Advertising Photography

Making great advertising photographs for products is not an easy task. A client brings you an object – a jar of face cream, a toaster, a hair brush – and wants you to make it look like a space ship or 10 million dollars. This picture has to stop people from turning the page or hitting the next button when they are browsing magazines or the web.

Props and backgrounds

One way to make to make your $5 wallet look like more is to put a set of expensive car keys next to it. Putting your product in an expensive looking setting is one way of making it look like it is worth more. A trip to an arts and craft store will land you lots more props that are useful for product photography. Glass beads, pebbles, crystals, flowers and plants, marbles, paint, art paper and so on can be used as props and textures. I keep a collection of 30 or so pieces of fabric in the studio to use as backgrounds or to add to a set.

The most commonly used background for product photography is black or white Plexiglas. Usually reflective or glossy finishes are used, but satin or matte finish can work as well. Black Plexiglas creates a dramatic surface with no distractions, and the reflection of the product can be as interesting as the product itself. The problem with reflective backgrounds is they reflect your lights as well. Remember this principal: angle of incidence equals angle of reflection. If you bounce a ball at a 45 degree angle off of a wall, it will bounce away from you at an equal 45 degree angle. If you stand in front of a wall, and throw the ball straight at the wall, it will bounce back and hit you in the stomach. The same applies when lighting a product on a shiny background. You cannot place lights directly overhead, or directly opposite the camera behind the product as these locations will result in reflections.

Shooting shiny products

Glass, metal, plastic – many products are made of reflective materials, and your lights, light stands, camera, tripod and face can reflect in the product, making your image useless or require extensive retouching. I have a client that makes a soft drink with printed shiny plastic film covering the bottle. It does not reflect the objects in the studio, just the shape of the lights themselves. To avoid these reflections, I shoot the bottles in a cocoon. Cocoons are tent-like boxes made of white fabric and metal rods. The fold up for storage, but can be lined with background paper and used to reduce reflections in shiny products. I normally put three softboxes above and to the left and right of the cocoon. The cocoon defuses the light, and reduces the number of reflections seen in the product.

Mirror Paper

I like using colored mirror papers, sometimes called Mylar paper, as a background surface for a product that could benefit from a reflection. These papers come in silver, gold, red, blue and green in my art store. These colors can add fun and excitement to a product, but they are a photographer’s challenge. You cannot place a light overhead or behind the product, or the mirror-like surface will create ugly reflections from each of your light sources. If the paper is curled or curved, it will reflect every light facing that curve. The paper scratches with ease, so be careful when you buy them in the store that you are not buying a scratched up piece.


At times I use white cardboard reflectors or small mirrors for still life photography, but the silver Mylar cardboard reflectors are my favorite. You may make your own reflectors from “mirror paper” sold at art supply stores, or purchase them from Light Right, at The advantage of Light Right reflectors is that they have a magnet on the back of the reflector, and a piece of metal on the other flap. This magnet setup allows the photographer to change the angle that the reflective surface picks up the light and bounces it back.

Using light subtraction to create shadows and mystery

Where light is not in a picture is just as important as where it is. The whitest area of a picture is what draws your eye to it first, however, without the contrast of the dark; an all white picture would be boring. Put rich, saturated colors up against dark backgrounds and they pop! There are several useful tools for controlling where the light is not in your pictures.

Softbox grids are cloth square web that attach to the front of the softbox by Velcro. The grid directs the light all in the same direction, rather than being scattered and defused everywhere. If you use the edge of the softbox to light your subject it is called feathering, the effect is even stronger when a softbox grid is in place, lighting one area of the subject softly with a rapid fall off to darkness.
Reflector grids are round metal honeycomb disks that come in 10, 20, 30 and 40 degree ratings. The number reflects the size of the honeycomb holes in the grid, letting out more or less light 10 degrees being narrow and 40 being wide and lighter. These reflector grids allow you to direct the light from your reflector head to a particular product or area of the set to spotlight it, leaving the rest of the set in darkness.

Flags are cloth stretched around metal frames, and are available in black, white, silver, gold and zebra. All the colors except black are for reflecting or softening light, but the black flags are for blocking light. If you want to keep reflections off of a background or product, a flag is often the perfect solution. My flags come from Mathews, the company that makes century light stands used in the movie industry.

Cinefoil by Rosco is a thick black aluminum foil that can be wrapped around light heads or reflectors to create custom openings to put light only where you want it, and keep it from where you don’t. This product is also available in generic versions, but make sure you get thick foil that is heat resistant, or you could melt foil on your light heads.

Light control is the key to good product photography. Putting light where you want it and keeping it off where you don’t is what the lighting tools are built for. Learn to love light, embrace it, control it and make it do what you want. Products are for the most part, boring. With your impressive lighting, backgrounds and props you can make them into magical objects of desire, which will get you paid.

Dennis Ray Davis is a Long Beach, California based photographer specializing in photography for business. Call 213-434-3344

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Professional Photographer

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.

Getting Started as a Professional Photographer

Glamour, excitement, fame, fortune, hanging around sexy models and famous actors – this is why you want to become a photographer, right? Reality and the public perception of what a photographer’s life is like are not necessarily in alignment, but yes, I have seen some of the above. It is the fortune part that most photographers seem to miss out on. There are huge amounts of money to be made, however there are also huge expenses in keeping up with the latest digital cameras, computers, lights, etc, as well the monthly expense of a studio.

The most common route to becoming a photographer today is to go to college and study photography, then work for someone in the field you want until you go out on your own. You will need a photography degree if you want to get a job working for most newspapers or companies, and a 4 year degree is better than a 2 year degree; however you can still get good jobs with a 2 year degree.

Some photographers who work for themselves are self-taught. They read books, practice, shoot for friends, and eventually hire their services out. Other photographers work first as a photographer’s assistant, and later launch their business.

There are several routes you can take in working as a photographer. You can work for a company, such as a newspaper, magazine, portrait / wedding studio or catalog company as a full-time staff photographer. Working for someone else seems safe, secure, and dependable – until you get laid off or fired. Then you will be scrambling for a new position, and let me assure you there are very few staff photography jobs out there, and there are 10 or 15 photographers for every one job. However, being a staff photographer is an excellent training for working on your own, and many great photographers worked first in someone else’s studio or in editorial photography before they went out on their own.

Portrait / wedding studios work directly with the public, and make their money selling prints and CDs. There are studios that specialize in children’s portraits, families, glamour, high school seniors, weddings, parties so forth. You could get a job working for a studio such as this, and then later launch your own similar studio. Some of these studio are run be someone really good at marketing, and they can make hundreds of thousands of dollars per year. Most of them are run by a “creative type” person not very good at business and marketing, and the photographer makes a lower middle class wage. The difference between the successful studio and the not so successful has more to do with marketing then photographic skill.


There are photographers that make some or all of their money shooting stock photography. Stock photography is images that are used for advertisements, brochures, websites and other published works that was not shot specifically shot for that company. Regular selling images might be couples having fun on the beach, families interacting, people working on computers and so forth. Most stock photographers have to invest their own time and money in coming up with ideas, models, locations, costumes, etc, and hope that the stock-buying public likes their images. Stock is a rapidly changing and many believe shrinking market, so investigate well before you go that direction.

Editorial photographers are not paid that well, but often get perks and benefits that make up for the lower pay. Travel photographers for magazines can be sent on all expenses paid trips to exotic locations, and given a budget to hire local models, guides, hotels, cars, etc. However, they have a very short time, usually 2-4 days, to come up with a full article’s 6-10 images and a cover photograph, so these are not vacations. Photographers for magazines that focus on celebrities, fashion models, musicians or politicians mainly travel domestically, but still get to meet the rich and famous and photograph them. Most of these photographers are freelance; very few magazines still have a staff. However the good freelance photographers work very regularly.

Regardless of what kind of photographer you become, you will need a great portfolio. Do not think that the images that you shot in school or while working for a client will do. You have to decide what kind of photography you want to do, then shoot images that will land those types of jobs or clients. For example, if you want to become a product photographer, you need to go to department, shoe, gift or cosmetic stores, and buy the products. Then you need to buy or pick out props and backgrounds to go with the products you are shooting. Don’t bother shooting catalog style photographs – products with flat, shadow-less lighting on a plan white background. Shoot beauty shots – dramatic images with amazing, mysterious lighting and exotic props and backgrounds.

If you are not working for a company full time, but rather working freelance for yourself, your portfolio is the only thing that matters. No one will ask what school you went to, or what your GPA was. Plan to shoot just for your portfolio at least 4 times a year if you are established, or 8-12 times a year if you are just starting out. This may mean planning a day with models, hair and makeup artists, scouting locations for your shoot, finding great costumes, etc. You can do this on the cheap by using models trying to break into the field, and makeup artists that need to expand their portfolio and will work for free – but it is still lots of work.

The rest of this article will discuss commercial photographers, as that is what I am and what I know the best. Commercial photographers mostly produce images to sell a product or service. Their clients include advertising agencies, graphic design studios, web designers and corporations. Some of the images sold might be for annual reports or events like sales meetings, and this might be called public relations, but it is still selling the idea of the company’s brand if not directly selling a product. Commercial photographers work for themselves, and their income goes up and down as the economy rises and falls. Corporations tend to cut back on advertising during a bad economy, and use last year’s pictures again instead of shooting new ones.


If you are going to go to school to become any kind of photographer working for yourself, I recommend that you study the following subjects in addition to photography:

· Marketing
· Advertising
· Website design
· Search Engine Optimization
· Sales
· Business
· Accounting (optional, but very useful)
· Public Relations

Yes, I know that many photography programs offer one class in marketing, but trust me; there are thousands of would-be photographers flipping hamburgers and parking cars that didn’t study their marketing well enough. It doesn’t matter how great, how amazing, how talented you are as a photographer, if your potential clients don’t have your work in front of them, they can’t hire you. If your photography business fails, it will be from poor marketing in more cases than from poor photography.

The single most important tool in marketing a commercial photography business is the photographer’s website. This is your window to the world, your opportunity to show the world your skills and how you think. How you present your portfolio online will determine how many clients you will get 9 times out of 10. This is why I recommend that you learn to build websites yourself. Do you really want to trust something this important to someone else?

Also, it doesn’t matter if you have an awesome website, if when a potential client types in the keywords “New York Commercial Photographer” and your website is listed as number 224,016 on the 84 page. If your site is not on the first page, you will miss most of your potential clients, and nobody has the time or patience to look beyond the second page of listings. This is why you need to learn about Search Engine Optimization, at least to read a book and a few articles on the topic.

There are many ways to reach your potential clients – advertising agencies, graphic design studios, web designers and corporations – but direct mail, telemarketing, magazine advertisements and email blasts are the most common. All of these methods usually invite the potential client to visit the photographer’s website. Some photographers mail out “mini portfolios” or small books of sample photographs. This gets more attention than a postcard with a single image. Many top advertising photographers have an agent who takes care of the marketing part of the business for them in exchange for a percentage of the fees. However, for every good agent that will get the photographer lots of jobs, there are three lazy ones that will do nothing and expect to get paid for it. Beware! Note that agents usually are not willing to represent photographers’ fresh out of school without an existing client base, so you still need to know the marketing stuff just to get an agent.


Commercial photographers need lots of gear, and none of it is cheap. A professional quality digital camera and three lenses will cost from $6,000 to $45,000, and most photographers have several cameras. Also note that like computers, digital cameras get outdated quickly, and the latest, higher mega pixel, better color digital camera is just a few months away. You will have to update your camera body every two or three years if the current trend continues.

Lighting gear can be just as costly. I own 5 lighting kits, two of them ProFoto kits with 4 heads each. One kit is the power pack type which I use in the studio; the other kit is made up of 4 mono lights which I travel with. I have a backup power pack, and a backup set of mono lights, and a battery powered lighting kit. All this lighting gear is worth more than $50,000, and has to be upgraded, maintained, insured, repaired and kept up. I usually spend several thousand a year just on repair of lights.

I had an assistant that graduated from one of America’s top photography schools, and paid close to $100,000 for her degree. She had a good digital camera body, but could only afford one lens, and had no lights several years after graduating, but still had to pay student loans. She is a great photographer, but needed to learn more about marketing and business – the school didn’t teach her enough on that topic even with a 3 year degree. She cannot shoot most of the jobs that come her way because she has no lights. So if you are planning to spend a bundle on photography school, maybe you should spend half that much and spend the rest of the money on photography gear.

I am a self-taught photographer; I read books and experimented with lights until I learned how to shoot. Three months after getting my first camera I was shooting for brochures for a nonprofit organization. I didn’t train with another photographer; I just read books and tried what I read. However, I think the traditional route of going to school and then working in a studio is a better and faster way to learn the trade. I think the definition of success in commercial photography is to be able to be in control of your own schedule, your own career, your own life and the direction you are taking. To be able to do what you love and get paid for it is a great gift, as most people hate or tolerate their jobs, and dread going to work each day. Even if you are only able to just get by, pay your bills, and have a small home, being your own boss is worth the lower salary.

Call 213-434-3344 for more information.

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.