Lisa Habersack
by Lisa Habersack

How to Take Stunning Photos that Tell Great Stories

As a nonprofit, stories of your work are the greatest assets you have to inspire new donors and engage existing supporters. While you can use text, data, and videos to tell your stories, there is no communications tool as immediately gripping and versatile as the photograph. Read on to learn how to enhance the images your nonprofit includes in your storytelling strategy.

What do great nonprofit photos do?

What works for one nonprofit may differ from another depending on impact area, audience, and goals, but all nonprofit photos should ultimately aim for these outcomes.

  • Humanize your work: Photos should help supporters see the real people behind the headlines of your programs and initiatives.
  • Engage & Inspire: Great photos make the viewer feel like they’ve been transported. They draw people in to your work immediately and make them want to know more.
  • Demonstrate impact: Some people need to see to believe. It’s one thing to report on numbers and programmatic approaches, but a snapshot of your work in action helps viewers connect the dots and better understand (and remember) what your nonprofit does.

How can you take photos that tell great stories?

Take photos that leave you in awe.
Take photos that leave you in awe.

1. Brush up on photography basics.

If you’re like most nonprofits, you probably don’t have a dedicated photographer on staff. Whether your communications staff takes photos, or they’re snapped by volunteers or program staff, it’s important that the people who are capturing your important moments have a foundational skill set in the basics of photography.

  • Consider bringing an expert in to train multiple staff during one session to increase your chances of receiving snap shots from staff that are worth sharing outside the organization.
  • To increase staff interest in applying newly-learned principles of photography, hold a photo content for best photo of your work and share the results on your organization’s social media channels.

2. Simplify the frame.

The best photos quickly transmit an idea or emotion to the viewer—when the image is cluttered with multiple people and objects, it loses this affect. Images that tell great stories should be able to stand alone. Ask yourself, does the viewer need to read nearby text to have an idea of what’s going on in the photo? They shouldn’t have to. Try these tips:

  • Focus on 1-2 people and one activity. For example, maybe you’re taking photos of a busy workshop where teams are working together on several different tasks. Instead of trying to capture everything at once, zoom in on two teammates huddled over a puzzle they're working on. You’ll convey the collaborative atmosphere without confusing viewers with background activity.
  • Try zooming in even further. Sometimes the simplest frame tells the best story. Based on the crowded workshop in the example above, a powerful photo might be just the fingers of two different children, pressing pieces into the puzzle together.

3. Consider the context—how are you portraying your subject?

It’s easy to get wrapped up in the in-person experience and forget that those who view your photos later were not there and won't necessarily understand the context of the situation depicted.

  • Put people first: Take photos that your subjects would feel good about seeing. Rather than portraying a person in a difficult situation to evoke sympathy, capture them in an empowered moment that your program has made possible.
  • Consider the end product: In the moment, you may have captured a fantastic shot of the silly game or icebreaker participants have been asked to take part in. But will you be able to use that photo of them walking around blindfolded on your website without them looking like zombies? Try to take photos that tell a story without needing an explanation of context.

4. Connect with subjects and capture emotion.

The best way for a photo to tell a complete story is for that story to be about a human emotion—something we can all relate to and recognize immediately.

Sometimes photos can be obvious about displaying emotion, but do it in a modern way.
Sometimes photos can be obvious about displaying emotion, but do it in a modern way.
  • You can’t go wrong with eye contact: Some of the most powerful images are the most simple—one individual looking straight into the camera lens, locking eyes with whomever views the photo later. Many nonprofits choose to put photos with eye contact on donation pages to deepen the emotional connection between the donor and the individuals their donation will support.
  • Don't hide behind your camera! People can feel uncomfortable when there is a camera involved. Lower your camera and spend some time learning about your subjects and their experiences with your nonprofit. They’ll likely feel more comfortable, allowing you to capture their true emotions. This works for individuals as well as groups. With groups, try to capture the emotions and connections they share with one another. Even the body language of a small group of participants can tell a powerful story about how your activities bring people together.

5. Tell a story with the background.

The background can make or break a photo. While some backgrounds are neutral and meant to go unnoticed, others can play integral roles in helping viewers better understand the moment being captured. While both approaches work well, the background you don’t want to have is one that detracts from the message in your photo.

  • Background as the star: Does the background tell the viewer something interesting about the moment? Focus the lens on what’s behind your subject and allow the subject to blur out of focus. This approach works well in a classroom with writing on the chalk board that shows what students are learning.  
  • Neutral background: The outdoors is a great background that provides a sense of place and color (think red brick buildings in a city or greenery in nature) without stealing the attention from your subject.
  • Distracting background: In addition to backgrounds that are cluttered and make it difficult to focus on the subject, make sure your background isn’t distracting for another reason, like a bathroom door or a sign for a business not relevant to your work.

6. Don’t be afraid of movement. Follow the action!

While naturally-lit portraits with transfixing eye contact have their place, don’t get hung up on taking a perfectly-composed image every time. Get in the action and snap shots that capture the energy of the moment and help viewers feel like they are right there with you.

  • Use sports settings even if you’re not photographing sports: Make use of the automatic settings on your camera that will reduce blur when your subjects are not standing still. 
  • Use burst mode—your subjects will thank you. When you take a photo of people moving, chances are you’ll capture some awkward faces that may end up making the photo stand out for the wrong reasons on your site. By taking photos in burst mode, you increase your odds of at least one usable shot.

7. Capture everyday activities—not just big events.

When planning for a big event or conference, most nonprofits think to invite a photographer. But don’t miss out on opportunities to capture the daily scenes and people at the heart of your organization’s work.

‍Whatever you do, please don't buy stock photos.
  • If you hire a photographer, give them a primer on your work: An uninformed photographer may take beautiful photos, but they will only be able to tell the story of your work if you help them understand the ‘who’ and ‘why’ behind the event or activity. Then they’ll know what moments and subjects will convey the messages you want to share with others.  
  • The more people you train the take great photos, the better your storytelling will be! While not everyone will be a professional photographer, a professional photographer will not always be around to snap photos. Train your volunteers and hands-on staff in photography basics and encourage them to practice shooting during everyday activities. More options are always better when it's time to find the perfect photo for your next newsletter, blog post, or annual report. 

A Final Word of Advice

While you're working to capture stellar photos for your nonprofit, there is one final step you need to take to be sure you can put those photos to work for your organization. Be sure to collect key information from your subjects such as their name, age (if relevant), and permission to use their photograph. Not only will this protect your organization, but having even a small amount of identifying information will help you tell your story better. It's more respectful to your subject, and more interesting for the viewer, to see an individual's name in the caption of a photo.

Side note: Ever heard of Google's nonprofit program?

Did you know Google provides nonprofits with $10,000 per month in free advertising credit? This program is known as Google Grants and it's available to almost every 501c3 nonprofit organization. We've put together a free live one on one demo. All you have to do is click the button below.

Lisa Habersack

Lisa Habersack
Lisa is an award-winning social impact storyteller with 10 years of experience working in the nonprofit sector. She helps nonprofits—ranging from start-ups to international development agencies—tell stories that inspire, engage, and connect. Learn more at www.lisahabersack.com.

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