• General Best Practices
3 Tips for Taking High-Quality School Marketing Photos
Andrew Martin

Making the jump from amateur to professional photographer can seem daunting to those with a lack of photography experience. However, the difference between the two is far smaller than most people would assume. Just a few simple tips can elevate your school website’s marketing photographs to professional quality without having to pay for an actual professional.

1. Get Close to Your Subjects

Let’s start things off simple with something even professional photographers forget from time to time. Get in close to your subjects!

Basic human etiquette tells us to respect other people’s boundaries and personal space, but when it comes to getting those award-winning shots: forget that! You want to capture as much detail as possible in every photo. That means closing the distance between you and the subject and learning to only use your camera’s zoom function when it’s absolutely necessary or as a last resort.

Why is proximity so important? Relying on your camera’s zoom function naturally leads to photographers hanging back from the action and potentially missing out on other opportunities for amazing photos. 

On a more technical level, the more you zoom in on a subject (person or object), the more grainy, pixelated, and blurry your photos become. Cameras begin to lose quality the moment you begin to zoom in on a subject. This is especially true for digital cameras, like the one in  your smartphone

Smartphone cameras have come a long way since their introduction, and they have the potential to take photos of comparable quality to cameras significantly more expensive and with more features, but they still have trouble retaining detail, color, and focus as you zoom in on your subject. In most cases, the degradation of quality occurs rapidly, and it’s immediately noticeable when viewing the photos on your phone or in Photoshop.  

However, smartphones have one natural advantage over larger cameras like the digital single-lens reflex (DSLR) cameras: their smaller size. Approaching someone with a DSLR camera in-hand and getting in their face can be intimidating. Many people get stage fright and shut down when they think they’re going to be photographed, or they worry they don’t look their best and would rather avoid having their picture taken.

But everyone has a smartphone, and everyone has taken hundreds (if not thousands) of photos with one. Smartphone photography is so ingrained in our culture that even the shyest people tend not to care about having their photos taken with a smartphone, so use smartphone cameras to get in closer to your subject than a larger DSLR camera allows.

If you want an even tighter photo once you’ve closed the distance, it’s usually better to crop the photo at a later date, rather than relying on zoom in the moment.

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2. Know When (and When Not) to Use Flash

Generally speaking, I almost always prefer to take photos without flash. Natural light produces photos with richer colors, more interesting shadows, and better exposure.

So that means photos without flash are better, right? Not exactly. Flash still has its uses. For example, using flash during the day can help reduce lingering shadows at the edge of your frame or eliminate shadows on your subject’s face.

If you are going to use flash, try and angle your camera’s flash either a little above or below the subject, especially when photographing people’s face. Flash directly in front of the subject tends to introduce too much light and adds an unnecessarily high level of contrast with harsher shadows that makes people look unnatural.

Flash a little above or below the subject’s face will reduce the harshness and fill out the rest of the frame more evenly. If you have a remote flash device that can be controlled wirelessly, play around with angles to see how the light fills in the frame and a person’s face. This is especially valuable for portraits, when you have a controlled environment and (hopefully) an assistant to handle the flash.

Watch the video to see how different lighting angles changes the way a person looks. 

Avoid using flash photography at night. That doesn't mean it’s never useful, but the instant introduction of light can create unnatural-looking photos with horrible light balance between the darkest areas of the picture and the lightest. 

If you need to brighten a nighttime image, consider bumping up your camera’s exposure levels. Just not too far. Increasing the exposure too much rapidly increases the amount of grain (or digital noise) found in your photo’s dark and black areas.

You can safely push your camera’s exposure (ISO) for nighttime photography from 1,600 ISO to 6,400 ISO. Going over 6,400 ISO is when digital noise starts creeping into the image. It’s always best to keep the camera’s ISO as low as possible, only increasing the ISO level as needed.

Example of digital noise in a photo of a lake and mountain taken at night

Note the digital noise in the image on the left. Image from Digital Photography School

 

For cases when you just can’t quite capture the perfect lighting at night, it’s better to increase the exposure or brightness once the image is in Photoshop. Just don’t go crazy with the exposure and brightness levels. Small increases will produce a better image than cranking the exposure up, even if the photo is still darker than you’d like.

This is mostly true for smartphone photography, though you have less control over your camera’s exposure levels. You can turn your smartphone’s camera’s flash on and off, but you can’t change the angle of the flash, and your exposure options are limited to tapping the screen to automatically adjust the exposure based on where you tapped. 

Most smartphone cameras also offer filters to quickly change image color. Consider experimenting with these to see when and where these filters can be useful. In particular, I’m always a fan of the Noir or Black & White filter for classy, old-school looking photos.

Silvertone iPhone camera filter

Silvertone iPhone camera filter. Image from iPhone Photography School

 

3. Know What the Information on Your Screen Means

DSLR cameras are much more complex than the point and snap operation of a phone. You suddenly have a ton of additional options, such as adjusting ISO -- but what about all that other information on the screen?

While each camera has its unique features, options, and screen layout, a vast majority of cameras share the same general information that’s displayed on the rear screen.

Take a look at the screen on Finalsite’s camera, a Canon EOS 6D. You can ignore the large “No card in camera” at the top of the screen. Hopefully, you’ll be taking photos with an SD or microSD card in the camera.

Rear screen on Finalsite's Canon EOS 6D

Outside of the obvious battery level indicator, most of the information on the screen might be new to those using a DSLR camera for the first time. Let’s go counter-clockwise, starting from the top left working our way down and to the right.

The first two icons show that the camera is currently set to Manual mode with Manual Focus on. The top “M” would change depending on the mode you’re in, such as “A” for automatic or “AV” for aperture value (when the camera allows for manual changes to the aperture value and automatic changes to the shutter speed based on the current lighting), while the “MF” would change if you switch the lens from manual focus to auto focus. 

The next two icons show the Drive Mode and Metering Mode, respectively. Drive Mode controls how many photos are taken with the press of the capture button, such as Single Capture (which the camera is currently set to) or Continuous Shooting where the camera will continue to take photos as long as the button is pressed down.

Metering determines the camera’s correct shutter speed and aperture based on the amount of light entering the camera’s lens. Most DSLRs default to Evaluative Metering (the setting displayed on the screen above) since that setting does a great job of correcting exposure.

Center-weighted Metering uses light in the middle of the frame and ignores the corners to determine exposure. Spot Metering only uses light at the camera’s focus point, ignoring everything else.

Center-weighted Metering on a fox

Example of Center-weighted Metering. Image from Photography Life

 

Stick with the default Evaluative Metering in most cases. Center-weighted Metering is useful when doing headshots with a lot of light, such as outside on a sunny day. Spot Metering is useful when capturing images of a small subject, such as a distant animal.

The next icon shows that the camera is capturing both Raw and Large images. You should generally capture large images without the need to capture Raw images as well. Raw files are massive and are only really useful if you’re going to be doing a lot of Photoshop edits.

The “1600” shows my current ISO setting. The “4” shows my current aperture value. Aperture value represents how open the lens is to allow light to pass through.

The numbers along the dotted line at the bottom of the screen is your camera’s Exposure Compensation, which allows you to manually override your camera’s exposure setting to either brighten or darken your image.

Sometimes cameras do a poor job of exposing the image due to multiple light sources or complex color balances. For example, taking a photo where the foreground is overly bright and the background is darker may result in the camera darkening the entire image for balance. Use Exposure Compensation for manual adjustments in these circumstances.

Example of Exposure Compensation on a DSLR camera's rear screen

Image from Photography Life

 

Depending on which mode you’re in, your camera may display your current ISO more than once, as shown in the above example. Above the second ISO is the wireless icon that shows the camera’s wifi is currently disabled.

“Exp.SIM” stands for Exposure Simulation. When this icon is displayed, your camera is telling you that the image displayed on your screen will closely resemble the actual photo captured. If the icon is flashing, it means the actual capture will likely differ from what the screen shows, likely due to lighting conditions that are too bright or dark.

Moving to the right of the screen, the bottom box with the person shows that the camera’s Auto Correction of Brightness and Contrast is off. Most cameras allow for some level of customizable auto correction, though you’re usually better off manually correcting the brightness before capturing the image or afterwards in Photoshop. 

Above that we have the Picture Style. The camera is currently set to Auto, shown with a flower icon in the box and an “A”. This setting allows you to change image characteristics based on what you’re taking a photo of. This particular camera comes with Auto, Standard, Portrait, Landscape, Neutral, and Faithful styles, each useful for different purposes. 

For example, Landscape mode is (unsurprisingly) best for taking pictures of landscapes with wide scenery where you want everything in focus, and you want the greens and blues to really pop off the screen with crisp and sharp detail.

“AWB” means the camera is current setting the white balance automatically. In most circumstances, the camera does a pretty good job of picking the correct white balance, whereas the white values in the image are truly white. You can manually adjust this setting to several presets, or an entirely custom white balance value based on a number. This camera’s presets include Auto, Daylight, Inside, Cloudy, Tungsten lighting, Fluorescent lighting, and a custom number

Finally, we end with the histogram, which is usually off by default, but I turned it on for this demonstration. The histogram shows a graphical representation of your image in which the far left of the histogram is the darkest values in the image, and the far right of the histogram represents the brightest areas in your image.

 

The histogram is useful for determining if your image is properly exposed. If an image is properly exposed with even lighting, the histogram will resemble a bell curve. In the image example I provided, the histogram shows that the image is poorly lit, with too much focus on the dark values of the image. This is caused in this example by the dark tree leaves in the foreground and the black pavement in the middle ground.

Example of an underexposed image of a man holding a camera with a histogram

Underexposed photo. Histogram pushed to the left. Image from photographylife

 

Example of an overexposed image of a man holding a camera with a histogram

Overexposed photo. Histogram pushed to the right. Image from photographylife

 

Example of a properly exposed image of a man holding a camera

Properly exposed photo. Histogram balanced in the middle. Image from photographylife

 

If I was actually interested in capturing the image in the screen example above, I would want to increase the exposure since the darks are too dark and the whites that are in the picture aren’t real whites.

Keep in mind that every camera is different, and every camera will display its information differently on the screen. But this guide should point you in the right direction when you start taking photos with a DSLR camera. 

Key Takeaway 

Shooting professional-quality photographs for your school website doesn’t have to be difficult. Simple tips like getting close to your subject, knowing when (and when not) to use flash, and knowing all the information displayed on your camera screen gives you more control over your camera and empowers you to take significantly better pictures.

So get out there, start taking professional-quality photos, and show the world what makes your school so amazing and special with professional images captured for free.


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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

As Finalsite’s Product Marketing Specialist, Andrew writes blogs and creates videos to share information about all the latest and greatest Finalsite products. Andrew has more than 10 years of video production experience and a journalism degree from the University of South Carolina. He has an incredible passion for movies, television, reading, and writing fantasy and science-fiction. 

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