Lessons learned from 18 years of worship photography in church

The Church of England has just published some really good tips on ‘taking great church photos’ at their excellent Labs Learning series. For the last eighteen years I’ve been helping churches tell the their story with still pictures of worship and other activities. Here’s some extra encouragements

Photograph worship. It’s invitational

LLM Jonathan De Ville reads the lesson at All Saints North Baddesley.

I’m an advocate of photographing during worship. I’ve found images of the gathered people of God are powerfully invitational. People look different during worship irrespective of the praxis of your church. The presence of Jesus whether it is with two or three, or two or three hundred, people is powerful.

Be at worship when you are working

The Baptism of Kymm at Highfield Church. Winner CT photo competition 2014

When you set out to tell the story of God at work, be at worship. For this time, in this place, make this work your worship. In this way, and this way only, you can tell the stories and take the images God desires.

in some churches your priest might consider ‘blessing’ or ‘commending’ your work. It’s intangible but there is nothing wrong with invoking God’s care for your work. Top tip – if signing things with the cross is something that happens a lot where you worship – invite it to be done on the camera strap not the lens…

Build stories not snaps:

Revd Graham Archer late of Highfield Church prepares the register for signing at a marriage.

People want to see stories unfolding. For that you need a plan and you need to edit. There is no secret to edit: just ruthlessly cull the images that don’t belong in the story. There is power too in seeing things that are normally unseen.

If you are building a thematic story, you will do better to take a couple of weeks or longer to get the images you need. This might not work for event driven stories, but for example for baptisms if there are amazing reflections in the font in the church you can legitimately photograph them before hand.

Plan ahead and scout locations for photo taking

Christening (Baptism) of Oliver James at All Saints in North Baddesley. Depending on the image you are seeking – you have to choose the location

This is one is from Labs Learning. It’s so important to plan and scout before taking any images. If you are photographing a service where there is a rehearsal: go to it. please… Here are some specific tips

  • Be as low profile as possible. Pillars, Organs, worship groups, pulpits, and pews can all make good shelters while still permitting you to capture excellent images.
  • Avoid shooting either looking straight east or west in the church. Aim for cross angles e.g. NW / SE
  • Don’t move unless you have to. Aim to stay in one place for the whole service. If you do move move during other movement or during music

Be honest: be righteous.

In most photography for churches – you are taking images which are representing reality. That means, in my view that, pictures must always speak truth. My rule is simple. I don’t alter images. Ever. If you start doing it people will keep asking and ‘broad is the way that leads to destruction’

Specifically I don’t ever add or subtract elements from a photograph. I limit my use of digital editors to These include cropping, dodging and burning, conversion into grayscale, and normal toning and colour adjustments that should be limited to those minimally necessary for clear and accurate reproduction and restoring the authentic (truth) of the photograph. Essentially I strongly suggest following the guide that the Associated Press publish

Pay attention to permissions and document your shoots

It is good that people are becoming more conscious over their privacy rights. Not to think about what level of permissions you need for any photography you are doing is to dishonour the congregation that is giving you the responsibility and honour of capturing what God is doing among them.

Document your images. God willing you will amass lots of good stuff. If you don’t know who was in the picture, or what event it was taken at, much of the future communications value it has disappears. The ‘art’ value remains, but for this purpose we are less interested in that.

This is also a safeguarding consideration. You are making a contemporaneous record of an event. If you document the what, where, when and as much as possible who of a photograph, it can provide investigators (sometimes many years in the future) with unique insights.

Laugh when it doesn’t work.

Making images in churches is hard. Really hard. If you could imagine a worse place to take a picture – often it’s hard. Dark, complex layouts, weird angles, buildings that tilt, unstable floors, steps, level changes. We have it all and more. There will be times when it all goes horribly wrong.

In my case as a wheelchair user it happens quite a lot. Like the self portrait driving down a ramp during which the ramp collapsed… So laugh when it doesn’t work. Sit back and work out what went wrong and go back for  another go.

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