Portrait photography is all about capturing the essence of a person in a particular moment. Individuality, personality, and emotion can be immortalised in a snapshot. There are so many variables that can affect a portrait; lighting, depth of field, background, angle, and environment are all considerations that need to be accounted for. Choosing the correct lens is also important. Above all of this though, you need to select the right camera for the job.
Professional photographers will spend thousands on picking the best equipment available, but this doesn’t mean that there aren’t options for the amateur as well. We’ve selected our favourite digital cameras for portraits, including DLSRs, mirrorless, and compact, and explained why below.
Top DSLR Cameras for Portrait Photography
DSLR cameras have long been the number one choice among professionals and amateurs. Entry-level APS-C cameras are often inexpensive yet have the functionality to take creative control over photographs. More expensive full-frame DLSRs are the choice of professionals given their superior image quality.
- Full frame CMOS sensor with 30.4 Megapixels.
- 3.2 inch touchscreen display.
- DCI 4K video capture.
Canon’s successor to the ever popular 5D Mark III is about as well rounded as it gets. The EOS 5D Mark IV maintains Canon’s full-frame reputation for delivering exquisitely sharp and high-quality images with flawless colour output. It’s hard to imagine a situation where the 5D won’t perform well; its many features means it excels at landscapes, sports, nature and of course portrait photography. The autofocus is second to none, quickly and accurately focusing using its 61-point autofocusing system. Whilst tracking a subject on the move, the 7fps continuous shooting combined with the live autofocus means you won’t miss a beat.
The ISO range is huge, 100-32,000, and although this is the same as the Mark III, it combines well with the improved features to deliver superb quality in all light situations. The body is overall very similar to the Mark III, although it feels sturdier in the hand. The weather sealing has been improved, meaning you can shoot your portraits in any setting with confidence. Overall, this is our top pick for portrait DSLRs.
- All of the quality and features don’t come cheap. Realistically this is a camera only in the budget of a serious photographer.
- It’s not particularly lightweight. When coupled with a few lenses, you’ll be carrying a fair amount of weight with you.
2. Pentax K-1
- 36.2 megapixel full-frame CMOS sensor
- Built-in GPS and Wi-Fi
- 5-axis image stabilization
The huge 36.2 megapixel sensor is a glorious way to mark Pentax’s first foray into full-frame DLSRs. The Pentax K-1 packs in some excellent features without breaking the bank. Image quality is fantastic, as is the ISO range of 100-204,800. The 5-axis image stabilization accommodates even the most demanding of settings, as does the fantastic weather sealing. There’s plenty of functionality that allows users to have full control over the expected settings, and the design is certainly ergonomic and comfortable to use. Overall this is a camera that definitely rivals the big names of photography, Canon, Nikon and Sony. It’s an affordable means of getting into full frame cameras and is a fantastic option for portrait photography.
- The continuous autofocus isn’t quite up to the level of similar cameras.
- The continuous shooting and movie capture isn’t quite at the level of the above Canon 5D.
3. Canon 6D
- 20.2 megapixel full-frame sensor.
- 3 inch LCD monitor.
- 11-point autofocus.
The Canon 6D offers users almost everything that the previously mentioned 5D Mark III does, without high price and weight. Image quality and resolutions is almost flawless thanks to the 20.2 megapixel full-frame sensor. The ISO is expandable up to 102400 which will offer uses the clarity of images regardless of light settings, particularly useful for portrait photography. For precise autofocusing, the 11-point is unfalteringly accurate, again a portrait photographers dream, particularly when shooting from the hand. One final bonus for photographing portraits is the wonderfully shallow depth of field that is achievable, the subject stands out sharp against a lovely soft background.
- There’s no 4K video capture on the 6D.
- The dynamic range is not the best.
Best Mirrorless Cameras for Portrait Photography
Mirrorless cameras can offer most of the quality and functionality of a DSLR without the weight. They’re often light, have interchangeable lenses and can be a less expensive way of taking up portrait photography than a DSLR.
1. Fuji X-T2
- 24.3 megapixelAPS-C X sensor.
- 200-12,800 ISO with 100-51,200 optional extended.
- 325-point or 91-point hybrid autofocus.
Fuji’s X range combines style and manufacturing with excellent image quality. The X-T2 is perhaps the pick of the bunch, particularly for portrait photography. A 24.3-million-pixel sensor captures really high quality and resolution images that are rich and vibrant in colour. The excellent ISO range produces very little noise, and the 325-point autofocus means you can continue shooting a moving subject without issue. All in all this is a fantastic mirrorless camera that even challenges many models in the DSLR range.
- There are really very few downsides to this camera. The price may be a bit much for the complete beginner, but otherwise it’s an excellent all-rounder for portraits.
- 24.3 megapixelAPS-C Exmor Sensor.
- ISO 100-25600 range.
- Excellent Fast Hybrid autofocus system.
The Sony Alpha a6000 is another fantastic mirrorless system and it’s more affordable than the above XT-2. It’s lighter too despite its sturdy build quality. It’s probably our favourite mid-range mirrorless, combining enough functionality and image quality to more than justify the price tag. It performs fantastically well in low-light settings, with image noise being at a minimum. For portraits it’s discreet enough to grab a candid shot and robust enough to take with you on your travels.
- The LCD screen isn’t touchscreen.
- 16 megapixel, four thirds sensor.
- Extended ISO 100-25600 range.
- In-body image stabilization.
It’s been a close-run thing between all three mirrorless cameras. Each has their own merits and niche. The Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mark II is equally strong. It’s compact, lightweight, and robust. Weather sealing means it can be used even in harsh environments. Although the sensor is 16 megapixels, it’s capable of capturing 40 million megapixel JPEGs and 64 million megapixel RAW files using an image composite technology. Although this high-res shooting mode needs a tripod to get clear images, the fantastic 15-point autofocus is also advantageous for when shooting portraits handheld.
Best Compact Cameras for Portrait Photography
Compacts are a great entryway into photography. They’re often inexpensive and easy to use, often referred to as ‘point and shoot’ cameras. Some allow certain settings to be changed, but on the whole they’re automatic. This doesn’t mean they’re not capable of taking fantastic photos though.
- 20 megapixel resolution.
- 42x optical zoom.
- Lightweight and easy to use.
The main selling point of the Canon PowerShot SX420 is the 42x optical zoom. It’s impressive that a camera this compact and light can fit such a bit zoom in. It shoots really well in favourable light conditions. Image stabilization is another strong feature in this little compact, meaning you can get some great long-range shots from the hand. There are various modes of shooting which can create some really interesting effects and are fun to play around with. The 24mm lens, combined with the zoom, means that the user can take great landscapes and portraits.
- There’s a lot of image noise in low light settings.
- The LCD isn’t touch screen.
- 24 megapixel full frame sensor.
- 35mm f/2 Carl Zeiss lens.
- Customizable buttons.
This is a really interesting and somewhat niche camera from Sony. A 24 megapixel full frame sensor, fantastic 35mm Carl Zeiss lens, and 100-25,600 ISO range captures high-resolution images. It’s a very capable and compact camera, ideal for travelling. Landscapes, street, and general photography are all handled expertly by the Sony Cybershot DSC-RX1. The ISO range means that it’s a great camera for portraits, performing well even in low light situations. There really aren’t too many cameras available that offer this amount of quality in such a compact body.
- The RX1 is another pricey camera, likely only for the serious photographer.
- The autofocus is a little slow when tracking a moving subject.