How To Improve Your Church Photography With Composition

The adage “rules were made to be broken” rings true with photography; not every rule needs to be followed. That being said, you need to know the rules before breaking them. Composition is an essential skill that can improve your church photography drastically if done correctly.

There are several ways to use composition to improve your church photography. These include; the rule of thirds, using leading lines, the Fibonacci spiral, using negative space, and using light to shape your image. Understanding each of these concepts can improve your church photography drastically.

Mastering composition takes more than simply knowing its definition; keep reading as I explain how to apply different composition guidelines to your photography.

Rule of Thirds

The rule of thirds is possibly one of the most widely used composition techniques. It divides a photo into even thirds, vertically and horizontally, creating a three-by-three grid with nine segments. It also has four intersects that you can use to frame your photo.

The shot above is divided into three sections; the sky, the mountain, and the waterfront. Notice how the highest peak is centred horizontally, but vertically the third runs between the highest and lowest peak. Also, notice how the houses on the water were included in the same third as the water itself because the harbour gives context to the boat. Each third could be its own image and need no extra context.

Using the rule of thirds guides the viewer’s focus through the image. It can also serve to create asymmetry in your image. It brings a new flavour to your images instead of center framing every one of your shots.

Most cameras have live overlays built into their displays for the rule of thirds. It’s also possible to crop and position your photo in post-production, making it easier to try different framings. Experiment with shooting your subject on each of the four intersects, in the center of the frame and in different thirds, whether verticle or horizontal.

Let’s say you do a portrait shoot of your pastor for your church’s website. If you’re taking a shot of them looking off to the right of the frame, you wouldn’t want to have them framed all the way to the right of the image. If you do, all the space behind them becomes negative, and the viewer is left wondering, “what are they looking at.” If you frame them to the left, looking right, the viewer gets a glimpse into where the subject’s focus is drawn.

Another way to use the rule of thirds in your church photography is to consider how your photo will be used and frame it accordingly. Is your photo of this mountain going to be the background of a sermon slide? Maybe you want the subject on one side of the frame so your pastor can put text on the other. Is your photo of a book going on your church’s small group website page? You may want to frame this as a hero shot, centring your subject, leaving only the top third and some of each side as negative space.

Leading Lines

Using leading lines is a composition technique that uses lines in an image to lead the viewer’s focus to the photograph’s subject. These lines can be naturally occurring, such as a treeline, or human-made, such as a hiking trail or road.

An easy way to think about leading lines is to imagine a viewer reading your photograph like they would a book. Their brain looks at the photo and interprets the information accordingly, except instead of lines of text, they will have leading lines in your image to follow.

These lines don’t have to be straight, only easy to follow. Once you pick your subject, look around its surroundings. Is there anything guiding your eyes to the subject? This takes practice, but once you have it down, it can be a lot of fun.

Take the example at the start of this section for instance. It uses the winding road to guide the viewer’s attention down the street. This is a great example of a photo that uses leading lines but doesn’t have a clear subject. The subject of this photo is the street itself; the fact that it bends off instead of ending makes it look seemingly endless.

This composition type is fun when you are shooting for your church. There can be a lot of meaning behind your photos with leading lines. For example, shooting a winding road up a hill leading to a mountain. That road is a leading line leading to your subject, the mountain. I’m sure there are countless analogies that a pastor can draw from that if used in their sermon.

If you know your photo will be used for a graphic, you may even want to use leading lines to guide you to negative space. It may look off when you shoot and edit it, but once the graphic is on the image, the lines will smoothly guide your focus right to the graphic.

The key to using leading lines in church photography is intentionality. Be intentional with how you shoot your images and how you use them. Don’t just add leading lines because they’re available; consider how they affect the viewer and how they affect the story behind your image.

The Fibonacci Spiral

The Fibonacci spiral is a somewhat tricky composition technique that can take some time to understand fully. It is derived from the golden ratio, which, numerically, is roughly 1.618:1. To explain it very simply, you take a rectangle that incorporates the golden ratio and keeps subdividing by that same golden ratio. Once you have done that, you draw circular arcs that connect until you have the Fibonacci spiral.

Creating it is not incredibly important, as most editing software can overlay it for you. It’s more important that you know how to use it. Seeking out the Fibonacci spiral while shooting can be difficult if you haven’t practiced.

To start out, look at photos you have already taken. Try fitting the Fibonacci spiral to them to train your eye. In practice, you don’t want to keep using the Fibonacci spiral because it’s cool; use it only when it improves your composition. The Fibonacci spiral shows up naturally in many places; one easy example is the spiral of a hermit crab shell. It won’t work well on every image, and that’s okay. Don’t try and force the spiral into somewhere it doesn’t fit naturally.

Use Negative Space

Negative space is the area surrounding the subject that contains no discernable information. There are many uses for negative space; it can be used to build emotion and tell a story, and it can also be used to guide the viewer’s focus to the subject of the image.

Look for parts of your image that seemingly have no purpose, such as snow-covered ground or a blank sky. Consider how you can use those to strengthen your image. A great way to use negative space is to help simplify your image when the subject is heavily textured. It will help prevent your viewer from getting overwhelmed by a large amount of information.

Negative space is great for church photography because it can accentuate the subject of your photo for sermon slides, social media, and websites, or it can be used to make room for graphics. As I discussed, with the rule of thirds and leading lines, you can make negative space as the subject of your photo to insert a new subject later.

The photo at the start of this section is an excellent example of negative space. The sky’s texture and the trees’ framing make it interesting visually, but they also leave room for graphics to be put on top of the image.



Above is an example of using negative space to make a thumbnail for a worship cover. This shot is negative-space focused; that is to say, the photo’s subject is negative space. That makes it perfect for putting graphics or, in this case, text right in the middle.

It’s a really cool technique that requires a bit of foresight and planning. Though you can take these shots and adapt them later on, I recommend creating a shot list beforehand if you are shooting for a specific purpose (website, sermon, etc.).

For more information on shot lists, check my article outlining how to create a church photography shot list.

Another example might be that you are creating a graphic for a book study and want a photo as the background. Take multiple shots with negative space framed differently; the entire photo could even be negative space. This will give you lots of freedom later and extra shots down the road when you have similar projects.

Use Light To Shape Your Image

Light can be a great tool to control your image’s look, feel, or even focus. Every aspect of light can shape your image; the type of light you use, where the light is coming from, its colour, and how you diffuse it are some key ways to shape your image.

You can use two types of light in your image; natural and artificial. Natural light includes sunlight and, by extension, moonlight. Natural light has its benefits and drawbacks. One main benefit is that it’s accessible and consistent; you will always have access to sunlight or moonlight. Artificial light includes everything else; light bulbs, LED lights, studio lights, and more. These lights give you more control over temperature, colour, and intensity but cost more and are less accessible.

The angle you use to light your subject matters as much as your lighting type. Two widespread types of lighting are backlighting and side lighting. Backlighting is, just as the name suggests, where you place the light source behind your subject, creating a silhouette. This does an excellent job of separating your subject from the background and making it stand out. Side lighting is widespread in Hollywood films and portraits. Its name comes from the light source placed on the subject’s side. This lighting creates depth and dimension to your image and, when combined with soft light, creates a beautiful light roll-off.

The photo above is a perfect example of how backlighting can be used. This was taken at sunset; the sun was right behind the Marina Bay Sands, creating a beautiful glow and separating it from the sky. Another thing to look at is how the light rolls off after hitting the building; having the right angle will help the light to roll off a lot smoother.

The colour of your light is a creative choice that can affect the story behind your image and the composition. Lighting your subject using a softbox light may seem simple, but once you have your light positioned, you then need to choose how warm or cool your light will be. Daylight, for example, is denoted on a scale called “Kelvin” and can be found between 5000K to 6000K. If you want to be extra creative, you can use different colours to light your subject. One thing to be cautious of if you choose to use different colours is to manually set your white balance and shoot RAW so you can adjust it later.

The easiest way to think about diffusion and why you may want to use it is to think of a lamp. We put lampshades on our lights so they’re less intense and have a wider spread. Diffusion works the same way; you pass your light source through a diffuser to soften it and spread it out. This doesn’t only apply to artificial light; it applies to natural light too. Clouds act as diffusers for the sun, so if you have a shoot outside and the lighting seems too harsh, try waiting for a cloud to block the sun or bring your own diffuser.

Above is a photo from the inside of a forest; it is naturally lit by the sun, which has been diffused through clouds and foliage. What’s interesting about this photo is that the foliage diffuses the sunlight and is also part of the subject. The sun hits the foliage and is diffused, giving it a cool glow. This is just one example of how you can use diffusion creatively, don’t be afraid to include your diffuser in your image.

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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