Alley in Pisa, Italy

by Lars Kotthoff

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I am currently working with a 550D, and seriously debating whether to invest and buy a (semi) professional camera instead.

I focus mainly on portrait photography and for this reason purchased the 50mm/1.4f lens, which is the only thing I use since I bought it. In general I am happy with the camera and lens, but do see often photos from others that I am wondering if my current equipment is even capable of achieving... i.e., very fine details, a wider angle....

Would recommend to invest perhaps in a full frame camera? Or perhaps another lens to get the full frame effect? Or maybe I am missing something here.

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What you've got is fine for portrait. You can certainly get better equipment and it wouldn't hurt - but that lens and camera can certainly make great portraits. Before you invest in different gear, what is it about your current setup that you find lacking? –  rfusca Apr 26 '12 at 18:29
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If you don't know where your current equipment is limiting you, then you don't need new equipment yet. –  Flimzy Apr 27 '12 at 3:23
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I see the word top-notch and the answer is an immediate "yes", however you have to be a top-notch photographer too. Otherwise the photos you shoot, regardless of the gear, will be far from top-notch. –  Gapton Apr 30 '12 at 2:49

5 Answers 5

Without more details about what exactly you find lacking in your current setup, that camera and lens is certainly capable of capturing fine portraits. They would not be inherently limited by that lens and camera. (The lens is just barely in that 'prime portrait' range though, so a longer (85mm or 100mm+) one certainly wouldn't hurt.)

If its gear you feel like you lack, consider lighting gear - even if you do mainly outdoor portraits. A reflector and a rimlight make a huge, huge difference in many outdoor portraits. Not only will it improve your existing pictures, but extend the places you can shoot reliably in.

Otherwise, practice, practice, PRACTICE. Watch the light more than anything, indoors or outdoor. Make sure you have an idea of what the portrait will look like before you take the picture. The more you practice, the easier it gets. If you're just placing your model in a place because its a beautiful place but you're not watching how the existing light plays on the subject, you've missed golden opportunities .


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Since you are interested in portraiture then a camera with crop factor (like yours) is fine cause you don't need to go wide. 50mm/1.4F is an excellent for portraiture specially in low light, also the low F-number can be used to get really shallow depth of field which is lovely in portrait photography. If you want to invest in more gear then probably you want to get a hot shoe flash cause pop-up flash (the camera's flash) is not very useful in portraiture because it's light is very powerful and will wash the image details and colors. Also you may want to get a telephoto lens, something like 70-200mm lens. They are used all the time in portraiture.

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Aside from family photos I don't do portraits but I do have the same lens and it's pretty good and quite sharp stopped down. However, as @rfusca said a longer focal length might help. I happen to have the the 70-200L f4 and I take candids of my kids playing outside with it and these photos turn out remarkably sharp with great smooth bokeh. I find the 80-100mm really pleasing.

Aside from that, and please take this with a grain of salt as I don't do actual portrait photography, I think many of the portraits on sites like 500px are heavily and I mean heavily post processed. I have NIK sofware dedicated for removing noise and others with some advanced sharpening algoritms and it does wonders to run a portrait photo through noise reduction and adding good sharpenning. It's in an entirely different league using this software over say the the photoshop or lightroom defaults. I know that there is software that is dedicated to portraits skintone, noise, sharpening and what have you but I don't know the name of the top of my head.

Lighting equipment should of course be your first investment but you should also try some good software to improve post processing.

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The comment about post-processing is useful for the "I am wondering if my current equipment is even capable of achieving" part of the question. @Sam, on those pictures you see that you're marvelling over - are they on Picasa or some similar site which lets you see the EXIF etc. information? Also, so far as I know, "portrait" and "wider angle" are somewhat in conflict. You might want to bring out more specific examples of looking at, and ask, "how do I do this?" –  khedron May 2 '12 at 13:54

The one thing you need to invest in beyond the equipment you already have is good lighting equipment. Some off-camera light sources and modifiers will do wonders to your portrait photography (with the adequate training, of course).

At the least, get yourself a pro or semipro external flash (430EXII or better), which lets you tilt and rotate the head, as well as manually control flash zoom and power.

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Because you have a APS-C sensor you need to remember that your 50mm is really 75mm which puts you more in the "prime" portrait range that rfusca mentioned. So because of that and the fact that you do have a nice shallow depth of field with the f1.4 you should be able to get nice creamy backgrounds when the lens is wide open. If you keep the ISO as low as possible you should still be able to get nice sharp details with a good focus.

Since you have a nice portrait lens you should be able to work on technique and learn to produce splendid portrait photos. I would recommend working on technique a bit and learn how to maximize you lens, which is a great portrait lens, before spending a bunch on a new camera.

Post processing may also be an area that could improve your final product. Keep you ISO low and your aperture wide and you should have a good chance at creating a nice photo with practice.

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Portrait range is typically considered to be 80-135mm, as I understand it, so I think rfusca's "barely" comment is spot on. –  khedron Apr 28 '12 at 20:18
    
Yeah, I knew that 75mm wasn't quite in the range, but wanted to make sure that Sam knew that the 50mm was acting as a 75mm and would be closer to the 80-135mm range than the barrel markings indicate because of the 1.5x crop. –  CyberKnoy08 May 1 '12 at 5:20
    
Understood. And on Canon, APS-C is 1.6x, so it's even closer than you thought! As we said, within the range. –  khedron May 2 '12 at 13:47

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