7 Key Photo Tools in a Portrait Photographer’s Kit

June 26, 2020

By Dan Havlik

Jessica Sterling, a Los Angeles-based portrait photographer who loves connecting with her subjects, says that while she’s not obsessed with every new tech breakthrough that comes along, she does relies on seven key photo tools for every shoot she works on.

When discussing her favorite photo tools and gear—and she does have multiple [camera] bodies that she uses—Sterling, who has photographed everyone from Steven Spielberg to Justin Timberlake to Serena Williams, has “small but essential” pieces of gear that help bring out the personality of her subjects. And since she likes to make her shoots as “stress-free” as possible, she prefers a low-key and fun approach with clients where her gear stays out of the way.

“Most people hate having their picture taken, so I try to make things as smooth as possible,” she says. “I keep things moving and do my best to be unobtrusive.”

That said, every piece of equipment she brings to a shoot, she says, helps her deliver “the best possible image” to her clients. Here are the seven key photo tools she can’t do without.

1. Photek SoftLighter Umbrella with Removable 8mm Shaft (60 inches)

Photol SoftLighter Umbrella is key tool number 1 out of 7.

Sterling likes Phototek’s SoftLighter Umbrella because it’s collapsible, easy-to-use and produces natural-looking light. “There are a million light modifiers out there,” she notes. “But most of the time I just want [my strobe light] to look like it comes from a window. I want beautiful soft light that’s directional.”

This 10-panel umbrella produces that kind of lighting while creating flattering catch lights in a subject’s eyes. Its 60-inch size provides 20 square feet of illumination, making it large enough to use for a 1- or 2-person full-length portrait. It includes a diffuser that fits over the open side of the umbrella to create a softbox, and you can remove the umbrella’s black backing for a shoot-through effect.

Sterling has placed the portable SoftLighter Umbrella in a walk-in refrigerator for a portrait of a chef and deployed it for an outdoor portrait shoot in a shaded area.

“I used my SoftLighter outdoors almost as if it were a skylight in a studio, directly over the head of the guy I was photographing,” she says. “You get that big beautiful light, using strobes, even though you’re shooting outdoors.”

Price: $142

2. Tamron SP 85mm F/1.8 Di VC USD (Model F016) Lens

2. Tamron's SP 85mm f/1.9 Di VC USD (Model F)16) Lens

When Sterling damaged the front end of her Nikon 85mm lens, she had two choices: pay for a pricey repair job or just get a new lens. She decided to go with the latter, but this time she switched brands and chose the Tamron SP 85mm F/1.8 Di VC USD, which was significantly cheaper. She’s glad she did.

“It’s the perfect portrait lens,” Sterling says. “It is tack sharp. It focuses very fast, it’s very smooth, and it’s very quiet.”

The Tamron 85mm is also well-suited for her relaxed approach during portrait sessions because it’s “unobtrusive.”

“When you’re taking somebody’s picture, you don’t want it to be about the camera or the lens, you want it to be about the person,” she explains. “With this lens, I’m able to catch that moment right when they’re happy about something, and they’re not even aware of me.”

At the time it was announced, the Tamron SP 85mm F/1.8 Di VC USD was the world’s first fast-aperture lens with image stabilization, making it effective at capturing handheld portraits in dim light or at night. Sterling also praised the lens’s color rendition and its bokeh as “beautiful.”

“It’s a professional-quality lens at a very good price point,” she summarizes.

Price: $749

3. Driak Hot Shoe Two Axis Double Bubble Spirit Level

3. Driak Hot Shoe Two Axis Double Bubble Spirit Level is a favorite photo tool of Sterling's.

Along with portraits, Sterling shoots a lot of architecture (especially now during the pandemic), so a bubble level is an essential piece of gear. But it doesn’t just help with keeping lines straight for photos of buildings.

“A lot of people see it and they go what’s that?” Sterling says. “Event photographers don’t always carry this type of thing but it’s crucial for any type of situation where you’re photographing people and you want the shot to be square, not crooked, such as shooting an event in a tent.”

While some tripods have built-in bubble levels, they don’t “do all directions,” she notes. The Driak Hot Shoe Two Axis Double Bubble Spirit Level is small, lightweight and fits right on the hot shoe mount of your camera.

If you’re doing a massive Vanity Fair-style group portrait where four or more groups of people need to be stitched together in post, a bubble level is critical. “You start to lose quality if you have to keystone everything. People say, ‘Just fix that in Photoshop or Lightroom,’ but sometimes it doesn’t fix. Your eye does not always tell the truth, so a level helps keep things straight.”

Price: $8.32

4. B+W Circular Polarizer Kaesemann – Xtra Slim Mount (XS-PRO)

4. B+W Circular Polarizer, another favorite photo tool.

“It’s maybe not the sexiest thing to have in your arsenal,” Sterling says of the polarizer, “but I use it all the time.”

Of course, most landscape photographers frequently employ a polarizer on their lenses to help bring out details in the sky, but it’s also key for shooting outdoor portraits, weddings and corporate events, when you want the sky in the background “to have this extra pop and the clouds to be much clearer.”

She advises to get a slim polarizer, such as this “Xtra Slim” model from Kaesemann, so that it won’t catch the edges of a wide-angle lens in your shots.

“All these little tools, these little hacks, they just elevate your game and give you a little bit of an edge as a photographer over somebody who is not as prepared,” Sterling explains. “It makes your images just that much more vibrant.”

Price: $99.95

5. LumiQuest Quik Bounce

5. The Lumiquest Quik Bounce

There are tons of light modifiers for on-camera flashes on the market, but the LumiQuest Quik Bounce features one key difference: Where most modifiers attach to the wide side of the flash, the Quik Bounce mounts on the skinny side, which, according to Sterling, makes it a lot more versatile.

“When you want to do a vertical shot, the whole bounce thing can flip up,” she notes. “It’s like having a flash bracket but without the bulk or the weight.”

If you’re shooting a wedding or an event where you’re moving from an area that has a low ceiling to an area that has a high ceiling, the Quik Bounce has a set of doors on top that quickly open up to bounce off the ceiling. Meanwhile, two “wings” on either side of the modifier bounce light directly at your subject to fill in the shadows for a one-two punch.

“I honestly do not understand why all event and wedding photographers do not use this,” Sterling says.

Price: $43

6. Think Tank Photo Skin 75 Pop-Down V3.0 Lens Pouch

6. Think Tank Photo Skin 75 Pop-Down V3.0 Lens Pouch is a favorite tool, too.

As a female photographer, Sterling says she has struggled to find photo packs and bags that fit a woman’s body. Since most are designed with men in mind, they’re frequently big, bulky and awkward. Not to mention, they’re simply not flattering.

“As a lady, I don’t want to have a bunch of crap hanging off my belt, around my neck, on my back, etc., especially at a fancy-shmancy event,” she says.

Sterling calls the lightweight and compressible Think Tank Photo’s Skin 75 Pop-Down V3.0 lens pouch “a nice compromise.”

“It’s not wide, it doesn’t stick out, it doesn’t have a lot of extra padding. And it gives you a good place to stick a lens when you’re changing lenses,” she adds.

The pouch works with Think Tank Photo’s Modular Belt System V3.0 and has enough room to fit a 70-200mm, 100-400mm or 80-400mm lens. The Pop-Down design lets you fit the lens face down in the pouch even with the lens hood on and in the shooting position.

There’s also an interior pocket for small accessories and a zippered pocket to hold lens caps. Meanwhile, Sound Silencer hook-and-loop fasteners let you “turn off” the Velcro closures so you don’t draw attention to yourself when, for instance, you’re changing lenses during a wedding.

Price: $35

7. Peak Design Clutch CL-3 Quick-Attaching, Quick-Adjusting Black Hand

7. Peak Design CLutch CL-3 Quick Attaching, Quick Adjusting Black Hand

Sterling calls this secure but not-confining camera grip from Peak Design an “insurance policy” and a handy alternative to those clumsy straps that come with your camera but always seem to get in the way.

“Having a camera strap that doesn’t go around my neck and is not weighing me down, is essential when I’m shooting,” she says. “With this one, you just slip your hand in and grab it, so it’s not attached to your wrist. I love being able to just balance the camera on my fingertips [with this strap] when I’m shooting.”

The other plus is that the Peak Design Clutch CL-3 is low profile and discreet compared to competing camera straps on the market. “It’s very lightweight and slim. So, it’s a bit less like: ‘Hey, I’m a photographer, look at me,’ which is not what I want to convey.”

Price: $39.95

To view Sterling’s work mentioned above, see gallery at top, and visit her website.