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.
Light is all around you, bathing you with energy you can almost
feel. Light has color, intensity, direction, strength, “softness” or “hardness.
Light is beautiful.
Learning to love light, to embrace it in its ever changing
splendor, is the key to excellent photography. Learning to control light, to
redirect it, to manipulate it, is the key to making money in photography.
The inverse is also true. To appreciate the light, you have
to know and understand darkness. Dark areas in a photograph create contrast
with the light areas; otherwise the picture would be boring. Darkness in a
picture adds mystery, interest and glamour.
Today, everybody has a camera on their phone, so any picture
that was taken with even a point and shoot camera looks better than much of
what we see on Facebook. However, a picture that has amazing lighting with
always capture the viewer’s attention, and people are willing to pay for that
attention if it is directed at their portrait, product or service.
There is only one sun. Two light sources of equal strength
look stupid and unnatural in a portrait, so the light coming from the second
source must be weaker in most cases. Portraits taken in direct sunlight without
a reflector or fill flash are usually harsh and have high contrast, with big
black shadows or over exposed areas. This is because of the nature of digital
light sensors, as well as film. Digital sensors in cameras are not anywhere
near as light sensitive as your eyes. Where human eyes see details in the
shadows, digital sensors see only solid black or very dark areas with no
Direct sunlight, as beautiful as it is on trees and mountains
can be very harsh on human skin, particularly human skin with defects; all the
bumps show! Makeup can help, but filling the harsh sunlight with a reflector or
two can make the difference between a throw away photograph and a great one.
Portrait setup 1, outdoors
One of the best places to put your portrait subject is with
the sun to their back, or behind their head with a little light touching their
cheek. This lighting setup is best when the sun is low in the sky, within a few
hours of sunset or sunrise. With the sun to their back, take a reflector and
bounce the sunlight into their darkly shadowed face, and behold! A halo of
light is outlining the person, and soft, directional light is defining their
features. Just make sure the reflector is either big enough or close enough to
their face to light it evenly. I prefer to do this lighting setup with the
portrait subject in sunlight, but with dark trees or buildings in shade in the
background behind the subject. Try this setup with the following camera
settings: ISO 100, shutter speed 1/125 of a second, and aperture at f11 or even
This type of lighting is very tricky for the auto exposure
settings on most cameras. Often the auto setting on the camera will expose for
the sun lit area behind your subject, and not for the lower light levels coming
from your bounced light. So you will get your best results setting your camera
on manual, and adjusting the settings until the faces are properly exposed.
There is an old fashion rule that dates back to film days,
but it still works. It is the “sunny 16” rule, and it works like this. If your
subject is in direct sunlight with no clouds or shade, then the correct
exposure is f16 with the shutter speed matching the ISO. For example, if your
shutter speed is 1/100 of a second and your ISO is 100, f16 will be the correct
exposure if your subject has direct sunlight on their front. If your ISO is 400
use the closest shutter speed, which may be 1/400 or 1/500 of a second.
Use the sunny 16 rule as a starting point in your
photographs, then adjust and bracket your exposures from there. I always press
the “info” button on my Canon 5D Mark II, which brings up a histogram. If you
don’t know how to find the histogram screen on your camera, take out the manual
or camera and find it at once! The kind of histogram graph you want to see most
of the time will look like a mountain or hill, with all of the data picking in
the middle of the chart. If there are large peaks of data on the left side of
your histogram, your picture is very dark. If there are peaks touching the
right side of your histogram, you will have over exposed areas in your picture.
In the case of the portrait lighting setup one I described
earlier, you should see some very high peaks in your histogram touching the
right side of the chart. That’s because the halo or outline effect you want
using the sun as a back light or “rim light” should be over exposed. On blond
models, the highlights of the hair may look pure white.
Place your portrait subject under the overhang a porch or a
large tree, just inside the shaded area. One side of their face should be lit by the
skylight coming in under the porch or tree, and the other side of their face
will be darker, as it is further from the skylight. This setup can be done
almost any time of day, even if the sun is directly overhead. You do not want
any direct sunlight to fall on your subject, only skylight. Add a reflector on
the darker side of their face if there is too much contrast with only skylight.
Portrait setup 3, outdoors
With the sun low in the sky, place your subject so that
direct sunlight falls on only one side of their face, and the other side is in
shadow. Place a reflector on the shaded side of their face for one effect, or
have the subject hold a reflector at waist height, bouncing the light from
below back up in their face. If you have two reflectors, try placing them at
both positions as well.
Portrait setup 4, indoors
Find a large window that has skylight coming through it,
with no direct sunlight. A window on the north side of the building will often
be the best. Have your subject lean against the window frame, with one side of
their face almost touching the glass. Make sure the background behind the
subject is simple and uncluttered, and if not, bring in a plant or remove items
to make the background more attractive. The soft light coming through the
window should highlight the side of their face closest to the window, and fall
off naturally on the side away from the window. Add a reflector next to the
shaded side of their face, and see which lighting you prefer.
The light level for indoor light is much lower than the
outdoor setups. You may need to use a tripod due to using a lower shutter
speed. I will often use an ISO of 400 for portrait setup 4, a shutter speed of
1/60 and an aperture of around f8 or f5.6. Make sure to focus on the subject’s
eyes, as your depth of field is very shallow at that aperture.
For all of the portrait setups, I prefer to use a medium
telephoto, at around 100 mm. This longer lens will cause the background to blur
behind the subject, and keep the focus of the picture on the person in your
Photography is painting and writing with light. You must
learn to understand and control light, to make the kind of portraits people