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How-To Tuesday: Top 10 Tips for Taking Great Service Photos

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National Service

AmeriCorps NCCC during Hurricane Katrina

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Wish you could take better pictures of the great service that you and your fellow volunteers are doing? Believe it or not, you don’t need to buy a new camera. Following --and practicing -- a few basic techniques can do a lot to improve the quality of your photos.

1. Read the Manual

Learn what each button and menu item does. At the very least, you should know how to turn the flash on and off, how to set the resolution or size of a photo, how to zoom, and how to use the shutter button. For example, many cameras require the shutter button to be pressed half-way to focus, then pushed entirely down to take a picture.

2. Tell a Story

When taking pictures of a service project, try to show the before, during, and after. Tell the story of how it was before the work started, who is doing the work, what ‘s being done, and what it looked like when finished.



Gutted home during Hurricane Katrina reconstructionAmerican Flag


3. Get Close

Taking a picture of the whole project is important, but be sure to take close-up photos to show the detail of the work. This helps to tell the story. For example, if taking photos of people building a house, the interesting shot is the close-up of the woman painting, not the photo of the house with the woman painting in the corner.


First Lady Michelle Obama at a volunteer service event.AmeriCorps NCCC members at an graduation ceremony in Washington, DC


4. Try Interesting Angles

Instead of taking a picture of the object head‐on, try going vertical and shooting down on the action. Or crouching down low and shooting upwards. You can also turn your camera vertically for a different look.



President Obama painting at a service event.Volunteers at a service event


5. Use the Rule of Thirds

Before taking a picture, imagine that the photo is divided into thirds both vertically and horizontally, creating a grid of nine boxes. The four points where these imaginary dividing lines intersect give four options for positioning the center of interest. This is a handy trick that pros use all the time. Some cameras even have an option to overlay a grid on the screen to help.



President Obama speakingSenator Edward Kennedy speaking


6. Focus Carefully, Keep Still

Poor focus and movement are the two most common ways photos are ruined. If the camera has an automatic focus, use it by pressing the shutter button half‐way and waiting for the camera to beep or a box on the screen to turn green. Then push the button down the rest of the way to take the photo.

You also need to keep still while taking your photo. Hold the camera firmly in your right hand and support it with your left. Tuck your elbows into your body and try to stay as still as possible.

7. Get the Sun At Your Back

Shooting into the sun usually leads to washed out or dark photos. If you have to shoot into the sun, or if you’re looking for a dramatic effect, try turning on your camera’s flash (yes, even if you’re outside). The flash will help fill in your subject.


Volunteers help build a house

8. Fill the Frame

If you’re taking a portrait of someone, try backing up and zooming in on them to fill the frame.  Place their eyes on the top line of the rule of thirds and don’t shoot anything below the waist (unless they have really cool boots on that are part of your story – see #2).

AmeriCorps NCCC member with firefighting equipment


9. Take a LOT of Pictures

Typically, we’ll take around 500 pictures at a service event and then edit that down to around 50 once we get back to the office. From that, we’ll select 5-10 for final publication.


10. Have Fun

Taking pictures is a social experience. The best pictures happen when you’re having fun and people are having fun with you taking their picture. ________________

All images – CNCS photo by M. T. Harmon, Office of Public Affairs. Corporation for National and Community Service. Public Domain.

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