We think it’s a great idea to have a page on your church website dedicated to introducing your staff and/or church leaders. In fact, we think it’s so important that we wrote a two-part blog about it here. But, as we know all too well here at Gospel Powered, images can make or break a website. Bad photos can make an average website look terrible, and brilliant photos can make a simple website look stunning.
But the secret is, it doesn’t take much to get hold of really lovely portrait photos for your church website. You don’t need to go out and hire a professional photographer charging upwards of $200 per hour. All you need is an entry level DSLR camera and some basic understanding of how its settings work.
The gear – Camera Body
First off, we think it’s a really good idea for your church to invest in a DSLR camera. This isn’t just for taking photos – if you buy the right camera, you can also use it to shoot lovely videos which can be used to welcome visitors to your website, advertise important announcements in a News Video, or promote an upcoming event, course or opportunity.
If your budget is tight, you can’t go wrong with the Canon 1200D (also called the Canon Rebel T5 in America). The Canon 1200D replaced the Canon 1100D (Rebel T3), and will soon be replaced again by the 1300D (Rebel T6), but all of these entry-level DSLRs are very similar, and boast almost identical features. The beauty of these cameras is you can often get them for under $400 new, and even less second-hand. They have a crop sensor, which is a fancy way of saying the sensor isn’t as large as the sensors in full-frame (i.e., more expensive!) cameras, but that shouldn’t affect you too much. The sensor is an important part of the camera, and a larger sensor does correlate to better quality images, but if your budget is limited, there is absolutely no harm in buying a crop sensor camera.
If you have a little more money to work with, the Canon 6D is a fantastic option for churches. Coming in at around $1600 when purchased online, it’s a significant investment, but one that’s sure to pay off. Unlike the Canon 1100/1200/1300D, it’s a full-frame camera, meaning your images will be sharper, your range of light and colours will be greater, and the 6D also allows you to shoot larger video than the entry-level DSLRs. This is the camera of choice at my church and hasn’t yet let us down!
Another camera to try…
As a general rule, I only like to review products I have personally used, and being a Canon person myself, I’m very experienced and satisfied with their range of DSLRs. But there is one camera that is often praised in church media circles as being the ideal camera to own for both video and stills photography – the Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH4. The price of this camera is around the same ballpark as the Canon 6D, and its feature list certainly seems impressive. Many churches love its superb ability to capture slow motion footage and shoot at 4K – two areas where Canon falls short. Having never tried it myself, and being a loyal Canon consumer, I’m not going to tell you to go out and buy it straight away, but with the amount of people in churches who love this camera, I think it definitely deserves a hearing!
The gear – Lenses
When it comes to lovely portrait photography – here’s another secret. The camera you use doesn’t really matter that much. What actually matters is the lens. When taking a photo of a single subject (or group of subjects), the difference between an average photo and a great photo is depth-of-field, which is achieved by a large aperture, which you get when you buy the right kind of lens.
At the risk of throwing around a bunch of photography terms, understanding aperture is so important. There’s a lot of freely available information on the internet that can help you get your head around aperture and we’ll post some links at the end, but here it is in a nutshell: Aperture controls how wide the lens opens when you take a photo. If you open the lens as wide as it goes, that’s called having a large aperture, and corresponds to a low f-stop number on your camera lens. A large aperture (wide open lens) means the subject is in focus, and the background is blurred. It makes your subject pop against the lovely, silky, blurry, bokeh background (bokeh is just a term that means blurred or out of focus). A small aperture (narrow lens opening) means the subject is in focus, along with some of the background. The smaller your aperture, the more of the background will be in focus. This is important for certain types of photography, like landscape photography or when you’re shooting a large number of people at different distances. But for portraits of a single person, you want a nice, wide open aperture, ideally at around f/2.8.
Every lens you buy will list either a single f number, or a range of f numbers. Cheaper lenses will have an f-stop range of around 3.5 to 5.6, depending on how zoomed in you are. The problem with these cheaper lenses (which you often get included in your kit when you first buy an SLR camera), is that f/5.6 is actually a relatively small aperture. If you take a photo of a subject using an aperture of f/5.6, the background might be blurred, but it also might not. There are lots of factors involved, the main one being the distance the subject is from the background. But like we said earlier, an ideal f-stop number for portrait photography is f/2.8, and you’re unlikely to get an aperture this wide on your cheap kit lens.
Our favourite cheap lens
This is why we highly recommend you get your hands on a lens like the Canon 50mm f/1.8. This lens is super cheap (you can snatch them up for $100 or less when you buy second-hand), and if you’ve previously only been using the kit lens that came with your camera, you won’t believe the difference! As you can tell from the name, the aperture opens as wide as f/1.8. That means if you set the aperture to f/2.8, your subject will be sharp and in focus, with the background becoming all creamy and blurry.
Be careful about setting the aperture too wide. Although the lens is capable of opening up all the way to f/1.8, by doing this, you run the risk of focusing on something like the subject’s nose, with the rest of their face being out of focus. Stick to f/2.8 and you’ll be fine.
An added bonus of using a lens with a large aperture is that a wide open lens lets in more light, so even if you’re in a low lit setting, more light can get into your camera and your images will be brighter. To learn more about aperture and depth-of-field, check out this link or this link.
The only down side of the Canon 50mm f/1.8 is that it’s by no means a telephoto lens. It’s a good “all rounder”, in that it can capture up-close portraits, as well as far back landscape spans, but it doesn’t serve well at all if you want photos taken during your actual church service. Being a Prime Lens, it doesn’t zoom at all. It’s fixed at 50mm, which means if you want to “zoom”, you physically move your body closer to the subject you’re shooting. If you want a photo of your pastor preaching a sermon on Sunday, you’re not going to get a good shot with this lens unless you’re actually standing up on stage waiting to get a good angle. To be able to capture “live action” shots of people in your church service, you’re going to need a much longer lens, but these come with a hefty price tag. For shots of our preacher and music team, we love using the Canon 70-200mm f/2.8 IS ii, but at over $2500, you’re unlikely to be jumping to buy one. But there are options! There are many stores that do both short term and long term rentals, so if you have an event coming up and you know you’ll want a photographer, a great option is to rent a lens for the weekend. Take advantage of the fact that you’ve got it, and team up with your Youth Group or Worship Team and arrange to get photos and footage of a number of different ministries, all on the same weekend. Another option is to fake it! Before or after church, have your pastor or music team stand on stage, pretending to preach/sing/play, and shoot away! No one will know the difference, and it means you can stage your shots perfectly. No crazy eyes, no weird faces – you can position your subjects exactly as you want. There’s definitely no shame in faking (or should I say staging?) your photos!
But I digress – back to taking portraits for your church website! Now that you’ve got your hands on a great camera and lens, it’s time to take those portraits. You need to find a place to take the photo, but there are a number of factors to consider, and they really all come down to light and distance from the background. You could start off looking for a place to shoot indoors. Perhaps in your church foyer or auditorium. Remember how we spoke about bokeh before? That beautiful, blurry look we get in the background if our portraits are set up correctly? That’s primarily achieved by a large aperture (low f number), but that’s not all there is to it! Another way to ensure a creamy, blurry background is to ensure your subject is standing as far away as possible from the background. The further away they stand, the blurrier your background will be. So don’t just stand someone with their back touching a brick wall. Get them to step away from the background, as far as is practical, and your photos will instantly turn out better! You may have an appropriate place inside your church building. But you may find that indoors is just too dark. You may find you can produce enough light on the subject by holding a big white sheet or piece of card to reflect light onto their face, but if that’s still not enough, you’ll need to head outside.
Natural light is by far the best way to take photos, but if used incorrectly, it can have disastrous consequences! There are two kinds of light you want to avoid – harsh light and dappled light. Harsh light is where the subject is out in the open sun, normally around midday, and when you go to take the photo they’re either squinting, have half their face in shadow, or both. It will ruin your photos and you’ll be kicking yourself afterwards. Instead, take the photos on a cloudy day, or find yourself some shade. But with shade comes our second warning – dappled light. If it’s a sunny day and your shade is produced by a leafy tree, make sure there’s no dappled light coming down from above the leaves. Just as shadows from harsh light can ruin your photos, so can dappled light. You subject will have spots of light appearing on their otherwise shaded face and they’ll just look weird! Find yourself a big, unhindered, shaded area, position the subject so that they are a far distance away from the background, and shoot away. You may like to sit them on a stool, or stand on a step yourself, if you need some extra height to take the shot.
Ideally you want to be shooting in manual mode, using your light meter to set your shutter speed and ISO appropriately, but that may be too advanced for some right now. If that’s the case, never fear – we’ll cover shutter speed and ISO in a separate module, but for now, put your camera into Aperture Priority mode (Av for Canon users), set your aperture to f/2.8, and your camera will automatically adjust the remaining settings.
This may seem like a lot of information to read through purely to take staff portrait photos for your website, but the photography skills you learn here will prove to be so valuable across all areas of your church. The same techniques discussed here are used to take photos of kids and youth enjoying their various programs, photos of Bible Study leaders, people getting baptised, and even just photos of your building! Once you’ve mastered the art of taking great photos, they can be used to breath life into not only your website, but your social media, your print media, and your videos, since most of what you learn about photography is transferable to video too! Take the time to learn your camera and get the most out of it – it’s absolutely worth it!