I get asked this question a lot (well, not exactly the $1,000 amount — it’s based on the person asking the question’s budget — sometimes it’s $1,200, sometimes it’s $800 so I went with something in the middle).

As an educator, my first thought is always “the answer is education!” (if all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail, right?), and I will include some education in my recommendations, but when it comes to portraiture there surely are a few things you could pick up that would have an immediate impact if (here’s the gotcha) you learn how to use them (there’s that education thing again).

OK, here are some ideas for your portraiture shopping spree:

A Westcott 5-in-1 Diffuser
It costs just $29.90 yet it’s probably got the most bang-for-the-buck of anything on this list. The four reflectors that it comes with are certainly handy (White, Gold, Black, and Silver) but the white Diffuser that comes with it (which you simply put between the sun and your subject which turns harsh ugly direct light into gorgeous, soft beautiful light is worth it’s weight in gold. If you did nothing but start using this diffuser outdoors, you’d see the impact in your outdoor portraits immediately. Here’s the link. 

Wacom Intuos Pro Small
Portrait retouching is such an important part of being able to deliver professional looking results today, and even though our job is “photographer” our clients expect that any image we give them will be a “final” image, retouched and ready to go. All of your competition will be retouching their portraits (after all, would a pro take a portrait and just hand the client a raw untouched image? Probably not, right?), so getting decent at retouching today isn’t an option — it’s part of the job, and a Wacom tablet is tool that makes retouching so much easier you’ll be amazed you ever tried retouching without it.

I carry the “Small” (that’s the model name, and it’s also its size) with me everywhere I go (it fits perfectly in my laptop bag) and I won’t consider retouching without it. This will make a bigger difference than you think. It’s $227.17 at B&H Photo. Here’s the link. 

An 85mm f/1.8 portrait lens
Portrait lenses are notoriously expensive — except this one. It’s about $1,100 LESS than an f/1.4 or f/1.2 and you’ll still get that magnificently shallow depth-of-field for natural light portraits that we love without breaking the bank (after all, is 2/3 of a stop more really worth that extra $1,100?). The only downside is — you’ll probably never want to use any other lens. Right now it’s only $369 at B&H (they have a $50 instant-saving deal on right now). Here’s the link.

OnOne’s Perfect Photo Suite 8
These are the essential plug-ins that cover everything from portrait retouching to portrait effects, from black and white conversions to lens effects, and pretty much everything in between. This Suite creates those trademark “looks” that have become the bread and butter of many portrait photographers and today being able to create those looks is really important. You can buy the whole stand-alone Premium Edition of the Suite for $149.95 right now, but if you’re a Lightroom user and only want just the plug-in version that works inside of Lightroom, you can get it for $99. Here’s the direct link.

Take These Online Classes
OK, this one is going to sound a little self-serving, but I take these online classes myself at KelbyOne to learn more about portraiture and lighting and it’s what I would recommend to a friend. Start with Peter Hurley’s class on Mastering Headshot Photography — even if you’re not ever going to shoot head shots, you’ll learn what really makes a great portrait and how to interact with your subject’s to get more natural, real expressions. Then watch “A Day with Joe McNally” to learn how to light with just one or two lights (mostly one). Then go watch Jeremy Cowart’s two-part series on location photography. He teaches you how to shoot pretty much anywhere with very simple light.

If you watch one class from each (you can rent individual courses for $7 a piece) you’re into this for $21. I’d just go ahead and spend another $4 and subscribe for a month ($25) and then you can also watch classes from Frank Doorhof on lighting, and Erik Valind on lifestyle photography, and Joel Grimes on lighting and compositing, and you can catch my classes on retouching, and more Joe McNally (you get the idea). Here’s the link. 

Get a Simple Lighting Kit
I imagine you already have a hot shoe flash of some sort, but a hot shoe flash alone, without a kit to make the light soft and beautiful, is a recipe for some harsh portraiture. This kit (made by Impact) is a steal, and it comes with a 24″x24″ pop-up soft box, flash bracket, tilt head and light stand and it’s only $149. That’s a pretty insane price. If you’re only going to shoot in natural light, you’re only going to be a part-time photographer (during the day and in ideal conditions). Learning to use just one flash will open doors you never dreamed of, and this kit is just $149. Here’s the link. 

So, how much have we spent?

TOTAL: $950

Round things off by picking up Gregory Heisler’s fantastic “50 Portraits” hardcover book for sheer inspiration ($34 at Amazon) and then use the rest for lunch on your way to your next portrait shoot.

Hope you found that helpful, and I encourage you to share any of your picks, ideas or suggestions here in the comments below. Hope you all have a kick-butt Monday (if there actually is such a thing). ;-)

Best,

-Scott