Here’s the bottom line when it comes to church website design:
A simple photo of your church can provide more information to a visitor than paragraphs of text. But there’s a catch…
Shooting great photos is difficult and expensive. As a result, many churches resort to cheap stock photography or clipart.
But here’s the deal:
You CAN shoot stunning photos without a camera, and without any photography skills…for free. No. It’s not too good to be true. I’ve got the case study to prove it. Ready to learn how?
Please, never use clip art again
In the United States, the keyword phrase “bible clipart” gets about 14,000 monthly searches in search engines.
The keyword phrase “cross clipart” gets about 29,000 monthly searches. To make a comparison, the keyword phrase “old testament” only earns about 27,000 searches each month.1
What can we learn from this?
In America, cross clipart is more popular than the Old Testament.
Of course, I’m only kidding (kind of).
Clipart is generic, impersonal, and tacky. It’s one of the poorest ways to showcase your church to the world.
The real point I want to make is this:
Clipart is still wildly popular in our churches. But it’s one of the poorest ways we can showcase your church to the world. Clipart also makes a terrible first impression.
Clipart is generic. It’s impersonal. And frankly, it’s just plain tacky.
- Churches love clipart
- In America, the keyword phrase “old testament” receives 2,000 fewer monthly search engine queries than the keyword phrase “cross clipart”
- Clipart is generic, impersonal, and tacky
Stock photography isn’t much better
For what it’s worth, many churches have progressed beyond using clipart in their church website design and in their services.
Instead, these churches will use stock photography. But believe it or not, stock photography can actually be worse than clipart.
How? Because unlike clipart, stock photos contain images of real people and real places.
It’s deceptive to use stock photography of people’s faces and attempt to pass those people off as your own
The problem? These people don’t attend your church. And it’s deceptive to use stock photography of people’s faces and attempt to pass those people off as your own.
A new hamburger restaurant opens up in your city. You see their billboards. You see their ads on park benches and buses. You even visit their website.
And every time you see a promotion for this new hamburger spot (let’s call it Pop’s), you see the same promotional image: a bright photo showcasing a juicy hamburger patty on a golden brioche bun.
So one morning you decide to finally check out Pop’s in person. You get in your car. You drive to the restaurant. You sit down and order the Pop’s special: a juicy patty on a golden brioche bun.
But then you encounter a problem.
As the server hands you your food, instead of being greeted by the juicy hamburger you expect, you find a flimsy, overcooked patty on a dry sesame seed bun.
You look at the server in disbelief and say, “This doesn’t look anything like the burger in your ads.”
The server promptly replies, “The burger in our ads? Oh yeah, that’s not our burger. That’s just a picture we found on the Internet.”
- Stock photos can actually be more damaging than clipart
- Using stock photos of people’s faces that do not attend your church is disingenuous and misleading
- Don’t get the burger at Pop’s
Please, stop using stock photography
When I was still in Bible College studying to be a student pastor, I was hired on staff at a local church plant to be their Media Director.
It was my first ever paid position at a church. I was ecstatic. Sadly, my church and I committed the cardinal sin of using stock photography of people’s faces – in a big way.
It was 2011, and if you had visited our website at the time, you would have been greeted with a full-page photo of a smiling family. The photo took up the entire screen.
The family in the photo did not attend our church. They were stock photography models. Upon launching our website, several members of the church approached me to express their discomfort in our choice of imagery. They’d ask questions like:
- “Who is that family?”
- “They don’t attend our church – do they?”
- “Why not take photos of us?”
They were right. I was wrong.
It gets worse:
While I wasn’t in charge of the church website design myself, the developer was a close friend of mine. The problem?
He wasn’t just a talented web developer. He was also a professional photographer. We could have easily taken real photos of families in our church.
But the stock photo was more convenient. And therein lies the problem.
Stock photography will always be more convenient and affordable than capturing real photos of your church and your church’s people. It’s a shortcut. But it’s not a shortcut you want to take.
The indisputable value of photos in church website design
Seriously though, why am I making such a big deal about photos? Who even really cares?
Etsy is the largest online market for handmade items. Millions of shoppers use Etsy every single day. The platform continues to grow.
And according to Etsy, when it comes to shoppers making a purchase, the single biggest factor is…
…care to venture a guess?
Shipping cost? Nope.
Reviews? Shockingly, no.
In Etsy’s customer research, shoppers have told them that product photos are the most important factor in deciding to buy, even more important than the shipping cost, customer reviews, or even the price of the item itself.2
In Etsy’s customer research, shoppers have told them that product photos are the most important factor in deciding to buy
Of course, your church isn’t selling handmade goods. On the contrary, what your church offers to the world is infinitely more valuable.
Your church offers hope. Your church offers community. Your church offers purpose. So how can your church translate these existential matters into photos?
- Etsy is the largest online market for handmade items in the world – millions of shoppers use Etsy every single day
- According to their research, the most important factor in deciding to buy a product on Etsy is product photos (not item cost, shipping cost, or product reviews)
The single most important church photo you can ever take
Multiple research papers have been published on the value of human photos within website design.
- Researchers from the University of Bradford found that initial trust was boosted on websites that have photos of human faces3
- University College London found that adding happy photos of people to websites with low-trust increased perceived truthworthiness4
- Canadian researchers found that websites with photos of human faces were more positively received by users than websites with photos lacking human faces or websites lacking photos of humans whatsoever5
Moving beyond scientific research, real-world A/B testing has made similar findings:
Medalia Art sells paintings online. To test visitor engagement, Medalia replaced images of paintings with photos of the artists themselves.
The results? When replacing images of painting with photos of artists, Medalia saw an increase in conversion rate of more than 95%.6
Similarly, Georgia Institute of Technology and Yahoo Labs researchers looked at 1.1 million photos on Instagram and found that pictures with human faces are 38% more likely to receive likes than pictures with no faces. Moreover, they are 32% more likely to attract comments.7
Finally, Highrise (now known as Basecamp) saw their homepage conversion rate increase by 102.5% by simply swapping out long-form text for a smiling photo of a human.8
In their own words: “Big photos of smiling customers work.”
What does this all mean for you?
The absolute best church photos you can take and add to your church website design are photos of people smiling.
Photos of smiling faces boost conversions, earn trust, and are the perfect representation of the existential matters every church is involved in.
- The most important church pictures you can capture are photos of real people in your church smiling and laughing
- University of Bradford researchers found initial trust was boosted on websites with photos of human faces
- University College London found adding happy photos of people to websites with low-trust increased perceived trustworthiness
- Instagram photos with human faces are 38% more likely to receive likes than pictures with no faces
- Big photos of smiling customers work
How to capture beautiful church pictures for free…without a camera
It’s one thing to berate the use of clipart and stock photography in church settings…
…it’s another thing to provide a viable alternative.
So that’s what I aim to do in the case study that follows. Firstly, let it be known that I am not a photographer.
I know a great deal about videography. But put a DSLR in my hand and ask me to take a photo…and you’ll quickly see how useless I am at capturing stills.
Secondly, allow me to state for the record that I believe paying a seasoned photographer to come to your church and capture professional photos is one of the best ways to spend your church’s money.
Furthermore, to make a point, I employ a full-time photographer on my own team and a number of the photos used in this article were captured by him.
With all that being said, if you are not a skilled photographer (like me), or, if like many churches you are unwilling/unable to spend money on a professional photographer – there is an alternative option.
To prove a point, last weekend I visited a church I had never been to before and – using the following method – captured a series of photos over the course of a couple of hours.
Ready to see how I did it? Let’s dive into the case study.
Step #1: Gain access to a phone with a camera that has portrait mode
In the fall of 2016, Apple’s new ‘Portrait Mode’ feature first became available to beta users on the iPhone 7 Plus.
A highly anticipated feature, ‘Portrait mode’ allowed iPhone 7 Plus users to capture photographs on their phone with blurred out backgrounds. Fast forward a few years and this feature now comes standard on most phones!
Gimme that blurred out background
Known in the photography world as “bokeh”, a shallow depth of field is one of the hallmarks of professional photography – once reserved only for higher quality cameras with capable lenses. Not anymore.
I personally own an iPhone 7 Plus, so that’s the phone that I used in this case study.
If you don’t currently own a mobile device with ‘Portait mode’ capabilities, borrow one during service from a person that attends your church (you can give it back as soon as the service is over). Or borrow one from a close friend or family member.
This is the “free” part of the case study. By leveraging an existing tool you already possess (or borrowing from a friend), you’ll get access to photography tech that didn’t even exist a few short years ago.
Without spending a dime.
Step #2: Find the best light at your church and start shooting your photos
For this case study, I visited a friend’s church that I had never been to before.
As I stepped into the church building, the first thing I paid attention to was the lighting.
Lighting is the single biggest contributing factor to the overall look of your photos. Knowing this, finding the best available light is key. Here are a few lighting scenarios to look for that will help produce great-looking images:
- Creative stage/auditorium lighting
- Natural light from larger windows
- Light through stained glass windows
- Outdoor light at golden hour (use an app like Rizon to learn the precise time of day golden hour occurs in your location)
In my case, the church I was visiting had a number of good options for lighting. The stage had a couple of colored lights and the lobby had a ton of natural light and neutral-colored walls acting as practical reflectors – this made the entire room very bright and modern-looking.
Lighting is the single biggest contributing factor to the overall look of your photos
At this point, I was ready to start shooting some photos. So I took out my iPhone 7 Plus, set the camera to ‘Portrait mode’, and just started shooting
Below you’ll find a number of images I captured during my time at this church. Each is shown side-by-side with a wider shot showing how I set up the photo.
Before arriving at this church to take photos, I had already compiled a shot list of photos I wanted to take. Below you’ll find a list you can copy and use when taking photos at your own church.
This list details the types of shots I’ve found most useful when it comes to church website design, church graphics, and church social media posts:
- Smiling/laughing photos of people (by far most important/useful)
- Staff headshots
- Groups of people talking/hanging out together
- Prayer hands
- Hands lifted in worship
- Office items like keyboards, phones, calendars, computer monitors, etc.
- Kids toys
- Exterior building shots
- Empty seats
- Instruments being played
- Pastor speaking from stage
- Abstract photos with creative lighting
Step #3: Edit your photos with a free app
The final step before your photos are ready to use is the editing process.
Using a free mobile app like VSCO, you can add creative looks to your photos to give them a bit more personality or vibrancy.
Below you’ll see side-by-side comparisons of what a number of my church pictures looked like originally versus how they looked after applying coloring in VSCO.
Here’s the bottom line when it comes to church website design:
A simple photo of your church can provide more information to a visitor than paragraphs of text. So much so that photos of human faces have been proven again and again to boost conversions and build trust.
Instead of using clipart and stock photos, use real church pictures of your own people!
Anyone can do this. You don’t need to be a skilled photographer or hire a professional. Simply follow this simple three-step process:
- Start by finding the best available light at your church – or shoot outdoors during golden hour
- Use ‘Portrait mode’ on your phone (or borrow a phone that has this capability) to capture stills with a shallow depth of field
- Edit your photos in VSCO to add creative coloring.
Repeat this process month after month and you’ll be able to capture an endless supply of church pictures to improve your church website design…without a camera – for free.