4 min Read
June 2, 2011

10 tips for better nonprofit photos

Rebecca Hume

It happens far too often. An incredible nonprofit with a mind-blowing mission comes to us, eager to create a snazzy new website or fundraising piece. We get to the part where we ask what they’ve got by way of photos and discover…not much. Sure, stock images are okay for some things (particularly women laughing alone with salad), but there’s just no substitute for real photos that bring your programs to life.

Now, we realize that not everybody has the money to set up a professional photo shoot, but there’s plenty of opportunity for you to take high-quality photos yourself. Here are 10 tips we’ve put together to help you do it:

1. Think beyond events. Sure, everyone’s all smiles at your annual benefit, but it’s your day-to-day programs that convey what you’re really about. The most powerful and inspiring photos are the ones that provide a window into the work you do and the people you help. So lose the sequined gown and plan a trip to your program sites instead.

2. Be prepared…but not too prepared. You don’t want to catch anyone off guard (or, heaven forbid, on a bad hair day), so let the people you’re photographing know what day you’ll be coming. Just make sure they know not to dress up or do anything out of the ordinary.

3. Don’t say cheese. For most people, it’s reflex to smile for the camera. But candid photos are often more effective for showing the interactions and emotions at the heart of your work. Tell the people you’re photographing that you just want them to keep doing what they’d normally do, and not pay attention to the camera. This way, you’ll get a more honest and realistic view of things.

4. Consider the details. As much as you want your photos to be realistic, reality isn’t always pretty. So as the photographer you’ll need to think a little about composing your shots. Is there an awkward void in the middle of your frame or something distracting going on in the background? You may need to spruce up the setting or try shooting from another angle. Pay attention to the lighting and try to avoid backlit subjects or weird shadows. And if you know you aren’t allowed to show hats or items with logos in your final photos, ask people to remove them.

5. Get close. Instead of trying to capture a whole scene a single photo, try focusing in on specific people or interactions. While you may lose a little context, images that clearly capture faces and expressions are generally more compelling. Details of hands or close-ups of objects related to your work can also be nicely evocative, so think creatively.

6. Shoot lots of frames. Remember when cameras had film that cost money to develop? Well, those days are gone and in the age of digital there’s no reason you shouldn’t go crazy, snapping away as fast as your fingers can go. One of the biggest mistakes you can make is spending a lot of time trying to set up that one perfect shot. Instead, take ten and you can sort out the duds later.

7. Embrace color. Make sure your camera’s always set to shoot in color. It’s a simple Photoshop fix to convert color photos to black-and-white, but pretty much impossible to do the other way around. Similarly, leave any experiments with special filters or effects for post-production.

8. Use high resolution. Resolution refers to the number of little dots or pixels that make up a photographic image. The higher the resolution, the larger you can use the image with it still looking crisp. Sadly, clients sometimes send us nicely composed photos, but the resolution is so low that they’re virtually unusable. The solution? First, use an actual camera–not your phone–and, second, always set it to high resolution. Most digital cameras have a superfine setting, which will give you the best quality and the most flexibility for your photos.

9. Always get permission. Legally, you need signed model releases from everyone in your photos before you can use them on your materials. It’s best to get permission before the shoot rather than after. This way, if it turns out someone’s not comfortable with you using their image, you can simply leave them out of your photos.

10. Take your camera everywhere. If you pay attention, there are opportunities to take great pictures all the time. And the more you take, the more your designers will have to work with. Plus, photo documentation of your programs can come in handy beyond communications pieces: photos are often an integral part of grant proposals, they can be turned into projected slideshows for donor events, or even become great artwork to hang in your office.

Do you have other tips you’d suggest for taking great photos? Leave a comment and let us know.