How To Capture Emotion In Church Photography

Every church photographer wants to convey the joy of The Lord in their photos, but how do we show emotion without coming across as “corporate-ey” and staged?

There are three key elements to capturing emotion in church photography. You need to shoot candid photographs, pick the right moments, and use the right focal lengths. The combination of these three elements will convey emotion to your viewer.

Keep reading as I explain why genuine emotion is important and how to nail these three key elements.

Why Is Genuine Emotion Important In Church Photography?

There are distinct differences in our facial expressions when we show genuine emotions. Whether you realize it or not, your brain recognizes these differences in others. Whether it be the wrinkles in the corners of your eyes or how your cheeks are positioned when you smile, we all have indicators that show our emotion is or isn’t genuine.

“We can see small nonverbal cues, or microexpressions, in people’s faces when they attempt to hide emotion.”

-Scott Rouse, Understanding Body Language: How to Decode Nonverbal Communication in Life, Love, and Work

Showing genuine emotion in your church photography is a chance to showcase your church family. It’s an opportunity to show what it is like to be a part of your church’s community. People want to be surrounded by a community of loving individuals who are not afraid to be vulnerable. Let your photos help showcase that.

Genuine emotions will also help support your church’s content and tell stories. For example, let’s say your church is writing a congregation member’s testimony as part of a blog post that announces their baptism. You don’t want a staged, corporate-ey headshot at the top of the post. The only emotion those photos convey is the subject being uncomfortable. You want a photo of them with their family and friends, smiling or laughing.

Candid Photography

The best way to show genuine emotions in your photos is to shoot candidly. Candid photography is essentially unposed, unplanned shots. Most of the time, your subject isn’t focused on you taking their photo because they’re either in a conversation or otherwise preoccupied.

An excellent example of this is during a worship set. This is often an emotional time for the congregation and the worship team; no one will be focused on your photos. Always be respectful while shooting, but be adventurous and try lots of different shots.

As for genuine smiles, there is no better way to capture genuine smiles than to find someone who is laughing. Finding someone genuinely laughing, and I mean the type that comes from the gut, you have found photography gold. Now, don’t try to find laughs during sung worship; you’ll end up wasting your time. Instead, show up early to your service or event or stay late and find people casually in conversation.

As it is such a crucial skill to master for church photographers, I wrote a whole article breaking down what candid church photography is and why it is important for you as a creative.

Picking The Right Moment

The term “moment” can be very vague and be used quite loosely. For this article, I use “moment” to mean a potential photo you could take.

To better understand what this means in practice, imagine you are taking photos during a worship set right after the sermon, “Reckless Love” is being played, hands are in the air, people are praying for each other, and others are singing. Each of these events happening is a “moment”; the issue is that they are all happening at the same time.

You need to choose one. Making a timely and efficient decision takes two things; a shot list and practice. If you go into your shoot fully prepared with a shot list, you can focus on the moments you still need to capture as you work your way down the list.

Where the practice comes in is when you get a prime opportunity to capture genuine emotion that isn’t on your shot list. With enough practice, you will be able to decide which shot is better in the long run and if you are able to capture both moments before they end.

You can’t be everywhere at once; come to your shoots prepared and prioritize good emotion and story above a technically good shot. Never sacrifice an emotional moment because “the lighting is better over there” or you “don’t love the angle of that shot.” Take the shot and make those decisions when editing.

Using The Right Focal Length

Using the right focal length is a tough skill to master because it means one of three things; you have to use a zoom lens, you have to switch lenses constantly, or you have to use multiple cameras and switch between them.

Lots of church photographers like to use prime (fixed focal length) lenses because they are often faster. This means they have a lower f-stop (a wider aperture), which lets more light in, helping with the low-light environment often present in church photography.

It is important to understand how each focal length affects both the emotion displayed and the emotional reaction of the viewer of your photos.

A longer (tighter) focal length will result in a more personal shot. This is because the image will be up-close and personal, and the compression of the long focal length will help blur the background, isolating the subject.

A shorter (wider) focal length, on the other hand, will result in a more group or community-focused shot. This is because they include more context and more of the room’s ambience.

To really grasp this concept, consider the photo of the bass player at the start of this section. This was taken at 56mm on an APS-C-sized sensor and is an intimate shot of the bass player worshipping. Had it been taken at a wider focal length, say 23mm, it would show the congregation and probably some other worship team members. Focal length can add or remove context, which is a key concept when it comes to capturing emotion.

Keep in mind this can be somewhat simulated when editing. You can crop your photos in and edit out distracting elements if needed. Though be sure to stay ethical and transparent when editing, I wrote an article discussing if and when it’s appropriate to “Photoshop” your photos.

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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