How to improve your organization’s photos when you can’t hire a professional

Last week I wrote about why context matters in visual storytelling.

You might be thinking, “OK yes, I agree. That’s great. But my organization’s communications department is so strapped for cash that we can’t afford to hire a professional photographer anyway. And even the word ‘department’ is a bit of a stretch because that ‘department’ consists of one person: me.”

Hiring a professional photographer if often worth the investment. But many times, given the financial constraints of the development world, it’s just not possible. We have our partners in the country, but they’re busy trying to implement the programs. We send our own program staff to check on the projects or lead training sessions, but few of them moonlight as photographers.

Don’t give up hope.

Thankfully, cameras have become cheaper and more accessible in every part of the world. In fact, most of us always carry one with us on our phones. It is true that professional DSLRs produce much higher quality images than point-and-shoot or smartphone cameras. And professional photographers are artists whose talent and work should not go unappreciated (for example, most of us probably won’t be able to produce photo essays like this).

But I’ll let you in on a little secret: composition matters more than professional equipment. Even a photo from a cell phone camera can tell a good story.

There are a few things that we can share with our teams to improve the stories we tell through photographs. In fact, the advantage of having field and program staff take these photos is that they know the context. They have already built relationships with many of the people whose stories we’re trying to tell. This context can help produce a photo that provides nuance. It might even tell a story that an outsider wouldn’t even notice.

By keeping a few concepts and principles in mind, we can do a better job of showing these stories with the resources we have. The following list just touches on the basics of composition. Yet it speaks to some of the most common issues that I’ve seen when reviewing photos from colleagues. I have also found these tips to be helpful in improving my own photography.

  • First, ask who or what this image is about. That’s your focal point. Build up from there.
  • For well-balanced, more visually appealing images, try to follow the Rule of Thirds. The theory here is that if you place your point of interest or subject along one of these lines, the viewer will engage more naturally with the photo. By placing the point of interest off-center, you can also bring in the context of the subject’s surroundings, without distracting from who or what the image is about.
Notice where the subject of the photo is placed, and how the rest of the image gives context.
Notice where the subject of the photo is placed, and how the rest of the image gives context. Photo by Stephanie Buck
  • Don’t be afraid to get close! Many of the photos I’ve reviewed for publication might capture an interesting moment, but they are too zoomed out. Cropping the image too much during the editing phase will result in such low image quality that it cannot be published. Generally, a variety of close-up/detail shots as well as ones that give a broader picture of the scene help give context. But filling the frame is so important!
  • Don’t underestimate the power of angles. Are you trying to tell a story about women’s empowerment? Shooting your subject looking slightly up at her will make her look more powerful. Photographing her from above will make her look smaller (and less powerful). A fresh angle can give a fresh edge to your story. That said, the wrong angle can manipulate the viewer and even tell the story in a way that distorts the truth.
Shooting the lion from below makes it look more powerful and majestic.
Shooting the lion from below makes it look more powerful and majestic. Photo by Stephanie Buck.
  • Pay attention to the background. Backgrounds tell stories in themselves. The background can give context to your photo. Or it can distract from the story. The link given here provides some suggestions for how to ‘get backgrounds right.’ But they’re just suggestions. Our mission as development communicators and aid workers is to make sure we’re telling these stories in a way that maintains human dignity, provides nuance, and helps people connect.
On a beach in Rosarito. What story does the background of this photo convey? Photo by Stephanie Buck.

Oh, and one more thing: don’t forget to hold the camera steady. It sounds basic, but it’s easy to feel rushed and not take a few extra seconds to set up the shot properly. But your photo will turn out much better if you stop, make sure the shot looks good in your viewfinder, and use two hands to make sure you’re supporting the camera.

For more composition tips, click here.

We can all do our parts to make sure the stories we tell through photography give context and dignity. When evaluating which photos to use (and once you’ve gotten the appropriate permissions) ask yourself if you were the subject of the photo – would you want this broadcast to the world?

Ideally, it would be great to see more participatory photo projects. Cameras are such powerful tools that can amplify, diminish, confuse, or clarify the stories of the people with whom we work. Our partners have important stories and lessons to share. Let’s make sure we do these stories justice.

What do you think? What other tips, suggestions, or questions do you have?

Ideas to contribute to the discussion? Please comment below

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