How to Take Quality Photographs

A lot of campaigns forget one very important element of success: photography. An action can be strategic, technically smart, and flawless in detail, yet still fail if it has nothing to show for it — if it doesn’t have beautiful photos to demonstrate its power, excite the media & inspire supporters.

Here are 7 Quick Tips to Getting Great Photos


1) Working with a photographer? Bring them in early.

If telling the visual story of your event is crucial, you need to plan for that by making sure a photographer is involved in planning conversations early on. Photographers look at things differently so may offer insights in how the event can be designed more visually. Everything from site location, to the props, to the signs that are created, to the time of day of the action can all impact its visual success. If mildly adjusted, these details can often drastically change the outcome of your photos.  


2) Time to prepare participants? Tell them to set the mood.

Sometimes people can act differently when there is a camera in their face. But it’s helpful to tell participants to stay in the mood of an action.  For example, if the mood of the protest is somber and everyone has very big smiles in the photo, the power of the photos is ruined.  Participants should match the mood of the main message with their faces.


3) Permission and security.

Make sure you have thought about permission and security implications. In some places, having a camera can make you a target for the police. Create a plan addressing these questions, including: Are you in a country where you need to get explicit permission to take photos of people? What security issues do you need to consider? Are you putting others at risk by taking photos? Do you have/need the permission of each person whose photo is taken? Do you have permission from the photographer for the pictures?


4) Plan ahead –– what you will take pictures of?

Before the action, many photographers create a list of the pictures they plan to take. This is a list of images that they are planning to shoot. In general this can include: speakers, any notable participants, close ups, pictures of the crowd, children, powerful signs, behind-the-scenes organizing, pamphlets or materials laid out.  


5) Who’s taking photos?

It’s very important that you know who is shooting photos at your action. It’s very easy to think “someone” will take photos, and that the media team will surely end up with them. This does not work. Know who is going to photograph before the action. And if you are the designated photographer, you should think about if you will need help. If you have a team of photographers, then it’s good to plan out where each of you will be during the event to be sure your pictures are varied. Also important to discuss when the pictures will be delivered (often priority shots are delivered shortly after the event ends to include in press outreach. The full set is then submitted a day or two later). Also important to confirm those responsible for taking photos have the needed equipment and can submit photos in high resolution.


6) Take interesting photos!

Here are a few tips on taking interesting photos:

  • Avoid panorama or overall pictures of the scene. They are usually not very interesting. The most common mistake beginning photographers make is to get too much in the picture. (The exception to this is if it’s the size of your action that’s unique and you can capture the sense of a large crowd of people in your photo.)
  • Show motion. Whenever possible look for motion – people doing things (locking themselves to a building, chanting, holding a fist in the air). Still images are less interesting. Move in close. That way, you get rid of confusing background and focus on what matters.
  • Simplify! Make one thing dominant in every photo. Think about what you want to show and focus on that. Choose one face rather than a crowd. Focus on a hand, a banner, facial expressions…
  • Check the background. The camera is not selective about what it captures. You see what you’re interested in and blank out the rest. The photo gives equal weight to everything. So check around the screen before you take the photo, and either move to a different place, ask your subjects to move, or clear up clutter if necessary!
  • Pick backgrounds and foregrounds as props to help the goal of the photo, by suggesting a tone or showing the context.
  • Don’t put the center of interest right in the middle of the photo. That’s where we expect to find it, so it loses impact. Try putting it to one side or the other. This makes more difference than you think.
  • Take vertical-format photos as well as horizontal by turning your camera. They fit well in publications, and can add interest.
  • Experiment with fresh angles. Photos of an interview or of demonstrators need special treatment if they are to make interesting photos. What makes these people special? Your challenge is to try and show that through your choice of angle, what you show people doing, and your choice of background.
  • Get their feet! A common mistake is to forget to include the feet of the marcher or speaker. It is not always necessary, but be intentional about it. Do not accidentally cut off their feet at the ankles. It looks weird.


7) Photo Timelines

Know when your images need to be online — and if you will need time for editing. It is often the case that we need images either as the action happens or shortly after the action is complete. One trained photographer describes two ways they handle this pressure:

  • Upload 5 images on-site (often through their phone on internet). After the first hour of the action, take a break (this is where having multiple photographers comes in handy) and look through your camera to find the best 5 images. Edit each image, taking no more than 5-10 minutes and then upload them to flickr, making sure to credit the image.
  • Get volunteers to help. Enlist the help of a card runner and an editor. The card runner meets you and any other photographers you are working with at a pre-planned meeting spot and picks up your camera’s memory card and writes down the file number of the 10 best images you’ve identified. They then ‘run’ these to a “photo editor” to process the images and get them up online. This process requires you to have multiple cards.