best lens for church photography

Filmmaking and streaming are the hot topics today, but cultivating a photo archive of your worship experience is equally important. Here are tips to help make your stills even more emotionally powerful and riveting

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A picture is worth a thousand words, as the saying goes. Images reach into the depths of our understanding, being and connection. They speak to us both collectively and individually. Void of words, they leave room for imagination, mystery, empathy, love and the full gamut of emotions to take shape.

Images reach into the depths of our understanding, being and [emotional] connection. 

The power of a single image has been chronicled over time. From the iconic Mona Lisa, to the raising of the flag on Iwo Jima, to the stunning beauty of planet earth, photographed from space for the first time, pictures shape society in powerful ways. As houses of worship navigate the digital and cultural shift in the 21st-century, engaging their congregations in fresh, relevant ways has become a necessity rather than a luxury.

While live-streaming and recording services through video has become a mainstay, cultivating a photo archive of your worship experience and using those images for powerful connection can be a huge asset for any house of worship.

In a digital society now, overloaded with photos on a daily basis, tasking a staff member or volunteer with simply pulling out their phone during a service and start ing to snap sounds easy enough. But the technical and artistic elements of capturing powerful images are what can transform your worship photography into powerful, captivating stories.

The Reason and Purpose

Any extension of your church should have a clear purpose and reasoning, and the same rings true for photography. What purpose should these images serve? How will these further our mission and vision of the church? How will these help captivate and lead people forward in their individual and spiritual lives?

The secondary level resides in how the images will be used. Are they for internal use only, social media, print, external promotion within your city, or other means? Define, even loosely, where your photography will reside and be used. It always makes a difference in knowing who your final audience will be and how that might dictate decisions moving forward.

Camera Setup

Like any technology, cameras have come a long way over the years. While smartphones and associated apps can contribute worthy solutions to photography, a full-featured camera and lens would be the first option for most photographers.

One of the most important setup functions is to shoot in RAW. Unlike JPEG images, RAW captures a full, uncompressed image that will allow for much greater editing without losing the image integrity.

One of the most important setup functions is to shoot in RAW.

Depending on your indoor environment, setting your white-balance to AUTO is convenient for many photographers. With events moving quickly and lighting changing for various mood, it will be difficult to keep switching your settings in the moment. The goal here it is to allow for seamless shooting without missing key events.

Most modern DSLR or mirrorless cameras will allow you to choose a shooting style. The default is single shot, which takes one photo when pressing the shutter button. Some photographers will also use burst or continuous mode, which will take quick, successive photos while holding down the shutter button. This can be advantageous, especially during worship since subjects can be moving and your chances of capturing the right moment can be greatly increased.

For most photographers shooting handheld, a good rule of thumb is to shoot at 1/160 shutter speed or faster. Unless you are shooting from a tripod, capturing a more advanced time lapse or extended exposure, 1/160 will keep motion blur from occurring. Be mindful of your shutter speed becoming too fast in order to keep your ISO down, thereby preventing too much digital “noise” from distorting the image. With any techniques, rules can always be broken in order to induce creative, artsy effects. As always, know the rules first before you break them.

Look for zoom lenses with a 2.8/f aperture or fixed lenses that will reach 1.8/f to 1.4/f.

Choosing a high quality, flexible lens is another important consideration. Because of shooting indoors, often in low-light situations, having a wide aperture–meaning one that allows more light to hit the sensor and keep your photos from being grainy or cranking your camera’s ISO–will be much better for worship situations. Look for zoom lenses with a 2.8/f aperture or fixed lenses that will reach 1.8/f to 1.4/f.

While one lens will never be able to cover every situation, a 24-70mm is a good place to start.

While one lens will never be able to cover every situation, a 24-70mm is a good place to start. Many photographers will also employ a 70-200mm since they will be shooting from a distance, allowing for better closeups. With any lens, think about the best solution to shoot during a service without needing to switch lenses, thus taking you away from the action.

Last but not least, a flash should never be used indoors for this type of shooting. Any in-camera lights, sounds, or other potential distractions should always be turned off.

Composition

The technical setup of a camera is no doubt important to learn, but the real magic always resides in the composition of your image.

Placing a subject at the left or right thirds line always creates a much more dynamic image. It gives a subject room to move, and it helps direct the eye.

One of the most fundamental techniques of great image composition is known as the rule of thirds. By dividing the frame into three equal columns and rows, you will see both mentally and visually points of intersection. Placing a subject at the left or right thirds line always creates a much more dynamic image. It gives a subject room to move, and it helps direct the eye. Place horizons or other horizontal elements like stages on a lower thirds line. This will make sure the viewer is not distracted by too much space above or below.

Try to eliminate distracting elements such as mic stands or speakers unless they add to the moment.

With the rule of thirds at hand, consider the entire framing of your photo. Is this an intimate moment with outstretched arms, hands or other parts of a subject that convey emotions? Always consider what helps convey the story within the image. Try to eliminate distracting elements such as mic stands or speakers unless they add to the moment.

Another area of emphasis when framing shots is that of balance. A dark subject in silhouette needs the balance of a lighter background or space so that we see something other than a dark mass in the photo. The same is true when our subject is white or lit brightly. Think about an angle that balances out darker areas, bringing better contrast and visual weight. 

Tell A Story, Be Creative

The power within any artistic medium–whether that be visual, aural or other sensory areas–is the story we as artists can transmit. While the technical aspects of photography are no doubt important to master, the way we tell a story through imagery is expansive.

As a photographer, you have the unique freedom to tell a story in a fresh, engaging manner. Guard yourself from falling into the same patterns, shooting the same angles, from the same spots at the same parts of the service. Coverage of close, medium, and long shots should always be in the back of your mind. Keep a mental note of how you’re covering the space. Because after all, those in the congregation are experiencing the worship service from a different vantage point than others. Look for a new way to capture the worship leader’s position on stage. Find different way to frame worshippers in the congregation. Use light to contrast a moment. Beauty and story is all around. You simply need to look.

Always prioritize portraying people well … be judicious in using the best images that show others at their best. Think smiles, flattering angles and solid composition. 

A final consideration in telling the story is awareness. Most people do not enjoy bad photos of themselves. Most are self-conscious about photos to begin with. Always prioritize portraying people well. As is the case with any photographer, you will only use a small percentage of photos taken on any given day. But be judicious in using the best images that show others at their best. Think smiles, flattering angles and solid composition. The easiest question to ask is: “If this were a photo of me, would I post this publicly and enjoy it?”

Our job is to be a point of trust and light for those around us. Regardless of the type of scope of our place of worship, when we use our gifts and creativity to tell a story of hope and human connection, we will connect our church members in a way that brings beauty, honor and spiritual growth in a powerful way.

Attaining a comprehensive understanding of the unique types of broadcast and filmmaking lenses can be overwhelming, even for professionals with decades of experience. The sheer variety of lens options and features, and the complex science and engineering that goes into making those options and features possible, can boggle the mind.

For many tech directors and film directors already stretched too thin, having that command of the subject extends only as far as it needs to in order to survive the coming weekend. As the landscape of church broadcast, streaming and filmmaking continues to expand. However, it’s more important than ever that we take the time to develop a broader understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of different types of camera lenses.

Foundations of glass

In this article we’ll explore the unique types of lenses designed for stills photography, cinema, camcorders, and broadcast-style cameras. Needless to say this is a monster topic, so for our purposes we’ll focus more on the user-end side of things and less on the science and engineering side. With that said, understanding lenses does require a firm grasp of some basic concepts.

One of the most important features of a lens is the focal distance, which is expressed in millimeters.

One of the most important features of a lens is the focal distance, which is expressed in millimeters. Functionally speaking, this rating indicates how wide or tight the shot framing is. For instance a 35mm lens takes in a wider field of view, while a 200mm lens captures imagery further away from the lens. A “prime” lens has a single focal distance, while a “zoom” lens has a range of focal distances, such as 18-135mm.

Cinema lens courtesy of Sigma.

The second crucial feature of a lens is the aperture, which is simply the opening inside the lens that regulates how much light hits the sensor. An aperture rating is usually indicated with an “f,” a slash and a number, such as f/4. Lenses with lower apertures like f/1.4 allow more light to hit the camera sensor and are considered to be “fast” glass. A standard lens description is made up of a combination of the focal distance and the aperture. For instance, one of the most popular types of prime lenses for photography and filmmaking is the 50mm f/1.8 lens.

The third important feature of a lens is the sensor size and image resolution it’s designed to facilitate, as well as the native camera mount system the lens is designed to work with. These are crucial detectives, requiring specific design and engineering choices. Anyone who’s overseen a system upgrade from HD to 4K or from 2/3-inch to APS-C sensors will know that lenses capable of accommodating these jumps make up a huge part of the budget.

Two other important features that can be important parts of a lens is its ability to cooperate with the camera body to select a focal point, commonly known as autofocus, and in-body stabilization functionality, something that helps considerably with hand-held shooting but often comes at the cost of faster aperture abilities.

Photography lenses

For many developing filmmakers, lenses designed primarily for stills photography were how they got started. The advantage of stills glass is that they’re fairly affordable, lightweight and interchangeable, allowing for shooters to achieve highly specialized shots and functionality. The sheer variety of available lens options on the market presents distinct advantages to filmmakers using these types of lenses.

Photography lens courtesy of Sony.

Photography lenses … are designed to capture a single moment rather than digital footage over time.

Photography lenses, however, are designed to capture a single moment rather than digital footage over time. Generally speaking, the camera body controls aperture and focus on stills lenses. While this is helpful for beginning filmmakers, more experienced cinematographers don’t want to leave those kinds of critical features in the hands of the camera’s software. Achieving critical manual focus is also far more challenging since stills lenses really are not designed to accomplish this feat.

Cinema lenses

Cinema lenses are similar to stills photography lenses in that they are designed to be interchangeable, allowing filmmakers to select exactly the right lens needed for a particular shot. But while stills lenses are designed to capture a single moment, cinema glass is designed from the ground up to capture footage as close to flawlessly as possible.

Perhaps the biggest defining feature of cinema glass is its ability to capture footage with the highest optical quality and repeatability. This means providing precise control over the crucial variables of aperture and focus, and, depending on the model, zoom. Cinema glass is also usually very fast, which allows cinematographers to achieve extremely shallow depth of field in their shots.

Cinema lens courtesy of Canon.

The biggest drawback on cinema glass … is the fact that these lenses don’t offer assistance of any kind to the shooter.

On the downside, cinema lenses are usually far more expensive than stills lenses. (Some manufacturers are working hard to close the distance in price to accommodate the owner/operator filmmaker market.) The biggest drawback on cinema glass, however, is the fact that these lenses don’t offer assistance of any kind to the shooter. In fact, the best results with these lenses are achieved when multiple camera operators work together to achieve critical framing and focus on a single shot.

Broadcast lenses

On the opposite side of the coin, lenses designed for broadcast are engineered to get quality results, in real time and in difficult shooting scenarios. Wider zoom ranges are critical on these kinds of lenses as ENG and IMAG shooters often need to go from very wide to tightly zoomed in at a moment’s notice.

Broadcast lens courtesy of Fujinon.

Wider zoom ranges are critical on [broadcast] lenses as ENG and IMAG shooters often need to go from very wide to tightly zoomed in at a moment’s notice.

Broadcast lenses are also designed to provide the maximum assistance possible, which requires powerful, built-in zoom and focus motor controls. Features like these allow for quick framing and dependable autofocus abilities. Aperture control on these lenses is usually handled as part of a camera’s overall auto-exposure system. These functions combine to make broadcast lenses some of the easiest and most intuitive to shoot with.

On the downside, while they can run a wide budget gamut, broadcast lenses are usually the most expensive type of lens on the market. This is especially true as you get into box-style lenses that can easily run into the six-figure price points. And while broadcast lenses are, technically speaking, interchangeable, the relationship between the lens, the camera and the camera mount is so specialized that these lenses rarely ever come off the camera body.

Camcorder lenses

Camcorders are unique in that they fill a space in the market where immediacy takes precedence over image quality. This is not pejorative, many video producers use camcorders to create unique, compelling content that wouldn’t be possible with any other setup. It’s all about selecting the right tool for the job at hand.

What makes camcorder lenses unique is that the camera itself is designed from the ground up to get the best out of that one particular lens.

Camcorder lens courtesy of Panasonic.

Camcorder lenses are unique in that they are built directly into the camera body itself and are not interchangeable. Just as with broadcast lenses, camcorder lenses are designed to provide maximum shooting assistance with features like motor zoom control, autofocus and aperture settings usually handled by the camera itself. These lenses are all about capturing the moment in real-time, without the luxury of planning or rehearsals.

What makes camcorder lenses unique is that the camera itself is designed from the ground up to get the best out of that one particular lens. This custom engineering usually incorporates built-in ND filtering for increased image control in bright lighting, a function that’s often missing in stills cameras and higher-end digital cinema cameras.

The drawback of camcorders, however, is that the user is locked into the limitations of that particular lens. While camcorder lenses usually have a respectably wide zoom range, they’re usually slower, making low-light filming more of a challenge. Also, if problems develop with the lens on a camcorder it almost always means a trip back to the manufacturer for repairs.

Wrap up

The glass you put on the camera makes a huge impact on the success of your project. Selecting the right lens comes down to finding the right balance of optical quality, functionality and shooting assistance. Success in selecting the right lenses simply comes down to clearly deciding which matters most on the project or application you’re undertaking, then deciding which way to lean that balance.

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