Church Photography: Using Storytelling To Drive Emotion

Storytelling is an ancient art form that is innate to all of us. The ability to tell and understand stories is a driving factor behind the emotional response.

Storytelling is a powerful tool that can drive emotion when used strategically. To tell stories using photography one should shoot candid photos, shoot from various perspectives, and understand the use of context.

It’s crucial for church photographers to understand the importance of storytelling and how to properly shape the stories behind their images.

Why Is Storytelling Important In Church Photography?

Storytelling is an art form that has been around forever. The reason it is such a powerful tool is that we, as humans, have to make decisions constantly. That is why we like to have as much information as possible so we can make inferences about the effects of our decisions.

Take the Bible for example, we read it to learn about God and to draw closer to Him. Our aim while reading the Bible is to learn more about God’s character and build our relationship with Him.

For this reason, storytelling is heavily linked to emotion, especially when used in photography. In photography, storytelling is what elevates a photo from being “just a picture” to a snapshot from an actual moment in time.

Humans like to have some form of a linear timeline to follow, we like to be able to make inferences about what is happening based on the information displayed in the photo.

Our photos can have a profound effect on people emotionally. That’s why we should use storytelling and emotion to point others toward God.

For more information about emotion in photography, I have an article outlining how to capture emotion in church photography.

Shoot Candid Photos

Candid photography involves taking unposed photos of a person, group, or animal. This means that the subjects of these photos are unaware they are being photographed or have no direction from the photographer. Because of this, the photos come across as more natural and authentic.

Using candid photos is an excellent way to capture a snapshot of a moment in time. The aim is to capture your subject when their guard is down, this will lead to them showing genuine, unfiltered emotion.

The story you are capturing can be clear or can require inference from the viewer. Both have their place in photography and can be used strategically to make an impact on the viewer. Consider the photo above of the hot dog. It may seem random, but it has a place and serves a purpose.

This was taken at a church community event, and although at face value it seems simple and straightforward, the viewer gets a clear picture of what is happening in the photo.

Using this photo for a newsletter announcing a similar community event at face value indicates that there’s probably going to be food, and it will likely be a fun time. The undertones of this photo are that the church hosting the event is there to serve you and its surrounding community.

Now, that may seem like a bit of a stretch, but these types of undertones take root in our minds without us realizing it, and that’s why companies sink millions of dollars a year into marketing.

If you’re interested in candid photography, I have an entire article outlining why candid photography is important in church photography.

Change Your Perspective

When I think of the greatest stories ever told, whether in film or writing, one of the first things I always consider is this; what perspective is this written from?

Now, perspective can have two meanings; the visual way you see the world (first, second, third person), or your understanding of the world given your experience.

First, let’s talk about the visual perspective that we shoot from. A common mistake that a lot of beginner photographers make is that they take photos from eye level. What’s wrong with this? Aside from the fact that eye-level changes from person to person, nothing is really wrong with it, but by shooting from eye level you miss the opportunity to change the emotion behind your image.

Shooting from the top down, looking down on your subject, makes it look small and gives the viewer a position of power. Think about all those movie scenes of parents scolding their children, the camera is always looking down on the kid because we’re looking from the parent’s perspective (first person).

Conversely, shooting looking up at your subject makes them look bigger and more in control. There’s a sense of freedom in the subject when looking up at them.

For us photographers, we can really only control visual perspective, but that isn’t to say that world view doesn’t affect our images. Every person who views our images come from a different perspective as everyone has unique life experiences.

It’s worthwhile to consider who is going to be viewing your images when sharing them, as that may change how they are perceived. There are so many factors that shape one’s perspective; culture, age, location, all of these things can shape the perceived story behind your image.

Understand Context & Use It Strategically

Context, at its core, is supporting information. In photography, it’s not a binary choice of “you’re giving context or you’re not”, instead it’s a scale of how much context you’re going to add and how that will affect the story behind your image.

When I say context, there are two different ways you can think about it; while shooting and while displaying your images.

Let’s start by breaking down how to use context to your advantage while shooting. while composing your image consider the background of the shot. How will the background add or take away from your image? Sometimes it’s better to blur the background of your shots and isolate the subject, it gives a sense of introspection and draws the viewer closer to the subject.

Leaving the background in focus along with the subject helps show that the subject is part of a greater narrative and that there is more to the story than just them. Take the photo of the congregation member worshipping above as an example.

If I were to zoom out a bit and leave the background in focus, that would quickly turn into a photo of a congregation worshipping together. Now, the photo turns from introspective to community driven. This is just one way you can use context to shape the story behind your image.

The second way to think about context, supporting information while displaying your images, is more straightforward. Giving context while displaying your images can be as simple as writing a description of it and asking prompting questions about it.

Going back to the example of a newsletter, in the body of it you could mention that, as in previous years, hot dogs will be provided and reference the photo above. That paints a clear picture of what is happening in the photo and when it happened.

Another way of adding context while displaying your images is to show them in batches. Instead of just one photo, show four or five, or even create an online gallery. What this does is creates movement and a timeline.

It’s the same idea as taking a video, after all, videos are just a bunch of pictures shown in sequence. The benefit of showing a group of photos instead of a video is that you can pick and pull specific moments in time, or frames, to shape your story.

Jeremy Goh

Jeremy grew up volunteering at church and has also worked in a church setting. Along with working as a freelance creative, Jeremy is studying for a business degree in finance and international business.

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