Ten Tips

1. Get closer to your main subject

Your photograph will be better if you make it about one main thing. Don’t try to get three people, the boat, the lake, the castle and the mountains all in the same shot. If you love all of those things make separate images for each subject. But if the subject of the photograph is people at a location, use the location as a backdrop for the people, instead of making the people tiny dark objects in front of a beautiful backdrop.

2. Turn your flash off when shooting landscapes, but on for people

If you are using a small on-camera flash, its effective range is about 12-15 feet. If you are shooting the Rocky Mountains, standing at the edge of the Grand Canyon, or photographing a basketball or baseball game, turn the flash off if possible. Leaving it on will cause the foreground of the photograph to be bright, and the background to be dark and underexposed.

However, if you are photographing people 12-15 feet from you standing in front of a large scenic area, leave the flash on in bright, sunny weather. The people are the main subject, and the flash will fill the shadows on their faces.

3. Look for good light

The word photography comes from the Greek and means, literally, “light writing.” Since you are painting with light, it is important to understand light and appreciate its beauty. Overcast and cloudy days are good for photographing people, because the light is soft and flattering, and your subject is not squinting in the harsh sunlight. Beautiful portraits can be made late in the afternoon with the sun low in the sky, and your subject facing into the warm sunlight. Scenics are often best when the sun is near the horizon, early morning or late afternoon.

Placing someone under an overhanging roof or just at the edge of the shadow of a tree can create a beautiful portrait. Place your subject just inside the shadow, and turn their face so that one side of the face is lit by skylight, and one side is in shadow. Try moving them closer and further from the edge of the overhang / tree shadow until you get the effect you want.

4. Carry or find a reflector

A white wall or fence can often be used as a reflector, bouncing light into your subject’s face. Place your subject next to the wall so that the shadowed side of their face is lit by the light reflecting off the wall. Snow, white sand and other light colored surfaces can be used in the same way.

I often carry portable reflectors with me for outdoor photo shoots, made of fabric stretched on a collapsible frame. I have several with white fabric on one side, and silver or gold fabric on the other. These photography reflectors are very similar to the collapsible shades that people put in their car windshields to keep their car cool in hot weather. I sometimes use white or silver poster board when I don’t have my regular reflectors along.

To use a reflector, you can place your subject completely in the shade, and place the reflector in the sunlight and bounce light into their face. Or you can place your subject with the sun to their back or side, and bounce light from the reflector into the shadow side of their face.

5. Give people something to do

People talking to each other, interacting, playing with something or doing something are more interesting than posed pictures. Give children a toy or animal to play with and your pictures will become more spontaneous and fun. Capture adults hugging, kissing, working, walking, playing sports or other activities to make pictures come alive.

6. Keep your camera steady

Plant both feet firmly, about a foot apart, and hold the camera with both hands. Press the shutter button gently. Whenever possible, support the camera on a tripod, a ladder, or place both elbows on the top of a chair, a wall or anything that doesn’t move. You will end up with fewer blurry photographs.

7. If you are using a zoom or telephoto lens, use a faster shutter speed

If your camera allows you to adjust the shutter speed, always use a shutter speed at least as fast as the length of your lens when you are not on a tripod. For example, if you are using a 200mm lens, use a shutter speed of 250 th of a second, or 125 th of a second for a 120mm. longer lenses amplify your body’s movements, and the faster shutter speed cuts down on the effect of camera shake.

8. Give your subject a mirror

If you take out a pocket mirror, often your subject will see that they need to comb their hair, fix their makeup, clean the stain off of their shirt, or take off their jacket that doesn’t match their top. You can also show them their picture on your digital camera and ask them if they see a way to improve the photo. This works much better than making a rude comment about how they look, and could get you a kiss instead of a kick in the pants.

9. Place the main subject off center

Imagine the lines drawn for tic-tac-toe, or the # symbol. Imagine those lines drawn on your camera’s viewfinder. Place your main subject where one of those lines intersect, and your composition will be more interesting than if you place the subject dead center. This is only a guideline, and photographs with the subject in the center are not “bad pictures.” However, if you try this composition guideline you will like the results.

10. Look for a simple, uncluttered background

Try to keep other people, clutter, random cars or buildings out of the background of your photos. Move your subjects to a place with a simple background and good light before you take your pictures.




Some of these tips were inspired by a document from Kodak

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Canon 5D for Video

The Canon 5D was my primary camera for two years SO when the Canon 5D Mark II was released, I looked forward to getting one. Some of the features I was most excited about was jumping from 13 mega pixels to 21 mega pixels, the larger LCD screen, and the self cleaning sensor. The video feature was interesting, but I didn’t take it seriously.

I had the Mark II about two months, and couldn’t figure out how to use the video after reading the instruction manual several times. I got the live view to work, but wasn’t able to record and play back. So when I saw that Adobe was offering a free seminar on using Adobe Premiere CS5 with the Canon 5D Mark II, I attended the event. I was amazed by how they were using this camera! The presenter was with a video production company called the Bandito Brothers, see http://www.banditobrothers.com.

The brothers were using Mark II cameras with $300,000 movie lenses with custom Canon mounts. They had 16 Mark II camera bodies, and were using them in the mix with other much more expensive video cameras. Their client list includes Mountain Dew, BMW, and the U.S. Navy.

I learned that where the Canon 5D Mark II excels is in low light situations, under water, when a small, lightweight camera is needed, or when the videographer is looking for shallow depth of field and a widescreen “cinema” look. The color and definition is superb, and at 1920p x 1080p the high definition video is the real deal. I left the seminar inspired and excited, and went home and watched a number of training videos on how to use the camera for video. I began to think it might be possible to add video to my photography business services.

Knowing that I was in over my head, I began talking to my long time friend and videographer, Justin Stovall. Justin has worked for CBS and Warner Brothers, and went to film school at UCLA. He was a cameraman on shows like CSI Miami, Lie to Me and the Mentalist. I had been talking to Justin for years about starting a video production company, but with a Canon 5D Mark II; shooting great HD video was a reality. We formed an LLC called IronMyst Video Productions, and I started building our first website, www.IronMyst.com

Starting any kind of company in a down economy is a challenge at best, but starting a video production company in Los Angeles, with the highest concentration of video companies of any city in America, is just plain crazy. Justin had saved enough money to live off of for a while without income, and enough to buy us a “rig” and a 5 inch battery powered video monitor. We decided to focus on the same kind of clients I have for my photography business, www.DennisDavisPhotography.com , food, corporate, advertising and architecture.

Five months and 8 or 9 video shorts later, I am a lot more familiar with what the 5D can do, and cannot do. You will need to spend more than the camera costs to get the accessories needed to shoot quality video, but it is worth the expense and effort.

Canon 5D Mark II video strengths:

1. The video quality is amazing. Rich color, beautiful highlights.

2. Small, lightweight, easy to carry

3. Great in low light situations, requires fewer lights in the studio than standard video cameras

4. All your Canon lenses work, so you have more options than when using a camera with one lens

Canon 5D Mark II video weaknesses:

1. Sound is a problem. The internal microphone is unusable. I purchased a $200 shotgun microphone that mounts on the hot shoe, which is good enough for corporate interviews in a quiet setting. For broadcast quality sound, you will need to invest in an external device that will allow you to plug in boom and lapel mics, and software to make it work with your video.

2. You will need one or more “rigs” that assist with focus, zoom and holding the camera steady. These could include a tripod rig, shoulder mount rig, a “steady cam rig” and so forth. We spent $2,400 on our tripod rig.

3. The monitor on the back of the camera is too small to see if your video is in focus. So you will need an eyepiece with a magnifying lens or an external monitor.

4. Some Canon lenses do not zoom smoothly, even with the large knobs on our rig. The gears mesh well, but there are little bumps and jerks with some of my older zoom lenses.

Canon Professional Services is a program for professional photographers that allow them to borrow Canon products for two weeks and try them. I was able to compare Canon XF 305, a $7,000 video camera, with the Canon 5D Mark II, in several side by side shoots. Here are my thoughts on comparing the two cameras.

The XF 305 advantages, however would also apply to many other high end video cameras:

1. Power Zoom. It is very difficult to get smooth, slow zooms with most of my lenses doing manual zooms with my rig and the 5D. The zooms on the XF 305 are smooth and beautiful.

2. Sound. The XF 305 has a good stereo mic build in, plus two professional 3 prong microphone inputs for boom or lapel mics. The 5D requires an accessory device to get the same results.

3. Viewing the video. The XF 305 has a building eyepiece monitor, and a good size flip down monitor, that works well on location. You will need accessories for the 5D to get the same results.

4. Frame rate. The XF 305 can shoot at 24, 30 and 50 frames per second, the 5D at 24 and 30. The 50 frames per second speed is good for recording video that you plan to slow down for slow motion effects.

5. Autofocus. Works great, tracks moving objects well. The 5D autofocus is not as good, less likely to track a moving object or person.

The Canon 5D advantages over the XF 305:

1. Better video. More contrast, better color, more shallow depth of field, more of a big screen movie feel.

2. Better in low light. The XF 305 was really grainy at the default setting of 50 frames per second at night. When we lowered it to 30 frames a second, it improved, but the 5D was still better.

3. Smaller, lighter. When you add a rig to a 5D it can get bulky, but shooting with minimal accessories the 5D less to carry.

I was also able to shoot some video with the Canon 7D, and although it has many of the advantages of the 5D, it does not have a full frame sensor, so it lacks that big screen movie feel that the 5D has.

You may see our videos at http://www.IronMyst.com/htm/portfolio.html Most of videos were shot with the 5D, and I think you will be impressed with the food commercials shot entirely with the 5D. We will shortly release a video on Long Beach that was shot with the XF 305 and the 5D; can you tell which footage was shot with which camera?


If you are considering the purchase of a Canon 5D Mark II for still photography, I highly recommend the camera and the lens system. The quality of the images are only about 20% less than the $40,000 Phase One P45 medium format digital back and Mamiya 645 body that I used to shoot with, and with lots more zoom choices and lighter body.

If you are considering purchasing a 5D Mark II for video production, plan on spending $5,000 to $8,000 on accessories, rigs, monitors, microphones, etc. to bring the abilities of the camera up to that of a standard video camera. I recommend having both a 5D and a standard video camera in your video bag if you can afford it. But if you can only afford one video camera, you could do a lot worse than the Canon 5D Mark II. If I had to do it over again, I would buy the 5D.

Urth Caffe

Photography tips, training, lessons and examples by famous Los Angeles Commercial photographer Dennis Ray Davis.Life lessons from corporate and advertising shoots, and "how to" articles about photography. Los Angeles, California commercial photography clients keep Mr. Davis on industrial, corporate and advertising shoots for restaurants, catalogs, advertising agencies and magazines.

Down to Urth

In Los Angeles, where even car accidents are theater, I should have expected an audience gathering as a result of putting up studio strobe lighting and food stylist’s gear in a shopping mall food court dining area. People were eating their sandwiches and fries at the tables around my lighting gear, while others walked by questioning “what is this for?” I'm sure there were some disappointed actors! I was shooting chicken kabob and rice and in full concentration when I was approached by an employee from Urth Caffe and was asked “do you specialize in food photography?”

We exchanged contact information, and a week later I was in a meeting with the chefs, food stylist, management and owners of the Urth (pronounced like earth) Caffe chain, based in Los Angeles.

During that meeting we discussed replacing their catering menu photography, and creating new product photography of their coffee products for their website and marketing. We talked about props, backgrounds, dishes, and then walked around the restaurant, bakery, coffee roasting room and kitchens looking at locations to shoot the products and food. We decided to start with a test shoot without the food stylist to prepare a quick advertisement.

My test project was to create an image for a poster promoting gluten free bread. I brought my ProFoto Monolights into Urth’s coffee roasting room, and set up a scene in front of a stack of coffee bags and a brick wall. We started by stacking the seeded buns on white plates, but due to the name of the company decided to go with a more organic, earthy feel and put the bread on a cutting board covered with flour, sunflower and poppy seeds. Eggs, a coffee bag and a metal scoop holding flour are added as props and the right lighting - we had a poster!

We started the food photography portion of our shoot at 6:00 am, hoping to shoot in front of the fireplace inside the constantly crowded indoor dining area before the peak of the breakfast customers arrived. Urth Caffe offers a discount to government employees in uniform, so local police and firemen flock to the place for some of the world’s best natural juices, coffees, teas and made from scratch pastries, breads and desserts. Much of that is in front of me on tables placed in front of the ornate, ceramic tile fireplace. I am shooting on tripod with a Canon 100 mm macro lens on a Canon 5D Mark II body, as this long lens will throw the background out of focus, and make the food on the table stand out. I had to be about 12 feet from the front table to compose my shot, and my back was right up against a table full of 4 of L.A.’s finest in blue uniforms.

“Good morning, officer” I said to the huge balding man, and went back to my business. Waiters would bring plates of food to food stylist Norman Stewart, who would pick out his favorite items, add a flower or cup, and bring in pastries and fruit plates as the mood hits him.

Friday morning we are on the other side of the glass, still shooting in the general direction of the fireplace, but now from inside the large bakery, where the restaurant patrons on other days can see bakers preparing the pizza crusts, buns, handmade breads and desserts. Now we are shooting cakes, and the beautiful chocolate curls on top of the cakes make me want to snatch them off, stuff them in my mouth and eat them, as I have a great weakness for chocolate. The out of focus people in restaurant dining area create beautiful highlights and blurred streaks.

With food photography, the strongest “key” light is normally low and to the rear. This light skims across moist food, creating shiny highlights. My common tabletop lighting setup puts one Profoto 600 watt second monolight with a 7 inch reflector and a 10 degree grid at the rear of the better part of my tabletop food photography sets. This key light is supplemented by two additional ProFoto monolights with medium softboxes on them, to the front overhead both left and right. I add small cardboard silver reflectors in front of the food as needed to fill shadows.

However with location lighting, all bets are off. The shots in the bakery and roasting room were lit by florescent and incandescent lights with green or orange color casts. I light the food, but shoot with a tripod mounted long exposure often of 1-2 seconds to bring the exposure of the background up to the level of the flash pointed at the food. This is why you see gold and green highlights in some of the out of focus backgrounds in location shots.

Food photography requires an eye for what’s appetizing. You taste the food with your camera lens, exploring angles, reflections and points of view. Sometimes I think about food compositions as a new country to explore. There is always an angle where the food looks its best, and I mean to find it. If you’re key light is low and behind the food, then place your camera directly across from the light, and allow the light to create highlights on the wet areas of the food. This works great with meat, as it looks really succulent and mouth watering.

Norman Stewart is an artist with food, and created some amazing arrangements that were fun to light and photograph. I shot 60 gigabytes worth of images that week, and I am still picking my favorites. Urth Caffe has 4 locations around Los Angeles, and has just licensed a branch in Japan. They use the best ingredients, import their own coffee and tea, bake all their own breads, pastries and desserts from scratch, and every plate is a vision of beauty. If you are visiting Hollywood or Los Angeles, it is a delightful feast worth the trip to visit Urth Caffe.