Moore Consulting Photography

How to take better photos for your blog and social media channels

It’s great to see real organizations posting regularly on Facebook and Twitter, writing blogs and being open and authentic in their communications.

Part of this is strategic — we’re moving away from the old days of a senior figure in the company or non-profit checking every communication that goes out of the place themselves and hiring PR people or ad agencies to polish a message until it shone (even if it didn’t represent the truth of the organization). Now, your audience wants to know what’s it really like behind the scenes, and for its employees to show some of their own personality and that of the organization.

Not all images are the same

But after the strategic comes the practical — you’ve got the plan and now you have to implement it well. So let’s assume that your organisation is writing blog posts, tweeting up a storm and using Pinterest like nobody’s business. You’re taking lots of photos at events or of products, but the problem is that none of the images look very much like the ones you see on the charity: water or ONE sites.

Poor photography makes you look amateurish, and turns the most lavish party into a dull-looking event or an attractive product into an e-Bay advertisement. NYC event organiser Jeremy Norman speaking in a Photoshelter blog post on event photography made it clear: “We’re very big on creating moments in the events — different opportunities for exciting photographs. Because if you’re going to spend one, two, three hundred thousand on an event you definitely want to have memories that are well shot and well photographed.”

You might not spending that much on your events, but the chances are you still need some better photography to create more impact and reflect your organization more positively. And if your blog posts have a more news feel to them, or you case studies tell particular stories, then you also need good photojournalism-style photographs to accompany that content. Finally, if you’re a fundraising organization, photography can play a key role in engaging potential donors.

I can make a very good case for employing a professional (and I’d love it if you’d call me, especially if you want documentary-type work or multimedia), but if that’s not an option here are some key tips to help you get better social media and blogging photos on your own.

1) You don’t need a good camera

Digital SLRs and other expensive bits of gear are really good at delivering great images, so long as the person using them knows what they’re doing. So rushing out and buying a new camera probably won’t help you if you’re going to leave it on auto-everything mode and just use the kit lens it came with. Good pans won’t make you a good cook.

Even with a point and shoot, or a cellphone camera, you can get better images if you concentrate on the points below (except the last one where I explain that you really do need a good camera for some kinds of shots).

Swanee Hunt, founding director of the Women and Public Policy Program (WAPPP) at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, and former United States Ambassador to Austria addresses a Democratic Party fundraiser in Santa Fe.

2) What’s your photo about?

This is the first question to ask as you’re picking up a camera to take an image. You probably know what it’s going to be a photo ‘of’, but that’s not what it’s ‘about’. What are you trying to show or tell with this image? You could take five different photos of a chair and say different things with all five.

Once you know what your’e trying to communicate with the image, it will help you decide what to put in and leave out. Do you want a candid moment, where the subject’s not aware of the camera, or are you going for a posed shot with everyone smiling, for example? What emotion are you trying to capture or communicate? It might not be a very complex idea, but if you’re just snapping away and hoping you get something good, it’s not very likely that you will.

3) Only show what’s important

Most amateur photographers leave too much in the frame when they’re taking a photograph. When you look at the world, your eye focuses on the subject you’re considering at that moment, and you don’t really notice the things around it. But when we look at a photograph, we tend to see everything that’s there, diminishing the visual importance of what’s supposed to be the main topic. So as your’e composing your image, make yourself look all around the frame and check that there’s a reason you’re including all the elements.

Sometimes things are improved by zooming in or getting closer to the main subject, removing some of the clutter. Other times if you move sideways, you’ll exclude a distraction like a sign or a trash can.

4) Head in a clean spot

Many of your photographs will probably include people. Try and make sure their heads aren’t in front of a distracting background. This could be the line of a wall running behind them, or a tree branch appearing to come out of the back of their heads. Watch for part of the background being darker than the people and part of it being lighter. A flat even background will make sure the viewer’s eye stays on the people — and your eye is naturally draw to the light areas of a frame.

5) Put people’s heads near the top of the frame

Unless there’s a good reason not to, try and put the top of people’s head’s near the top of the frame. This is the case whether it’s a tight shot only showing one person’s head and shoulders, or a group shot showing a bunch of people full-length. A lot of cameras’ main focus point is in the middle of the frame, so the tendency is to put that focus point on a face and leave it here, resulting in lots of blank space or clutter in the top of the frame. Cameras that have face recognition can help with this, but you still have to compose in a way that fills the frame.

For extra credit, move the main subject to one side or the other — often, putting things right in the middle sounds like the obvious choice, but in fact placing them to the side creates a more appealing image.

Heads near the top of the frame, out of the full sun, nothing too distracting behind them . . . guests at a MIX Santa Fe event I photographed over the summer

6) Get out of full sun

Especially here in bright New Mexico, shooting outdoors people outdoors in the daytime can be a real challenge. There’s such a contrast between the brightest areas of an image and the dark shadows, that most cameras struggle to capture the full range — either something will be blown out (full white, with no detail), or too dark. And nobody looks good squinting in bright light, or with ‘raccoon eye’ from strong shadows on their faces. So, if you can, photograph people in shade, where they’re looking towards the light. This will mean there’s an even light on them, which is much more flattering, and that they’ll likely have catchlights — little bright spots in their eyes, which bring the images to life.

7) Mix up the range of shots

If you’re shooting an event, make sure to get a range of different types of images. So that could include individual portraits, couples, larger groups, a wide shot of the whole event (sometimes standing on a table or looking for a higher vantage point will help here), and some detail shots (if there’s some nice food on offer, get some images of the spread). Also mix up the landscape (horizontal) shots with the portraits (verticals). Depending on what you’ll be using the images for, being able to give the person laying out the blog post or designing the newsletter a good choice of images can really help.

A details shot from the MIX Santa Fe event.

8) Try not to use the flash

Most cameras built-in flashes make people look washed out and ghostly. The light hits the subject full in the face, and often the background disappears to black — it’s not a good representation of the actual scene. If it’s not too dark, switch the flash off and depending on your camera’s settings also try increasing its ISO (how sensitive the camera is to light). If your images are coming out blurry (because the camera has to use a slow shutter speed to let in enough light for a decent exposure), then you’ll have to turn the flash on, and live with what you get (see the last point on what a good camera can give you).

8) Do some processing afterwards

This is one of the main reasons professionals’ images look much better than amateurs — the pros work on the images after the fact. A bit of time spent cropping some images, or adjusting the contrast or exposure on others can really make a difference. Most pros shoot RAW images, which give greater leeway for adjustments, but even if you’re shooting JPGs, a bit of time improving the images you know you’ll be using can really help. On the Mac, the free iPhoto program can do a good job, but if you’re going to taking a lot of images a program like Apple’s Aperture or Adobe’s Lightroom will give you more powerful adjustment and organizing tools to help you manage your images.

9) You don’t need a good camera, except when you do

For a lot of daytime images, pretty much any camera will give you an acceptable image, there are a few situations where a good camera can get a shot that you just can’t with a phone camera or a point-and-shoot. If you really want a blurred background and the subject in focus, you’ll need a camera with a larger-sized sensor (at least Micro 4/3rds but APS-C or full-frame are better), and a lens with an aperture of around f/2.8 or below (depending on its focal length).

Similarly, these type of features will help you get images in low-light without a flash. For the image at the top of the page — an architects’ event I shot for the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects — I used a Canon 5D MkII and a 50mm f/1.4 prime lens (and wall to put the camera on). Such a shot would have been almost impossible with more consumer-focussed cameras.

If you’re taking shots of fast-moving subjects (sports, or kids for example), you’ll need a camera that focuses quickly and has no shutter lag — so when you press the button, the shutter opens almost instantly.

Time for the professionals

There are times when you need both a good camera and a good photographer behind it. Sometimes what seems like an ordinary location — like a hotel conference room, for example — can have shocking light and be very difficult to shoot in. Or you have just a couple of minutes to get a good image or an important person giving a speech. Or you’re looking for a particular powerful image to use prominently in campaigns. Or you don’t have the time to shoot and edit hundreds of photos from an event because you’re busy hosting the event . . . you get the idea.

Even in more benign circumstances, a professional will almost always deliver a better set of images than the ones you’ll be able to get. Here’s the full set of images I took at that MIX event I’ve mentioned as an example — they present a good picture of a hip summer event instead of looking like a set of party snaps made with a cellphone.

So sometimes you really should call a professional, but other times if you can take these points to heart, you’ll end up with good images for your site or social media needs. If you have any specific questions, feel free to comment below and I’ll try and answer them for you.

- — As well being a professional photographer available for work in New Mexico and elsewhere, I also teach workshops on taking better photos for social media and your site. Get in touch if you’d like more information or you have a project you think would be up my street.

Blog Moore Consulting

Finding your core as a creative professional — where subject, tone and medium meet

Tony Bourdain can teach us a lot about finding your core. And making the perfect beurre blanc. Photo: Sifu Renka

I once saw an interview with polymath academic George Steiner. He’s written on a range of topics and he was asked what field he thought he really belonged in. ‘Fields are for cows,’ he replied.

I too am suspicious of the idea that you have to specialise so thoroughly that you only do one thing. But how do we balance doing interesting work in a number of areas, without spreading ourselves too thin or presenting a confusing message to potential clients? Nobody wants to be seen as a jack of all trades, master of none.

The key is to find that core of your personality that remains consistent, however differently it gets expressed. Especially if we work in creative endeavours, this seems to me to be the real goal of our working life.

Exhibit A — Anthony Bourdain

Let’s start with an example of how this can be done well. Anthony Bourdain is a chef, writer (Kitchen Confidential is so good), TV presenter, publisher, and (it turns out) comic-book creator. Across a wide range of activities and a number of years, he ties it all together by offering a consistent unapologetic version of himself.

“I write, I travel, I eat and I’m hungry for more,’ says the introduction to his No Reservations TV show, and his outspoken, energized, cynical and committed tone in the show is recognizable instantly in his writing.

And when you hear he’s going into comic books, you know what to expect, even if you’re surprised that he’s doing graphic novel work.

Bourdain’s attitude is backed up by his ability, of course. He’s knowledgeable and skilled across the areas he works in, but it all chimes with his personality.

On a corporate scale, moving into new areas is known as brand extension — Calvin Klein make clothes, but also perfumes, home interiors products, sunglasses . . . they’ll tell you they’ve distilled the essence of the brand, and then carried that into whatever new endeavours they’re embarking on.

So how do we do that ourselves?

Where Subject, Tone and Medium meet

And on a personal level, you similarly need to establish what the essence of your personality and offering is — your brand. I used to think this was a process of decision-making — you could sit down with a pen and paper and choose some plausible version of yourself to present to the world.

Now I see it’s less about decision and more about discovery — whatever you decide won’t work unless your heart’s in it — your created version might contain elements of yourself in it, but unless it’s authentically you, it won’t guide you in your work. Even if it fits a gap in the market and calls for you to use your skills, if it doesn’t really chime with you, it will be a thin jacket that won’t keep you warm over time.

The other risk is that you’ll morph yourself to be whatever you think people want you to be. Photographers often fall into this trap — one day they’ll decide that boudoir shoots and one group of pre-sets is for them, the next it’ll be family photography with a different pile of Photoshop actions. It’s clear the photographer doesn’t know themselves well enough to work what they really want to shoot — no wonder potential clients are confused.

One useful way to think about this is this diagram.

Right there — where Tone, Subject and Medium meet — that’s your core. There are lots of things you could cover as your subject area — for Bourdain it’s rooted in food. And there are lots of media you could use to explore this — music, street art, photography, blogging, PhD theses. And there are lots of tones you could employ as you’re producing the work. Bourdain’s is outspoken and darkly funny, Clavin Klein’s upscale, preppy but approachable.

Once you know where you’re rooted, you can move around a bit. Some moves would take you out of the intersection of these circles — for Bourdain, a comic book still works, but a ballet might stretch the tone (and subject matter too far). Or if he kept the tone and media the same, but was suddenly doing a show on quilting, then the subject matter’s gone too far.

Storytelling as my MO

So how does this consistency work for me? I help organizations with their internet presences, do commercial and family photography and write stuff for magazines, blogs and newspapers. I used to keep these elements separate — not telling the web clients I could write, for example, or not telling either I photographed things.

But I realised that what all these elements shared a commitment to storytelling — communicating sometimes complex things in a way that is both entertaining and informative. Documenting reality with attention and skill — across different media, but with subject matter and tone that tie it together.

So with the family photography work, I don’t pose the kids or seek to prettify things. I chase them around (ideally in their own environment) while they do the stuff they’d normally do. How else should I tell their stories accurately?

And the same is true with the website strategy work for organizations. I don’t do cheesy slogans or vapid marketing sites — I help organizations tell authentic stories about what they do and how they do it. In all the work I do, I try to be wry, smart, thoughtful, enthusiastic and warm. Not because I think that’s what sells, but because that’s who I am.

And the subject matter has something in common, too — working for non-profits, creative professionals and families there’s a basis in creativity, children and compassion. Creating written content for the Folk Art Market that helps artisans improve the lives of their families through their art, a commission to photograph a pair of brothers, or a website for an architect might not seem to have much in common, but for me they make sense.

I’m deeply impressed by photographers who seek out difficult subjects and shoot them bravely — like Joe Arnon’s moving series on a drug addiction in Denver, but that’s not me.

Having a sense of what fits you in tone and subject matter makes it a lot easier to know what work you should say yes to, and what you shouldn’t.

If you want to keep paying the rent, you might have to take some jobs that are outside your core subject matter, tone or medium areas, but your best work will be done at their intersection. So go look for your centre.

Moore Consulting Photography

“Everything we do, we film or photograph” — how Greenpeace uses photography

The crew of the Greenpeace ship MY Arctic Sunrise construct a ‘heart’ with the flags of the 193 country members of the United Nations on an ice floe north of the Arctic Circle. © Daniel Beltra / Greenpeace

In a recent interview the magazine for pro photographers Photo District News spoke to John Novis, head of photography at Greenpeace International about the way his organisation uses photography to further their mission. (The article is here, sadly behind a paywall.)

For the past three years, Greenpeace has won World Press Photo competition prizes for news and nature stories they’ve commissioned — showing their commitment to quality photography, and also showing how the lines between journalism work for publications and for non-profits and NGOs are blurring.

Novis was very clear about the results Greenpeace get for their investment in quality photography (emphasis mine). “ We have always put a big budget in visuals. Everything we do, we film or photograph. We hire good freelancers, go to remote places and do good stories. . . It used to be basic direct action [coverage] on the hard news side. Now there’s much more documentation and stories in response to environmental news events.”

He’s also very keen on adding a multimedia element to the work the photographers are doing as the expectations change: “Everything is more Web based, so we’ve been doing a lot of work that combines photography, video and audio.”

One element of this is the Greenpeace Photos iPad app — a regularly-updated portfolio application that showcases the best of Greenpeace photography.

Like all NGOs and non-profits Greenpeace is trying to have the most impact for the least amount of money. If they’re investing so heavily in quality photography, it’s obviously because it works.

That old online forum cliché that ‘this thread is useless without pics” has never been more true across the internet, especially for social media channels. Look for strong stories in the work you’re doing, and then tell them visually. Are there events, programs and projects that your organisation is engaged in that aren’t getting the photography they need?