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Level up your kit bag: The gear I have for portraits… and the gear I WISH I had!

MPB Level Up Your Kit Bag
(Image credit: James Artaius)

By day, I’m the mild-mannered editor of Digital Camera World. By night (or by weekend), though, I’m a portrait photographer. My background is in editorial, commercial and fashion photography; I’m lucky enough to have spent a few years flying around the world, shooting fashion campaigns, magazine adverts and all manner of cool stuff. 

I love everything from sports and wildlife to macro and street photography, but left to my own devices I’ll always choose portraiture – and you can tell that simply by looking at the contents of my kit bag!

Many photographers swear by the ‘holy trinity’ of professional f/2.8 zooms – but for portraits, I swear by the trinity of prime lenses: 35mm, 50m and 85mm. To me, these are the three essential focal lengths for portraiture, as they cover full-length shots, half or three-quarter shots, and headshots.

The Canon EOS R5 is my weapon of choice for shooting premium portraiture (Image credit: James Artaius)

Having a fast aperture is crucial, too – not just to shoot wide-open and turn busy backgrounds into a blur of buttery bokeh, but also to shoot in low-light conditions. I regularly use flash or constant lights to illuminate my shots, but sometimes this isn’t possible – as anyone who's shot a wedding in a cramped, dimly lit church will attest!

My camera of choice is the Canon EOS R5, which gives me power, performance and portability. With up to eight stops of image stabilization, 45MP resolution, and the ability to use EF lenses with native performance, it’s the ideal system for my work.

While I’m very happy with my kit, it’s always worth examining what’s in your bag to see what you really use – and if any of your gear isn’t pulling its weight, maybe it’s time to change it! MPB.com is the world’s largest digital photography gear resale platform (opens in new tab), and it’s the perfect place to trade in underused equipment.

So let’s take a look at my kit bag to see what deserves to be there, and whether anything could be traded in for something more useful…

Dive into James' kit bag

1) Canon EOS R5 (opens in new tab)
New price: £4,299
MPB price*: £4,049 (condition: Like New)

An absolute powerhouse of a camera, this gives me everything I need to shoot perfect portraits. The in-body image stabilization (IBIS) means that any lens I mount to the R5 is rock-steady, whether it’s a modern RF lens or a vintage manual focus optic. The 45MP sensor renders jaw-dropping images, and it even boasts an little-known Portrait Relighting feature that enables you to modify the direction of light sources and re-expose your images in-camera!

2) Canon RF 85mm f/1.2L USM (opens in new tab)
New price: £2,869
MPB price*: £2,029 (Excellent)
This is my go-to lens for most of my work, as it’s simply the best portrait lens I’ve ever used. The lack of lens-based stabilization made it ungainly to use on the Canon EOS R (opens in new tab) (my previous camera), but with the IBIS of the EOS R5 it works like an absolute dream. With its f/1.2 aperture this is an absolute bokeh machine, and even shooting wide open it renders images so sharp that you could cut yourself on them.

3) Canon RF 50mm f/1.8 IS STM (opens in new tab)
New price: £219
MPB price*: £179 (Like New)
Canon’s newest nifty fifty is an absolute must-have for any kit bag, but especially so for a portrait photographer. Perfect for half-length or torso people pics (though not ideal for headshots, due to the distortion), this is Canon’s cheapest and most compact RF lens – a mirrorless equivalent of the trusty Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 (opens in new tab). And it’s a pristine performer even wide open, creating great subject separation while retaining superb sharpness.

The Canon RF 85mm f/1.2L USM is simply the best portrait lens I've ever used! (1/100 sec, f/1.2, ISO200) (Image credit: James Artaius)

4) Canon RF 35mm f/1.8 Macro IS STM (opens in new tab)
New price: £529
MPB price*: £469 (Like New)
A brilliant double-duty lens, this is one of the true gems of the RF-mount lineup. The 35mm focal length is perfect for full-length portraits, as well as for environmental portraiture where you want to capture the scene around your subject. It’s also ideal for general-purpose shooting, street photography and reportage. While the 1:2 macro function isn’t life-size, it provides you the ability to shoot intricate close-ups.

5) Canon EF 135mm f/2.8 SoftFocus
New price: N/A
MPB price*: £154 (Excellent)
A niche lens, the 135mm f/2.8 offers wonderful compression of perspective that's very flattering for portraits. However, this lens has another trick up its sleeve: a soft focus effect. At the max it can be a bit heavy handed but, used with consideration, it can add a subtle softness that smooths out skin pores, as well as creating a gentle glow reminiscent of golden-era Hollywood headshots.

6) Rotolight Neo II
New price: £199
MPB price*: £169 (Like New)

This has replaced the flashguns I always used to travel with, as constant LEDs are so much more versatile. Between the fantastic ISO performance of the EOS R5, and the f/0.95 and f/1.2 apertures of my fast glass, I really only need a kiss of supplemental illumination – and the Neo II enables me to change the color temperature as well as the brightness.

* Prices are subject to availability and are subject to change

Most of my work employs natural light, but these days I reach for LEDs rather than flashes when I need more illumination (Image credit: James Artaius)

Essential kit

(Image credit: Canon)

Canon RF 85mm f/1.2L USM – the perfect portrait lens!
MPB price*: £2,029 (Excellent)

If I can only take one lens with me, it’s going to be the 85mm f/1.2. I’ll even use this for street photography! It’s a beast of a lens, but it enables me to capture my subjects exactly as I see them.

Time to trade it in?

(Image credit: Canon)

Canon EF 135mm f/2.8 SoftFocus – I love it, but don't use it
MPB trade-in price: £100 (condition: Excellent)

As much as I love this lens, the fact is that I seldom use it as the 85mm f/1.2 gives me comparable compression and blur. I think it’s time to trade it in for something I’ll get more use out of – and these are three replacements I’m considering:

Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM

Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS STM
New: £969 • MPB price*: £729 (Excellent)
At 100mm it’s a great portrait length, and its 1:1 macro will be ideal for close-ups of jewelry and detail on clothing. 

Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8

Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM
New: N/A • MPB price*: £949 (Good)
For ultimate compression and the ability to blur even the busiest backdrop, you can’t beat shooting 200m at f/2.8!

Canon EF 15mm f/2.8 Fisheye

Canon EF 15mm f/2.8 Fisheye
New: N/A • MPB price*: £349 (Good)
Why not swap one niche lens for another! This will be great for occasional, uber-creative, in-your-face portraits. 

Trade in and upgrade at: www.mpb.com/sell (opens in new tab)

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