will explain why I decided on these particular items:
- Nikon D5100 (or, equivalent sensor, D7000)
- Samyang 85mm f/1.4 ED AS UMC (manual focus lens)
- Nikon 35 mm f/1.8G AF-S DX (autofocus lens)
- Yongnuo RF-603N Wireless Flash Trigger (to use a speedlight remotely)
- Nissin Speedlite Di622, and a homemade softbox
- Basic continuous lightning kit (5500K, 4x85W bulbs, E27 sockets, 20 x 28 inch softbox, 2m tripod)
- Basic white screen background (1.6m x 5m)
Camera and Sensor Options on a Budget
As a self-taught beginner, I needed a cost-effective but decent and relatively high resolution camera sensor with RAW capability. I wanted the sensor to be good enough to provide detailed photos (with a high-quality lens), as well as allowing for some cropping and frame freedom. Along with that, good dynamic range and flexibility when editing in Lightroom were at the top of my list.
A few years ago, this led me to choose a camera sensor with a great reputation – the 16 megapixel option found in the Nikon D5100, D7000, and a couple other cameras. It was already a bargain back then, and it is even more so today. I still use it for all my work! Personally, I opted for the Nikon D5100 to save some money, as well as get the advantage of an articulated frame. That helps quite a bit with manual focus lenses, where I can use the LCD to see my point of focus more easily. It also makes it more convenient to frame family photos. Then again, the slightly more expensive D7000 has the benefit of separate dials for aperture and shutter speed, as well as an AF-fine tune option (among others) if you need to take advantage of more advanced settings.
A Value Portrait Lens (a Prime with a Wide Aperture)
Often, while shooting with my first low-resolution camera kit – the Nikon D50, 18-55mm, and 55-200mm lenses – I was distracted by the zooming option. My indecisive zooming would frequently kill the moment, let it pass, and I would lose the photo. Thus, I decided to go with prime lenses and never regretted it. (By the way, prime lenses also improved my framing a lot.)
I was keen to get similar results as others do with full frame cameras and famous 135mm f/2.0 lenses, the so-called “king” of portrait lenses. My goal was to capture a shallow depth of field and a unique perspective, since you need to step back a bit from your subject with a longer lens like this. I simply sought after pleasant image flatness and great subject isolation from the background.
I looked at some older, less expensive lenses, such as Nikon’s AiS, E or D series. In my opinion, the ones I was looking at suffered from low contrast and chromatic aberrations – not really made for digital photography. However, expensive lenses like the Nikon 85mm f/1.4 were beyond my budget, and I wanted something with an f/1.4 aperture rather than f/1.8.
So, I went a slightly different route and purchased an inexpensive, manual focus lens with relatively new technology: the Samyang 85mm f/1.4 lens. On a crop-sensor DX camera, this provides about the same depth of field and field of view as a 135mm f/2.0 lens on a full-frame FX camera.
You may wonder about manual focusing on this lens. How well has it worked for me? After some time, you simply get used to it, and by now I actually enjoy it. With my Nikon D5100, I mostly did focusing through LCD screen. When I later changed to the D7000, equipped with 1.36x Tenpa magnifying eyepiece (effectively changing viewfinder size to that of full frame body), I did it the classic way. Surprisingly, I can photograph running kids better now with manual focusing technique than while using autofocus tracking on my D7000, although I am that today’s most recent cameras have much better tracking algorithms implemented.
Finally, if I need a wider frame, I go for Nikon 35 mm f/1.8G AF-S DX lens. This lens is also good for photographing a group of people or taking pictures indoors, thanks to its relatively wide angle and large aperture.
Inexpensive Lighting: A Softbox and Flash
There is often a reason to use some soft fill in light in portraiture photography when you’re taking pictures with a flash. Whether it is a high-contrast, sunny day or a cloudy, low-contrast one, shadows often find a way to appear on your subject’s face.
Since speedlight/flash lighting is rather harsh and reflection-prone, a softbox comes in handy to help diffuse the light. I actually made my first softbox together as a DIY project with my wife, since there are plenty of tutorials online for making one of your own. I still have that softbox and use it, which makes it one of the least expensive pieces of photography gear you can own! These days, I also carry around a cheap, folding, commercial softbox in my bag at all times.
As for a flash, it is easy and intuitive to use a simple Nissin Speedlite Di622 with a consumer DX camera like the D5100. (That flash is no longer sold in most stores, but you can buy a cheap AmazonBasics flash, new, for $28.) In general, I use my flash off-camera and place it at different angles to the subject. Indoors, I will bounce the light off a reflective source, such as a wall or ceiling. I use it entirely on manual mode (which is all that is offered on the AmazonBasics model, too). That way, I can set the speedlight’s light power manually to suit my exposure. After a couple of test shots, it’s good to go.
Indoor Portraiture Considerations
In outdoor portraiture, you often need wide apertures for pleasant subject isolation from complex background. I tend to use an aperture of f/2.8 or wider apertures with my Samyang 85mm lens.
If you are in a studio indoors, though, you may be taking pictures against a white wall or scree, where a sense of isolation is already a given. Assuming that you have control over artificial lighting (and, therefore, aren’t running low on light), you can use any aperture you want in order to get the best possible performance on your lens, including something like f/4, f/5.6, or f/8.
Personally, since I do not have spacious rooms and cannot step back a lot, I often use my Nikon 35 mm f/1.8G AF-S DX lens in this case. (In the past, I also used Nikon 50mm f/1.8G AF-S FX lens, but I find a combination of 35mm and 85mm focal lengths to be more versatile with a crop-sensor camera body). Regarding the lighting, the simple option is to bounce a flash off your ceiling or walls. However, you may find that more advanced lighting setups give you better results.
Personally, I find that I get the best shots when combining speedlight and softbox with basic continuous lighting. I will position both light sources at an angle from the subject, resulting in a cross-lighting technique. In addition, I drop a simple white screen from a curtain railing behind the subject. The quick assembly and disassembly of my provisional studio works like a charm every time.
Years ago, when I still used my old Nikon D50 kit, I was queuing with some other tourists to photograph a famous sight. A lady asked me a simple question: Why was I doing this? So I explained some things I had read in a travel guide about the location. Still, she looked at me meaningfully and asked, again: Why was I doing this? She wanted to hear a deeper reason. It is a question we all need to ask ourselves – Why do you take pictures, portraiture or otherwise, and what does photography mean to you?
I believe you can only flourish and truly enjoy yourself in photography after you decide to go your own way. Personally, I love portraiture and taking family pictures, and I have been able to do it on a budget, too. That is one thing I know for certain: You do not need to buy thousands of dollars worth of equipment to capture the photos you want.
Thank you to Lukasz Krzeminski for this article! Lukasz resides in Warsaw, Poland. Previously, he lived in the UK and the US for many years. He took most of these photos in upper New York, Ithaca. Lukasz is an amateur photographer capturing family moments and portrait photos. As a scientist, he is also imaging life at the molecular level, using super-resolution microscopy, as you can see on his website.
© 2018 by L. Krzeminski. All images and post content are the property of the author. All rights reserved.