3 Tips for Better Nonprofit Photos

October 2010: Mats Werner checks out the surf from the parking lot near Incinerator Rock at Long Beach in Tofino.

<This post was written by my favourite photographer, Kathleen Hinkel of Vancity Visuals – her work is absolutely stunning, and she is freakin’ hilarious! Not only am I am avid fan of her shots, I’m also a very satisfied customer. She shot our engagement photos, our wedding photos, and my professional headshots. I am so pleased to share with you Kathy’s thoughts on capturing great photos… just in time for events season! All photos in this post were taken by Kathy and belong to her.>

Photography is and has always been a powerful tool for nonprofit organizations.  

One of photography’s first purposes was to document humanitarian causes as a catalyst for change.  In the early 1900’s, the National Child Labor Committee used Lewis Hine’s photographs of child laborers to effectively educate the American public of its purpose; child labor should be made illegal. Hine’s body of work for the NCLC helped establish child labor laws and photography has been consistently been used ever since as an influential tool for communication to generate change.*


1908 Lewis Hine image of a young girl working in a factory. Nonprofits have long used photography as a catalyst for change.

Today our world is as visual as ever.  We live in a world of selfie sticks and telephones that masquerade as cameras!  We are drowning in images.  As I write this – there are 278,517 images on Instagram with the hashtag #nonprofit.  We live in a world where we expect pictures… or it didn’t happen!  

Chances are that you already realize that pictures are an essential tool for your nonprofit and you already have a camera within reach – at least in the form of an iPhone. The catch is that if you want your pictures to be effective and communicative then you don’t just need pictures – you need good pictures.

Here are some tips for taking better photos for your non-profit organization.  These tips can be used on the days that you can’t get your photographer friend to work for free and you can’t get so-and-so’s nephew (the one in the photography class) to show up either.  These tips are for the days you have to do it yourself.  These tips can also be used as a list of tips for taking better photos for any purpose under the sun. (Including taking better photos of your cat and taking better photos for your Tinder or Plenty of Fish profile**)


Light makes and breaks pictures.  In photography, good light can make a mundane moment fantastic and bad light can make an amazing moment irrelevant.  (See samples below)  So to take better pictures – you have to start paying attention to light.  This is why photographers are always going on and on about light… if the light isn’t right – then your picture won’t be right either.


Light makes this picture… it is a fairly boring moment of me on a road in Haida Gwaii. But because of good light – the road and trees look a bit more magical.


This is a photo I took of an amazing never before seen or photographed moment. In this photo a unicorn is smoking a cigarette after a long day of unicorning. The significance of the moment is incredible as unicorns are widely thought to be mythical and non-smokers. This photo could prove otherwise but the light in that moment was terrible – completely dark – and since there wasn’t enough light to take the photo – unicorns will continue to be thought of as mythical non-smokers.  

So what is good light?  And how do I find it?  It takes years of training to really get to know light and how to work with it in relation to photography but here are some good lighting situations to look for that can be used as a trigger that says… take your camera (or iPhone) out and try to make a photograph…

Good Light Situation # 1: Golden hour – This is the hour before sundown when 90% of National Geographic’s photos have been taken and also when 100% of long-winded Robert Redford and Kevin Costner movies are filmed. Just before sundown beautiful warm-temperature light paints all those who stand in it. If it’s Golden Hour and something relevant to your non-profit is being hit by this golden light then get your camera out and get to work.  

At Golden hour shooting with the light or backlighting your subject can both make for excellent photos.  If you’re shooting with the light and you are shooting with a camera that allows you to control your exposure – try underexposing by a stop.****  This will bring out the golden light a bit more, you’ll get a deeper blue out of the sky and you may raise a little extra cash from the higher quality picture.  If you are backlighting your picture try overexposing a little (about a full stop).  This will have your subjects face properly exposed with even lighting and a nice halo of light around their head, making them look like an angel!

10/01/06---KATHLEEN HINKEL------ Leif Stringer of St. Augustine emerges from the Indian River at Pineapple Park in Melbourne on Sunday during the Health First Olympic Distance Triathlon.  Stringer finished third overall in the event. (Kathleen Hinkel/FLORIDA TODAY)

At golden hour warm, dramatic light hits your subjects while shadows are deeper, darker and more dramatic as seen in these sample images


At golden hour backlit subjects get a nice rim light or halo around them to make them pop out of the golden landscape… like in this photo of a skateboard ramp in Half Moon Bay, California.

Good Light Situation #2: Let me let you in on a lil photo industry not-so-secret: overcast lighting is your friend. Most event photographers and wedding photographers prefer an overcast day to the beautiful bright sunshine. High overcast is your ideal lighting situation for evenly lit portraits and great candid event photos. Sunny days create harsh shadows on people’s faces that are hard for any photographer to deal with. Overcast days diffuse the sun making the light nice and even on everything you photograph. If you’re looking for a good day to take some portraits of your staff or volunteers and you’re just getting started, head out with the clouds!

Robson Street - Vancouver, British Columbia

The easiest light to shoot with is typically high overcast lighting… sunny days create harsh shadows on your subjects faces whereas grey overcast lighting is even and bright lighting on your subjects.

Good Light Situation #3:  Window light – this is great for portraits!  Need to take a portrait of a donor, a volunteer, a product or a bowl of fruit, side light the subject with window light and you will be amazed with the results. Have them face more towards the window then away so the light coming in is hitting them – this is beautiful delicate lighting to make them look like a nice, warm pensive person in good even light.


This is my nearly 98-year-old grandma… I wanted to take a portrait of her so I plopped her down in a chair next to her window.  She is side-lit with the lighting coming from the window create somewhat dramatic shadows on the opposite side of her face.


Another example of side-lit window light – delicate and easy to work with!


If you don’t want side-lighting or shadows and want your subject to be lit evenly – place them directly facing the window for even lighting – like this pic of my sister and nephew.


PHOTOGRAPHY TIP #2: Clean Your Background, Fill Your Frame

Once you have focused on your subject – take a moment to check the background of your frame to make sure there is nothing distracting that could take someone’s eyes away from the subject.  A bright red stop sign or a lamp post impaling your subjects head can really distract a viewer from the seeing the purpose and subject of your photo – taking a moment to make sure you have a clean background will really pay off in taking better photos.

Read this part only if you are working with an SLR… it’s for photo geeks not iPhone camera users :)  Using a shallow depth of field is a great way to clean up your background if you have a lens that is 50mm or longer.  A shallow depth of field will blur your background and make your subject pop.  To create a shallow depth of field there are three things you can do:

1) Use a longer focal length – try 50 mm or longer

2) Use a wider aperture – around f/5.6 or wider

3) Create distance between your subject and the background (if you’ve followed the above two steps – then make sure there is more distance between the subject and the background then there is between you and the subject and you should have a nice shallow DOF)


This photo has a busy urban background that is cleaned up by using a shallow depth of field – therefore allowing the focus of the picture stay on the subject without having the background become too distracting.  To create the shallow depth of field – I used a longer focal length (78mm), a wider aperture (f/3.5) and created distance between the subject and the busy background.  This photo was taken with even, high overcast light if you are wondering about lighting conditions.

Summer 2011: Slices of gouda from Triple Island Farm are distributed at the Kelowna Farmer's Market.  Triple Island Farm is a family operation in Cherryville, B.C. owned by Dutch immigrants Helma and Johan Tuijtel.

Another way to simplify your photos is to simply get closer – filling your frame with just the subject – like in this photo of cheese the focus is simply cheese and then a clean red background to make sure the viewer is only looking at that heaping block of gouda.

PHOTOGRAPHY TIP #3: Take Another Photo, Work It, & Show Fresh Perspectives

In photography and in life – the most successful person is going to be the one who works the hardest.*****

One major difference between a pro photographer and an amateur is that they simply work harder for their photos.  They’re patient – and wait for moments to unravel.  They wait for light or wake up early for light.  They find another angle.  They get weird and lie on the floor or stand on a chair.  They bend their knees to take a picture and show people a new perspective.

Don’t just hold the camera up to your face while you’re standing to take all your pictures.  That is the exact height we are all accustomed to seeing the world from so each time you bend your knees or elevate your camera – you are showing people a fresh perspective.

Try creating a frame within the frame to add another layer to your photo… it’ll hold people’s eyes in longer.  Shoot through something creative.  Use lines to lead the viewer’s eyes to the subject.  Control color in your frame to make a subject pop and if color isn’t helping your photo – then make the photo black and white so the colors aren’t a distraction from your purpose.

When taking portraits – keep the camera up to your eye until after the subject thinks their portrait has already been taken… sometimes the picture you take after the “picture” is the most expressive or will show more honest emotion.

02/13/2006----KATHLEEN HINKEL---- People crossing the parking lot at Publix in Indian Harbour Beach are reflected in a puddle as the sun comes back out on Tuesday afternoon.  (Kathleen Hinkel/FLORIDA TODAY)

Shoot into reflections and get closer to your subjects to show your audience things they are not used to seeing.

Summer 2011: Dairy cows at D Dutchmen Dairy in Sicamous, B.C.

Showing a new perspective will hold your viewer in longer to focus on your subject – and keep them engaged with your materials longer.  

12/04/06---KATHLEEN HINKEL------  The legs of Space Coast Ballet dancers posing for a portrait at their U.S. 1 dance studio in Melbourne on Monday night.  The Space Coast Ballet will be presenting the Nutcracker this month at the King Center in Melbourne.

Ballet shoot for dance project

Never take just one shot… if you have time – take 4 or 5 trying out different angles to give your viewers visual variety.  This example is essentially the same picture but the photos are different from grabbing varying perspectives.  


*If you’re interested in more about photography being used as a catalyst for change – google these names or words to feed your curiosity – Dorothea Lange, James Nachtwey, Mary Ellen Mark, Pulitzer-prize winning photography, Sebastiao Salgado or check out this link about how photography can change the world…

**The tips work for your eHarmony or Christian mingle profile pics too!

***This post does not have religious undertones… I’m actually just talking about looking for light.  Looking for light should not be interpreted as a reference to Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Rainbow Brite, Batman or any other religious affiliations.

****These are exposure tips for people who know what a stop of light is… if you don’t know what that is then good news – that means it’s highly likely that you’re a normal person!  Just skip to good light situation #2 and let the photo geeks have their moment!

*****Haha I know that was a joke… We all know the most successful person in photography and in life is the person born to the most privilege…  Leica’s and Hasselblad’s aren’t cheap… neither are shelter, food and water in most parts of the world :)

<All photos in this post are shot by Kathleen Hinkel, and are subject to copyright.>