Shooting the Sacred | Part 1

Uncomfortable taking photos of people at Mass? Then this is for you.

"How do you overcome being afraid of taking pictures of people at Mass or other events?"

Aside from "What type of camera do you use?" this is perhaps the most common question I get.

And it's understandable. Often (practically always for me), you don't know the people at the event, and they don't know you. And so you're just going to waltz up and take pictures of them. What's so awkward about that?

Well, to many photographers---everything.

I suppose the fear is that someone will come charging at you while maniacally flailing their arms and threatening to sue you, which is a daunting thought.

Unreasonable--but daunting. Here's a little story about a Liturgy I covered in the early days. I like to call it 'The White-knuckled Mass.'

Once upon a time, in a Diocese not too far away. I was hired to cover a Parish Anniversary Mass in a small chapel. It would be celebrated by a visiting Bishop.

Most of the time, the Clergy and staff of a parish are very welcoming. But as I attempted to introduce myself to the Bishop and his entourage, I was brushed aside and given the death stare. I don't know about you, but this is not how I like to begin when covering an assignment.

As the Clergy processed into this incredibly tiny chapel, I did my best to remain unobtrusive. Which was like being the elephant in the room full of mice. The only light seemed to be directly above the Altar, so I had to move up a little from the side aisle. It seemed that I received a new glare of disdain for every step closer I got. This was going epically well…and we've only got an hour to go, I thought.

I moved up to the edge of the Altar feeling the Clergy's glare like the midday sun in the Gobi desert, and I proceeded to shoot. Every now and then throughout the Mass, I would sense an object being hurled at me, but I think that was just my imagination, or perhaps there were massive flies there. As the recessional hymn kicked up, I figured I'd get down the central aisle as fast as possible and then get the heck out of there. As the Clergy and servers processed out, I could clearly see that the Bishop was not processing out. He was running after me with a look that could kill cats. I could feel the hair on the back of my neck rise up, and my life flashed before my eyes. The Bishop raised his arms, grabbed my shoulders, and shook me, as his face burst into a humongous smile, and he said, "Boy, I hope you got some great pictures !"

Sometimes you just can't win…

Turns out there was nothing at all to be afraid of. It was all in my head.

Lessons? I didn't know this Bishop, so I didn't realize that the way he looked was how he always looked. The rest of the Clergy was simply watching me. The human eye is instinctively drawn to movement. And I was moving. And they weren't from the Diocese, so they felt a little out of place themselves...talk about misreading a situation.

Thankfully this happened early in my photographic life, and I learned never to place my fears above my job (unless there's a gun or knife involved).

Remember, most people feel awkward when being photographed, and that's often reflected in their facial expressions. But they do want you to take the photo.

Some practical advice

  • Pray.

  • Always introduce yourself to the Clergy and ask what, if any, guidelines they have concerning photography.

  • Always respect the occasion. If it's a Liturgy, remember that people are there to pray and be in Communion with Christ, so do your best to be unobtrusive. You may need to be a little bold from time to time for a critical shot but err on the side of discretion.

  • Be friendly and smile. Nobody likes a grouchy photographer.

  • Move stealthily but confidently. You're not a spy lurking in the shadows; you're a visual communicator trying to show the beauty and mystery of the Faith.

  • With children, if possible, get an acknowledgment from the parent. 

  • If a person indicates they don't wish their photo to be taken, acknowledge them clearly, to put them at ease.

And know your intent. If it's to bring the life of the Faith to the world, hold fast to that. Your motives matter.

Photography is a compelling way to present the beauty of the Catholic Faith to those who've never seen it. And an effective way to re-connect those who've drifted away. Photographs require no translations and are portable across every platform, from digital to print. But first, you need some photos.

Your confidence will grow with time, and the butterflies will subside. Stay focused on what you're there to do and breathe.

So make sure your batteries are charged, your lens clean, and your memory card empty. Always begin with a quick prayer. And remember the words of the father of the New Evangelization, St. Pope John Paul II, "Be not afraid..."

Shooting the Sacred is a multi-part series on the best practices, theory and gear for photographing the Catholic Mass and other Sacred events. Subscribe to receive it first!