The cost of hiring a professional photographer can be in the thousands of dollars per day—something that your organization might be able to afford on special occasions. But the budget for photography is always smaller than the need. As nonprofit communicators and marketers, we need a lot of great images to be able to share the work that we do with our audiences and potential supporters. Images are powerful storytelling tools, and likewise, professional looking portraits and headshots of leaders, staff and community members also help to showcase the people of our stories.

In this post, I’ll share a few tips on locations, lighting and sourcing volunteers that will help when hiring a pro isn’t possible. Here’s how to take portraits and headshots on a budget:

First, answer a few key questions…

Why? Who? How? The answer to these questions will help you achieve the best possible photos. Spend a few moments thinking things through and planning for optimal results.

But before doing so, first ask yourself this question: are you interested in photography or have a staff member who is—at least on some measurable level? If not, skip ahead to the end of this article – recruiting volunteers. Or if you decide to give it a go anyway, then please keep reading.

  • Why are you taking these photos? Is it for the leadership or staff page of the website, for a brochure, program or ad?
  • Who are you taking photos of, and who is the audience?
  • How – what should the setting and style be? What lighting and camera will you use?

Determine the location & style

Location: Should the setting be outdoors or inside? Should it be formal or informal? Although the background and setting of a portrait or headshot is not the subject, it is still an important part of the composition and can serve to convey meaning and set the tone for the photograph. Scout your office, nearby public buildings or outdoor spaces that are open and easily accessible, for optimal and inspiring settings for your photographs.

Style: Notice what’s behind and around the person being photographed; how does it frame them and help set the desired tone? Also notice how the light is hitting their face, and whether they need some powder or a towel to remove shine. Is their clothing straightened? Do they appear comfortable and pleasant? Is there adequate space around them in the camera lens; are they centered or off centered purposely? Take time to explore the image you see through the camera. Does the entire composition, the subject of the photo and the setting and background work together well?

Perhaps you are unable to conduct a photo shoot and need to take advantage of existing opportunities to capture photos, such as at board meetings, annual events or during other programming. Set up a corner designated as the place to capture portraits or headshots with some lighting and a tripod. This communicates both that you are ready and where to go for photos.

Make a list of potential locations and opportunities for photos throughout the year. Can you maximize taking photos for different needs at the same time?

Select and plan your lighting

Outdoors is generally preferred for lighting but it needs to be consistent lighting without sun filtering through leaves across faces, or in the harsh full afternoon sun. The best time to take photos outside is in the morning or late afternoon. Take note of the location of the sun. The subject should never have their back to the sun, it should always be facing them or near facing.

If an indoor setting is required, proper lighting can be challenging to achieve. The human eye has a greater capacity to see in dim light than the aperture of a camera unless the camera’s exposure is set specifically to register in low light. What may seemlike a dim setting to you may very well register as near darkness in your photos.

Yes, you can actually have too much light but it’s hard to reach those levels indoors without professional lighting, so have the lamps and the overhead lighting on. You can experiment for best results with the lighting you have available—using your built in flash on the camera or turning it off.

An atrium or room with frosted skylights or windows is an excellent place to get natural lighting indoors with minimal additional lighting required.

To really get the best lighting indoors you could build a light diffuser – or rent one or two lights with diffusers from your local camera equipment shop. Diffusers provide soft indirect lighting that is very nice for portraiture. 

Select your camera

Purchase or borrow a digital camera, or use a smartphone. The Samsung Galaxy X5, for example, comes with a 16 megapixels camera, which is plenty of pixels to take a great photo. You could also rent a camera and a tri-pod from your local camera shop.

If necessary, recruit skilled volunteers

Although these above mentioned tips will take you farther toward taking successful portraiture and headshots, I would recommend that you first reach out to your network to possibly discover a professional or a hobbyist photographer who would be interested in working with you to help take photos. There just might be a burgeoning photographer in your midst, who would jump at the opportunity to showcase their talents.

Beyond your own network, here are some other possible sources for connecting with potential volunteer photographers.

If you do manage to find a volunteer and decide to work with them, your job is then to help organize and answer the above Why, Who and How questions.

Happy picture taking!

How to take portraits and headshots for your nonprofit on a budget #NPMC Click To Tweet
Donnie R. Mills

Donnie R. Mills

Donnie R. Mills has worked with and at a broad range of non-profit organizations in the U.S. and Canada, as both a director and consultant of marketing and communications. He is a contributing author to "Five Good Ideas: Practical Strategies for Non-profit Success". Donnie has additionally worked in the tech sector and in advertising as an art director. He holds a bachelor's in graphic design and a master's in marketing. He is also an active photography hobbyist and founder of a photography group, in London, Ontario were he resides.
Donnie R. Mills
Donnie R. Mills

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