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Best Portrait Cameras Under $1,000: Best Overall

Seven cameras, eight lenses compared, one stood out

Conclusion: A First Among Equals

By Dave Pardue, William Brawley and Dave Etchells
Posted: 06/15/2018


Nikon D3400 paired with Nikkor 85mm f/1.8 G
[Current combined street price: ~$875]

When we set sail on this voyage to bring you the "best" combination for portrait photography under $1000, we firmly had in mind that we'd eventually crown a sole winner. What we discovered instead were combinations from each major manufacturer (apologies to Ricoh/Pentax as we didn't have a suitable combination to try) that more than met our expectations of being able to deliver very good portraits in both "normal" daylight situations as well as trying lower light scenarios such as dusk or indoors. More on all of that down below, but first and foremost, we'd like to honor one competitor which outshined the rest.

Best in Show: Nikon D3400 + 85mm f/1.8 G (~$875)

There was one combination that did rise above the group assembled here, slightly edging out the pack as our top recommendation for getting great portraits on a budget, and that is the Nikon D3400 when paired with the Nikkor 85mm f/1.8 G lens. The overall dimensionality of the shots, the generally pleasing colors, the shallow depth of field and the professional-grade feel of the rig simply took it slightly above the crowd here in budget territory, making it our highest-recommended offering in this class for portrait work.

This combination simply has the best overall flair for portraits in this price range, and at a current combined ~$875 street price, we're not talking about mortgaging the house to acquire one. In addition, the pair is light and nimble, focuses fast and accurately, has superb high ISO prowess for the price, and with the longer focal length it can produce enticingly shallow depths of field. In fact, you will be hard-pressed to find a shallower depth-of-field at this price point anywhere.

Nikon D3400: B&H | Amazon | Adorama
Nikon 85mm f/1.8G: B&H | Amazon | Adorama

Nikon D3400 paired with Nikkor 85mm f/1.8 G
(The shallowest depth of field money can buy? Yes!)

The Best of the Rest

Once again, in analyzing the results from the first three pages in this article we feel confident in recommending all of the ILC's and their companion lenses we chose for this comparison. So naturally, if you are already invested in one particular manufacturer, there will be a combination here in this group with our wholehearted seal of approval for your budget portrait needs.

Here are some additional reasons for considering the various contenders here:

Best for your Budget: Canon SL2 + 50mm f/1.8 STM (~ $675)

This pair is the only one coming in below the $700 mark, and that makes it an intriguing option. Honorable mention to the Nikon D3400 + 50mm f/1.8 G, which only rings the cash register to the tune of a very affordable ~$715.

Canon SL2: B&H | Amazon | Adorama
Canon 50mm f/1.8 STM: B&H | Amazon | Adorama

Best for Traveling Light: Panasonic GX850 + 42.5mm f/1.7 (~$900)

None of the combinations in our group here will weigh you down much, that's for sure, but if you are truly interested in traveling as light as you can, and need something that can easily be stowed into random nooks and crannies in your carry-all, look no further than the svelt GX850 paired with the diminuitive 42.5mm f/1.7. If you've never held this combination in your hands, prepare for a shock at how small and light it really is.

Panasonic GX850: B&H | Amazon | Adorama
Panasonic 42.5mm f/1.7: B&H | Amazon | Adorama

Best Trick up its Sleeve: Fujifilm X-A5 + 50mm f/2 (~$1,050)

Given the scope of shooting ten products, we weren't able to delve deeply into any specialty settings in this comparison, but we've used Fujifilm's film simulations for many years now and we love them. Far from being gimmicky filters, we've found them to be top-notch aids for getting exceptional shots without the need to spend hours in post, especially for portrait work. We also love Fuji's overall color representation and feel it's among the best on the market.

Fujifilm X-A5: B&H | Amazon | Adorama
Fujifilm 50mm f/2: B&H | Amazon | Adorama

Best for Stealth and Bright Sun: Fujifilm X-A5 and Panasonic GX850

Electronic shutter is one of those things you don't think about until you need it, and when you do, you really need it. Whether you're in super-bright sun and don't want to stop down and miss the coveted subject-to-background isolation, or you're in a quiet environment and don't want to startle the folks around you, electronic shutter is simply a nice tool to have onboard. For this handy feature you'll need to restrict your options here to the Fujifilm X-A5 and the Panasonic GX850.

Panasonic GX850 paired with the 42.5mm f/1.7 lens
(Electronic shutter can come in handy for portrait work, especially in bright sun.)


Not for Portraits

In addition to the gold nuggets we discovered, we also learned that while the RX100 series (and, by nature, other 1-inch sensor products out there) are terrific little go-to cameras for travel, they are not able to compete with the price-conscious ILC's with larger sensors and bright prime lenses represented here for solid portrait work. We also came to the same conclusion for the iPhone we tried here, and are confident these findings will generally apply to most all smartphones currently available. Again, they are terrific as your 'at-the-ready' cameras for general use, but definitely not if you want great-looking portraits. Lastly, we do not recommend using your "kit lens" for portrait work. It'll do in a pinch, obviously, but if you want a really thin depth of field and a smooth, blurry background, a kit lens' aperture while zoomed to a typical portrait focal length is often too small to provide good subject-to-background isolation. Also, if you head indoors, the kit lens is too dim to keep the ISO gain in-check for avoiding dreaded noise in your images.

Wrapping it up

We hope you've found our budget portrait exploration worthwhile, and that it helps steer you towards your ideal portrait rig on a budget! While the combinations represented here certainly don't rival the images from our benchmark professional pairing, the ~$5000 Nikon D850 + Nikkor 105mm f/1.4, they're still not so far removed from the same playing field as to be laughed out of the park either. We're confident in recomending all of the ILC combinations we tested here, and wish you luck in finding the best one for your portrait needs.

...Happy Shooting!

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• • •

The Best Portrait Camera and Lens Under $1000

Page 1: Shooting portraits in everyday light

Page 2: Turning the lights down!

Page 3: Specialty shooting scenarios

Conclusion: A First Among Equals (here)


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