So you’ve been asked to take some baptism photos. Exciting!
Until you start thinking about the challenges… a dark church being the predominant fear!
Photographically speaking, it’s fair to say a Baptism or Christening offers more unique challenges than any other type of photo session, and a dark church is just one of them. There are rules to consider, ceremonial moments you need to be aware of so you don’t miss them, and you may not be able to stand in the most ideal position.
But don’t be deterred! With help from CLG grad and professional photographer Claire Eastman who captured a friend’s baptism recently, we’ll tell you everything you need to know to nail your baptism photos…
This is really important, and none of the rest matters if you can’t even shoot inside! Ask the parents to mention to the priest they’re planning to have a photographer present – some don’t allow it. That being said, these days it’s much more uncommon for priests to ban photographers.
There are no common rules as to how much freedom you will have to shoot – it’s all down to the priest. So ask them to specifically clarify:
Light is the single biggest challenge of shooting a baptism.
The availability of light in most churches is such that it can be quite dim and gloomy! Don’t expect that you will be taking perfectly bright, crisp and creamy photos. This isn’t a regular portrait session, shot in beautiful light.
Instead, concentrate on the moments, embrace the moody light and shadows, and become friends with that black sheep of the three elements of exposure – ISO!
We mention ISO first because it’s the element you’ll need to rely on most to harness any ambient light you can.
Don’t sacrifice shutter speed instead of pushing your ISO… give me grainy photos over out of focus photos any day.
But embracing ISO also means embracing grain, because high ISO causes grain. But a baptism is the type of session where grain is forgiven, and you can always convert to B&W which is even more forgiving.
One of the biggest mistakes you can make when it comes to ISO and low light situations is to resist pushing your ISO, and thinking “I’ll just fix it later in post”. This article explains why you shouldn’t do that, and what you can do instead (no jargon, promise!).
Related: Embrace ISO
All that being said… there are limits, and they’re entirely dictated by your gear. A Canon 5d or 6d can shoot at around 4000 ISO without the grain affecting the sharpness and clarity to an unacceptable degree, as long as I expose properly.
Now bear in mind… I would not shoot at 4000 ISO if I were photographing a regular portrait session, because I want a crisp and creamy result and you can’t get crisp and creamy at 4000 ISO.
If your camera can’t shoot at very high ISO without a significant loss of quality, think about hiring a higher end camera. It’s not as expensive as you’d think and you’d just factor it in as a cost of the shoot.
Claire says “I use a 35mm f/1.4 lens, partly because it’s my favourite lens and pretty much doesn’t leave my camera. But it’s a great focal length for a baptism because I can fit so much into the frame.
I do have to move around a lot to get closer shots, but I like to zoom with my feet. If you prefer a zoom, a 24-70mm f/2.8 lens would be a really versatile focal range for an event like a baptism.”
Bear in mind if light is really low, a fast prime lens such as the 35mm can give you that extra little boost of light over a zoom.
What’s a fast lens? A lens with a maximum aperture of f/1.4 will let in more light than a lens with a maximum aperture of f/2.8. Why is it called fast? Because it enables to then use a faster shutter speed if needed. However in a low light situation, you’d just harness that extra light and leave your shutter speed as is.
Related: What Lens Should I Use?
You might be wondering at this point why you don’t just whip out your speedlight.
You’ll need to ask the person in charge, which is usually the priest. But honestly? I once shot a baptism with a relaxed priest who welcomed flash, but I still chose not to use it because I wanted to be inconspicuous. And sometimes it even makes babies cry… I did not want to be that person!
Ok I’m half kidding… if you’re allowed to use flash, and if you love using your speedlight, and assuming you rock speedlight… go for it!
Just make sure you use a diffuser to lessen the impact to all of those around you, and to give you more of a natural light result.
Ask the parents to detail the way the event will run, especially any specific formalities you might not be aware of.
I once shot an Orthodox baptism, and part of the ceremony involved the priest meeting the baby at the front door of the church and saying a prayer. Then priest, mum dad and baby formed a procession down the centre aisle to the front of the church.
Had I not known this beforehand, I’d not have known to position myself there in order to capture it from the right angle. Preempting it also gave me an opportunity to get my settings right first – it occurred in a darker part of the church, and it was quick. There were no time for test shots!
Claire had a chat with her friend before the event, and she talked about the aspects of the day that were important to he, and the baptism photos she hoped to get. Together they made a list of what Claire needed to capture, including the combinations of people they wanted in formal photos. These included the priest, family, friends and of course Godparents.
Don’t assume the parents will remind you who to capture on the day as they’ll be so in the moment and distracted that they will forget some combos. So even if you have a really great memory (go you!)… write.it.down, and put it in your pocket.
I have taken formal photos outside the church because the light inside was way too cave like for groups shots. But Claire shot the formal baptism photos for this event inside the church, and it’s a great way to give context.
However there are a couple of things you’ll need to consider when deciding.
Firstly, there might be another baptism coming very soon, and you may be ushered out before you have time for the formal baptism photos. However, this is something the parents should find out for you in the lead up.
The second reason would be light. If you’re photographing larger groups of people you need to shoot at narrower apertures to get everyone in focus. So if light doesn’t permit you to take the formal photos indoors, head outside and if you can, use the church as backdrop for the photos.
A narrow aperture is the higher f stop numbers (eg. f/7.2). It gives you more depth of field which you need for photographing larger groups, but it also blocks out light, so if you already have a low light situation this can be a problem.
For Claire, candid shots of friends and family are a must, and she loves taking photos of moments as they unfolded. She roams around as people are arriving, capturing different perspectives such as everyone watching the baptism.
She also loves to get shots of the children interacting with one other during the event, and makes sure to capture special family members such as grandparents, aunts and uncles watching on.
Be ready for those crucial baptism photos that you don’t get a do over for. When you’re know they’re about to occur, get in position and make sure you know your settings are good to go, otherwise take some test shots to be sure. Take heaps of shots, just in case.
Even if the family don’t want formal photos, the other crucial photos you need to get are baby with parents, grandparents, siblings and godparents.
Take every opportunity you can to snap that baby in multiple frames, multiple situations, even when there’s no particular moment happening specific to the baptism.
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