Alexander Mills, employee of Pro Church Tools and photographer, also has experience working full time in a church. He joins us to discuss the role photography plays in building your visual brand.
What’s In This Session?
- Using photography in your visual brand (8:38)
- The first step to developing your unique look (12:52)
- Best focal lengths for church photography (16:29)
- Managing ISO, white balance, aperture, shutter speed (22:05)
- Creating a Lightroom preset for consistent looks on your photos (29:03)
- Building your church’s visual brand with photography (36:16)
Show Notes & Resources Mentioned
- Canon 5D Mark II
- Adobe Lightroom
- Alexander on Instagram
- Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM Telephoto Zoom Lens
- Canon EF 85mm f1.2L II USM Lens
- Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L II USM Lens
- Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM Standard Zoom Lens
- Sigma 70-200mm f/2.8 APO EX DG HSM OS FLD Large Aperture Telephoto Zoom Lens
3 Instant Takeaways
- Create a preset. Having a preset as the starting point for editing your images allows you to easily give a similar appearance to all of your images. This consistent look will allow people to recognize the photo as a part of your brand simply based on the editing style.
- Context is key. Knowing where your photos will be used can change the way you frame up and edit your images. Alexander purposefully frames the photos he takes for Pro Church Tools with the subject prominent, then boosts the contrast in post production because he knows that most of the images will be displayed online and viewed on small, mobile screens.
- Tell your story. Don’t use stock images and footage on your website or social media. Instead use real images of your church to tell the story of who your church is. Everything might not be quite where you want it to be – maybe you want a new stage design, or wish your equipment was more up to date – but using real photos allows visitors to know what to expect.
The Full Transcript
Brady Shearer: This is the Pro Church podcast, session number 169. Constructing a Visual Brand Using Photography with Alexander Mills. Well, hey there, Pro Church nation, and welcome to the Pro Church podcast. You’re now part of a small group of pioneering churches doing everything we can to seize the 167 hours beyond our Sunday services. Why? Because we’re living through the biggest communication shift in the last 500 years, and what got us here won’t get us there. I’m Brady, your host, and this is session number 169, and you can find the show notes for this session at ProChurchTools.com/169. In this session of the podcast, we’re joined by Alexander Mills, discussing photography, and how to use it to create a brand, so let’s do it.
Welcome in to another session of the Pro Church podcast. My name is Brady, your host. Thanks for joining us for this session, 169th session. We like to start off each and every session of the show by sharing with you a pro-tip, or a practical tool that you can begin using in your ministry or church right away, and today, I want to tell you about a preset, an effect within Adobe Premiere Pro, and it’s called Frame Blend, Frame Blend, and we’ve been shooting a lot of makeshift time-lapses around Pro Church Tools HQ lately, taking our Ursa Mini out on a tripod, just pointing it at something, maybe it’s traffic.
I was doing this a lot when I was in San Francisco, went to a couple of parks and just shot these time-lapses, and I was doing, like I said, a makeshift time-lapse, where basically I would point my camera at some exciting subject matter, I’d record for three minutes and 20 seconds on 24 frames per second, and then in post, I would speed that clip up by 10 times to get a 20 second clip. This was the type of time-lapse that I was creating. I think the Ursa Minis actually have a time-lapse mode within them, but I wasn’t about to go and learn that on short notice. It was kind of a last minute idea on the way to San Francisco, and so I was gonna create this makeshift time-lapse.
Turns out a couple of the talented editors within Pro Church Tools were aware and familiar with an effect within Adobe Premiere known as Frame Blend. What Frame Blend allows you to do is take a clip that you’ve recorded and then sped up, that’s the key, don’t do it to a regular clip, do it to a clip that you’ve already sped up in post, and apply this effect, and what it’s going to do is add these blends to the fast moving objects. This works especially well if you’re creating a time-lapse of traffic, it’ll add frame-blending, and create this motion blur on top of the fast-moving subjects within your frame, and it takes that makeshift time-lapse that you’ve just shot, not actually using an intervalometer, or a camera with timed shutter speed, and timed actual photos, you’ve just made it with a video, it creates that exact same look using just a simple video camera.
If you’re looking to create a time-lapse, you can always just take out your camera like I did. I like to record for about three minutes and 20 seconds, speed that up by 10x and that gives me a 20 second overall clip, then what you can do is you can add frame-blending inside of Adobe Premiere Pro to create that for real time-lapsed look, so give it a try, it was definitely helpful for me after shooting those time-lapses. With that being said, it’s time for our interview, not our review, we’re getting ahead of ourselves. It’s time for our interview this week.
Today we’re joined by an actual employee here at Pro Church Tools, Alex Mills. Alex is our most second recent hire, and he has taken over the photography duties for the entire Pro Church Tools brand. He’s been doing a spectacular job, and there’s a big story and a reason behind what we’re trying to do, and we wanted to take a session of the podcast and dedicate it to that, and so in this session, we talk about using photography [00:04:00] in your visual brand, the first step to developing your unique look, the best focal length for church photography, managing ISO, white balance, aperture, shutter speed, and the tension between each of those important features and settings on your camera, creating a light rom preset for consistent looks on your photos and how to do that, and finally, building your church’s brand with photography, rather than focusing on type, your logo and colors, doing it with photography. That’s the thesis behind this entire session of the podcast. Enjoy this one, it’s a good one, it’s fun, it’s in-studio, my interview with Alexander Mills. We’ll be back in just a moment.
Well, hey there Pro Church Nation, and welcome back to another session of the Pro Church podcast. Today, we are joined in-studio, which, it’s been a long time since we’ve had a guest in-studio. We’re joined by Alexander Mills. Alex, welcome to the show.
Alexander Mills: Thanks. It’s not really as special as it sounds, ’cause I work here, but I’m here.
Brady Shearer: Wow, way to remove the magic.
Alexander Mills: I mean …
Brady Shearer: It took you 24 seconds.
Alexander Mills: It’s still special. We’re in-studio.
Brady Shearer: As you mentioned, you work here, you are our second most recent hire. You and Kyle were hired basically like three days apart. Kyle had to put in his two weeks at Lowes where he was previously working, so you don’t have the title of “most previous hire”, which means you also don’t have all the menial tasks of “most recent hire”. Like, recently I told Kyle he’s in charge of tidying up the office. There’s nine of us in here now, it gets a little bit messy, a little bit jumbled, and so I gave him the task of tidying that up, because he’s the most recent hire, so you missed out on that by like three days. 36 hours.
Alexander Mills: It was close. Yesterday, too, we were going round the office, talking about different TV shows and assigning characters to each one of us, and he kept up ending with the worst ones, and I asked him, “Why does Kyle get the worst ones?” “Well, he’s a noob, so.”
Brady Shearer: He is, he’s the rookie. It’s true, we went through Lord of the Rings, we went through Star Wars, we did Community, we did the Office.
Alexander Mills: Parks and Rec.
Brady Shearer: Parks and Rec. And he kept getting like, Jerry from Parks and Rec, or, who did he get in the Office? Ryan. You know, the temp in the closet. The reason I wanted to bring you onto the podcast was because one of the things that you’ve taken over, one of the roles that you’ve taken over here at Pro Church Tools is the in-house photographer, and we’ve really put an emphasis on the visuals that we’re creating, specifically the photography, so I want to talk about that, our work flow, and what we’re really trying to push forward, going forward with the Pro Church Tools brand, but before we jump into that, can you tell us a little bit about yourself, your history, who you are, not what you do, we know that, ’cause you do here.
Alexander Mills: Yeah, of course. I’m born and raised here in the Niagara region, so that’s something I have on all of you guys, you guys have all relocated to this area.
Brady Shearer: We’re all imports.
Alexander Mills: Yeah, and so this is my stomping grounds.
Brady Shearer: You’re a native.
Alexander Mills: I am, I am. Born and raised here, and I work at a church as well as working here. I was at the church full time before I cam here, so I’m working there part-time, doing some volunteer stuff, doing some music stuff, some digital stuff, all the stuff at a small local church, and now I’m here, and really loving what we’re doing. I have a history in photography and film. I started actually in film and video, and when the Canon 5D Mark II came out, I transitioned to photography because I bought that camera for its video capabilities, ’cause it shook up …
Brady Shearer: It was the one that started the DSLR revolution.
Alexander Mills: Yeah. So I sold all my video cameras and bought a 5D Mark II, and then I started learning how to tell stories with still images, and I haven’t gone back. I do some wedding photography, I do some portraits as well. I do lots of stuff on the side.
Brady Shearer: You also are the only employee that woks here that I didn’t go to high school with, or didn’t go to high school with the person they married, and so that’s also a unique challenge for you. You came in day one, and everyone was like, “Who is this guy with a man bun? And how do we feel about him?” And you’ve kind of just really fit in well.
Alexander Mills: I’m faking it for the most part.
Brady Shearer: Exceptionally well. That’s the narrative that we talk about. You go home each day, and you look at your wife, and your home, and you’re just like, “How long can I keep this up for?”
Alexander Mills: Yeah, I break down into tears, cry myself to sleep. She comforts me, but we’re making it work.
Brady Shearer: How long can this charade last before the real Alex comes out.
Alexander Mills: Right.
Brady Shearer: Let’s talk about photography. The thesis behind what I want to tackle in this session of the podcast is this idea that the photos that you take can equally if not more so contribute to your church’s visual brand than the logo, the colors, and the typography. When we think about creating a style guide, when we think about a church’s branding, the three things you think about first, I’ve written posts on this in the past, are the logo, the typography, and the colors, and we’re looking towards a rebrand with Pro Church Tools late this year, maybe next year, early 2018. We’re very focused on Nucleus right now, so we don’t want to split our resources, but we’re looking forward to a rebrand and there’s this existing tension where I know that we’re gonna work with our agency and do a rebrand, you know, for the first time, get a logo, and go through a complete design process.
The logo that we currently have is from 99designs.com, and before that, we didn’t even have a logo, it was just Pro Church Tools in Montserrat font, which I’d like to say, “Look, it’s a logo type.” “No, it’s just Montserrat, it’s a free Google font, Brady, okay? There’s nothing fancy here.” So, we’re looking forward to that.
One thing that we’ve started to dial back on is our existing brand in the stuff that we publish, and what I mean by that is that we’re not using as much text, as much of our colors, as much of our logo, in our YouTube videos, in our Instagram stuff, and what I’m really trying to do is out a heavy focus on photography, because I don’t know in the next year, when we do this rebrand, I don’t know what kind of fonts we’re gonna introduce, I don’t know what colors, or what the logo’s gonna look like. That could, and probably will, change. What I do know is that the photography that we do now will remain the same. Can you talk a little bit about your approach to the photography that you take? Or maybe even just talk about our initial discussion, ’cause you came in and I was like, “Okay, along with being on the Nucleus project, I also need you to take all the photos.” Can you recall that discussion, and your perspective on that?
Alexander Mills: Yeah. There’s a couple of directions I want to go with this, and I’m sure we’ll get into it all, but as far as that initial conversation that we had, you didn’t ask too much of me, you said, “Hey, this is what I want to do, why don’t you just start shooting things and we’ll see what happens.” I have my own style, I’ve established my own photographic style, which is something I’ll talk about in a bit, and so as far as stylistically, I knew what I wanted to go for. There’s a whole lot of natural light in this office, so it makes my job really easy. We’re filming videos, and I’m taking photos for thumbnails or whatever it is I’m doing, I just take advantage of the natural light we have. I haven’t had to use any artificial light or whatever.
For the first couple of photos I did, I tried something different editing styles in Light Room, and had you come over to my computer and said, “Hey, what do you think about this? What do you think about this? What do you think about this?” And we decided what, as far as editing style goes, like contrast and exposure, and highlights and shadows, things like that. I didn’t manipulate the photos at all by removing anything, I’m not talking about that kind of editing, but just some color tweaking here and there, and we honed in on a style that we agreed looked good, and then from that point on, I’ve created a preset.
That’s my starting place for every photo that I do now, on the editing side, is starting with that preset that we decided, “Yep, this looks good,” and then tweaking it from there. Sometimes you have to bring the exposure down, sometimes you have to bump something else up, and that’s fine, but having that consistent starting point, so that stylistically, the editing is consistent across all the things that we do, so that when you see that photo, it’s familiar, you know that that’s a thumbnail for Ask Brady, or you know that that’s this, and that’s this. “This is from Pro Church Tools,” just based off the editing style.
Brady Shearer: There are so many different elements to the photos that we get. You’ve mentioned the facility that we’re in with the natural light, and the great décor that’s already here, the camera that you’re shooting with, the lenses, the Light Room preset, and then your photographic style. I think it’s this five-fold, five different elements that are contributing totally overall look that we’re trying to create with our photos. Let’s start with the one thing that you can control, because if someone’s listening to this, they might be a little bit envious of the Pro Church Tools headquarters. “Our church doesn’t look like that.” There might be a little disconnect there. Let’s talk about your photographic style.
When you say that that was something you developed, for someone who doesn’t really have any context for what that means, can you explain that in really simple terms? What is a photographic style? How do we create one, and what does yours even look like?
Alexander Mills: Absolutely. One of the first photographic projects, major ones, that I worked on for still photos was, I was asked to go on a trip to Uganda on behalf of the International Association for Hydrocephalus and Spina bifida. They were having an international meeting, conference, and they needed some photo and video coverage, so I was coming out of the video world, and stepping into the photo world, and so I traveled across the world to Uganda with a friend of mine, who is an advocate for that association, and started doing some video, which I was comfortable with, but also did some still images.
I spent some time after that conference traveling around the country there, and that’s when I really established my personal style, I guess you would say. I just got to spend time amongst the people, and I took so many photos, and I think that’s your first step for finding your style, is just taking photos. Before you go to create anything for your church, your website or whatever, start by shooting a lot of photos. It doesn’t even have to be of your church. Sure, that’s going to be part of this process, but just get familiar with the camera in your hands, and find your style. What kind of photos you like to take, what kind of light you like to use, what kind of moments you like to capture.
For me, I really found that I loved capturing candid reactions, candid emotions of people, and I found that on that trip in Uganda, ’cause I was spending a lot of time with the locals, and just walking around, sometimes by myself, and trying to tell a story. I had a blog that I was keeping while I was in Uganda, and I wanted to tell the stories that I was learning every day to the people at home through still photos. That’s how I was baptized by fire. I had to learn that on the fly. “How can I tell a story with this still image?”
That’s how I found my style, which like I said, is i just love capturing candid, raw emotion, because I think you have such a great opportunity with, again, we’ll get into this in a bit, when it comes to your church specifically, and your website, and what you’re using these photos for, but I think you have such a great opportunity with still photography that you don’t have with other aspects of your brand, like your font, or your color, or whatever.
All those things, you want to be consistent, and you want to be great, but when it comes to your photography, you have the opportunity to tell a story. I think that’s such a unique aspect of this design element to your digital presence. Establish your own style, and that’s lens choice, that’s editing style, that’s all these different things, but that you can bring to your church so that it’s consistent.
Brady Shearer: You mentioned, it sounds like subject matter is the biggest essence of your personalized style of photography. You mentioned lens choice. Do you have your go-to pet lenses?
Alexander Mills: Yeah, for sure. Stylistically, some people really like wide-framing. My widest lens is 17mm, that’s pretty wide.
Brady Shearer: On a full frame Mark II.
Alexander Mills: Yeah, to the point where you get some lens distortion, and you get a unique look. It’s my least favorite look, I only use that for landscapes. Some people love shooting people with it, I don’t.
Brady Shearer: Some people like making people’s noses look gigantic, I suppose.
Alexander Mills: Exactly, yeah, or their legs super long. It’s not my thing, but it is a thing. It can be your style, and that can also be great. For me, I love fixed focal length prime lenses. I love my 50mm, I love my 34mm, I love my 85mm 1.2, it’s my absolute favorite lens. I get really great, medium-cropped images when it comes to people, and those fixed focal length primes that have those really low apertures, like 1.2, 1.4, 1.6, 1.8, you can achieve some really great, styled looks straight out of camera. That’s my sweet spot, is those fixed focal length primes, but the 85mm for sure.
Brady Shearer: That’s interesting, because when I think of cinematography, all of our lenses are primes. When we’re with our Ursa Minis, I love the 85mm. Probably the 35mm and the 85mm are my go-to focal length of choice, and we have the Rokinon Cine DS primes, and that’s usually more of a cinematography thing. You think of photography and you’re like, “Yeah, throw that 85mm to 200mm f/2.8 Canon L series on and let’s just go from there,” and so it’s interesting to hear that you would shoot with primes, because that requires you to do a lot of the movement when it comes to zooming with your legs, rather than with the barrel of the lens.
Alexander Mills: There’s a lot less versatility. I have the 24mm to 70mm 2.8/ if I was traveling for a day, and I could choose one lens, that’s it, because I can get a wide frame, but I can also get a tight crop out of it, so it has everything that I need, but if I know what I’m shooting, and especially when it’s people, I’m willing to do the extra work, to move myself physically to get that shot with the 85mm, than opposed to just doing it with the turn of the lens.
Brady Shearer: Is there a picture profile that you’re using on the Mark II? I know for video, we’re always trying to shoot as flat as possible so we can grade in post, but with photography are you using standard, or portrait? This shows my ignorance when it comes to photography.
Alexander Mills: It totally depends on what your workflow is going to be on your computer. If you have a program, if you have access to Light Room, or a powerful program like that where you’re able to edit RAW, then I would recommend shooting as flat as possible and in RAW, so that you have the capability to manipulate those factors in post-processing, but if you don’t have access to a powerful program like that and you have to shoot JPEG, then a lot of those picture profiles that Canon has built into their cameras, and I’m sure other brands as well, are great. Like you said, they have standard ones, they have portrait ones, they have landscape ones, and I know in my camera, those are all customizable, and you can make one from scratch completely on your own in camera, but if you’re shooting RAW, which I would recommend, if you have the disc space and the editing capability, I’d recommend just shooting as flat as possible, and tweaking those elements afterwards.
Brady Shearer: Yeah, so within a camera for photography, you have the option to shoot RAW, JPEG, or RAW plus JPEG. So, you’re always shooting RAW?
Alexander Mills: Yeah, exclusively.
Brady Shearer: I think that’s the way why to go. What’s great about RAW is, if you make a mistake, especially if you’re at church and there’s so many things going on, and you’re shooting a ton, if you make a mistake, RAW allows you to fix that mistake, whereas JPEG bakes in that, and it’s kind of like it’s saying, “Look, you made this mistake and now you can never go back, and this JPEG is a forever reminder of your incompetence as a photographer.”
Alexander Mills: I’ve seen some really incredible resurrections of terrible photographs. Whether you just forgot to check your exposure and the whole photo’s blown out, you’re doing a wedding or an engagement session where it’s super important, you have paying clients, and it’s really incredible what you can do with RAW files, and you can fix all those things.
Brady Shearer: I’ve always been so impressed by the ability to change white balance. If you’re shooting outdoors before church, and then you run into the auditorium and you forget, or maybe you’re not on auto-white balance. Would you always shoot auto-white balance?
Alexander Mills: If I’m in a variable environment, I always shoot on a white balance. Next week, I’m gonna be doing some new head shots here in the office, and so because I know my environment, it’s fixed, nothing’s changing, I’ll probably go custom, but if you’re going from outside to inside or whatever, you don’t want to forget. You don’t want to be custom white balance outside and then forget to change it inside, so I just stick with auto-white balance. Like you said, you can correct that in post.
Brady Shearer: Yeah, that’s what I’ve always found so amazing. When you shoot video, we have cameras that can shoot RAW. We would never shoot RAW, because talk about disc space! It’s just not worth it for web delivery that we’re doing, so we’ll shoot pro-res, 4:2:2 10 bit color space, which is great, and it’s still very flexible, so you can push in post and adjust, but I remember the first time I was doing photography, and I was just changing the white balance and it wasn’t doing anything, it wasn’t destructive at all, and I was like, “This is magic!”
Alexander Mills: Yeah, it really is incredible.
Brady Shearer: Okay, so we’ve got, you shoot in 5D Mark II, you talked about the focal lengths, your stylistic choices. When it comes to white balance, aperture, ISO, kind of the exposure triangle, you mentioned that the difference between auto-white balance and custom, and how you’re making those decisions. What about ISO? Within film cameras, again, especially high-quality film cameras, like yours, I might need to use that as an example again. It has a native ISO of 800, which means you’re gonna get the best dynamic range out of this camera and this sensor if you’re on this ISO. We’ll always shoot at 800. 1600 if we’re in severe low light, but 800, and adjust the aperture and lighting as needed. How does that work with photography? ISO, aperture, that exposure measurements?
Alexander Mills: Beginning with ISO, I really don’t like shooting auto-ISO. I don’t think that any camera really does a great job of measuring it, especially once you get set in your style, and you know what you want your image to look like, I like to leave as little variables in the hands of the camera as possible, so I’m shooting on full manual all the time, with the exception, like I said, of auto-white balance. ISO, a general rule of thumb with still photography is to keep it as low as your light will allow, just to reduce noise. Some of the cameras that are out now, like I know the 5D Mark IV, which is on my wishlist, the ISO capabilities of some of these new cameras are just nuts. You can expand the range of these ISOs to over 100,000. It’s insane.
Shooting at 100 ISO on [00:23:30] a 5D Mark II is always ideal, but sometimes it’s not possible, so you gotta bump it up to 400 or 800, or sometimes even higher, and shooting in RAW again, just to go back to that, really helps you with that, because in post, you can add some noise reduction, and recover from that if you’re shooting in really low light, which I assume sometimes in a church service, depending on what you do in your auditorium. Sometimes it’s very low light, and so that’s what you have to do. Start with your ISO, and dial it in to as low as you possibly can, and then from there, you can address shutter speed and again, you can do different things stylistically with shutter speed, so if you want to get some motion blur.
I’m just thinking about maybe if you’re doing photos of worship on a Sunday morning, and you want to get some really unique photos of the drummer or something, and you want to get that motion blur, then you can crank that shutter speed down to achieve that effect, but generally, you want your [00:24:30] photos to be as sharp as possible, and so there’s always that balance between getting your ISO as low as you can, and getting your shutter speed as high as you can to get the least amount of noise, and the sharpest photo when it comes to shutter speeds. It’s a delicate balance, and again, when you just get out and start shooting photos in different environments, like outside, and inside, and low light, and all these different things, a lot of the stuff will become second nature.
I know for me, I’m just adjusting all my settings on the fly, between aperture, ISO, shutter speed, all these things, without even looking at the buttons, or without even really thinking that much, just because of repetition and having over 100,000 actuations on my camera, just taking photos all the time. Your aperture is a little more delicate, especially when it comes to fixed focal length primes, when they have those really low apertures, like 1.2, like I mentioned on that 85mm. 1.2 can be really, really soft. Sometimes the depth of field is way too shallow, where not enough is in focus. I love the 1.2, but there are only specific circumstances where I’m able to use it.
Brady Shearer: Such as?
Alexander Mills: I can do portraits in 1.2 if I know that my subject isn’t going to be moving at all. If I’ve posed them …
Brady Shearer: Right, so their face is in focus, but their ears are a little bit out? I love look, I’ve always liked it.
Alexander Mills: It can be really, really beautiful, but also you can really blow it, and that’s something you can’t fix in post.
Brady Shearer: RAW is not gonna help you recover focus.
Alexander Mills: Yeah, so if you’ve pulled your focus and the tip of their nose is in focus and their eyes aren’t, which is totally capable at 1.2, you can’t fix that.
Brady Shearer: Oh yeah, I’ve done that.
Alexander Mills: So crank it up to 1.8 or 2.0. I know sometimes the temptation is to get all the light out of the lens that you can, getting down to 1.2 to get all that light. Sometimes it’s just not possible. There’s, again, a delicate balance there in aperture, with, like I say, getting as much light into the lens as you can and as you want, but also getting what you want to be in focus.
Brady Shearer: When it comes to the sharpness, too, a lens is gonna be its softest at its most wide open, too, so if you’re shooting at 1.2, we talk about this when we’re shooting with our video lenses, our cine lenses that go down to 1.5 on the stop and it’s like, if we’re shooting at 1.5, it better be because we have no light, because it’s gonna be hard to pull focus, because with video, you’re working with moving subjects, so it’s a bit different, and this lens is gonna be at its most soft here. If you stop down a couple stops from its most wide open, and that’s where you get the lens’s sweet spot. Again, we’re talking about all this tension and this balance, it’s like, “Okay, if I adjust this, well then I’ve gotta consider this,” and I do want to thank you for delicately not making fun of the fact that I called the exposure triangle white balance, aperture, and ISO. I forgot shutter speed.
Alexander Mills: That’s all right. I do think that the Canon 70 to 200mm 2.8, I have the Version 2, image stabilized.
Brady Shearer: A classic.
Alexander Mills: I think it’s the best balance between low light, really great bokeh, and really sharp images.
Brady Shearer: I would say, if you’re a church, that’s probably gonna be one of your go-to lenses, because if you’re shooting stuff from back of the auditorium, however big your auditorium is, you’re gonna need to have good low light when it comes to your lens and your auditorium’s gonna be dark so your church needs that. You’re gonna need to have that reach to be able to get from where you are to the stage, and you’re also gonna need that image stabilization too, because that’s just what’s required if you’re shooting on that long of a focal length.
Alexander Mills: The image stabilization on that lens really is incredible, and especially because it’s 2.8. Sometimes, you have to bring that shutter speed down to get a little more light, and so you’re shooting a little bit lower than you want to, but that image stabilization really does counteract that, and I do want to say, I’ve mentioned exclusively Canon equipment, and that’s just because I use it and I love it, but Sigma makes really great lenses. They make a really great version of that 70 to 200mm, and Nikon has their own version. They’re all 2.8, I think they all offer image stabilization, so whatever equipment you’re shooting on, whether it’s Nikon, or you want to use a Sigma lens or whatever, you can find these lenses with almost whatever brand of body you’re shooting with. I’m talking about Canon just because that’s what I use and what I’m familiar with, but there are options definitely for you if you don’t.
Brady Shearer: Let’s talk about, and transition into the unique look that we’re trying to create with the Pro Church Tools photography. Just to reiterate, we have purposefully and very intentionally pulled back on the text, on the logo, on the colors that we’re putting in our Instagram posts, especially our videos though that are going on YouTube, that are going on Facebook. Videos that we know are gonna be watched, and are gonna last for a long time, knowing that beyond 2018, these videos are gonna be important, and someone is gonna watch this, and if our brand is different, we wouldn’t want it to look old and out of touch. We’re always gonna be in this space, at least for the next five years until our lease is up, and so this type of lighting, and this type of décor, is gonna be true to the brand.
What we’re trying to do is create a ton of photos, because we know on our new website, we want photos to be super, super the main focus, and this will lead into what we think you should do with your church’s website, but let’s talk about the specific style. You mentioned that Light Room preset. Before we get to the Light Room preset, is there anything when it comes to the focal length, the aperture, that you’re trying to use that would be specific to the Pro Church Tools look? Obviously, we have the same lighting, the same décor, that’s always going to create the same backdrop, and similar lighting conditions, but focal length, framing, is there anything there that you’re doing intentionally, or is that just whatever looks cool in the moment?
Alexander Mills: I think it’s mostly, I’m keeping framing in mind, moreso with this project than I think I ever have, just because a lot of the photos that I’m doing right now are for, like you said, YouTube thumbnails, and for specific uses, so I have to have that framing in mind. On a YouTube thumbnail, if you’re on mobile, sometimes they can be really small, and so if my subject isn’t prominent in the frame, they’re just gonna get lost as it shrinks under mobile.
Like I said, for this project, I’ve really had to consider framing, and thinking, “Okay, what purpose is this going to serve on the web, and what is the finished product going to look like?” Now I have to consider that in my framing here. Am I allowing enough room to crop 16 by 9? Is your face, if it’s a solo photo of you or whatever, is your face prominent enough in this image that it’s going to be aesthetically pleasing when someone scrolls by it, so I’ve really, really had to consider framing for this project.
Brady Shearer: Okay. Let’s talk about Light Room now, ’cause I remember this is the part that I was most involved in.
Alexander Mills: Yeah.
Brady Shearer: Probably because color grading, which is what we call it in film, has always been something I really think is very cool. Taking a flat image, and then bringing the colors to life in a unique way. Let’s talk about this preset that you’ve created within Light Room.
Alexander Mills: It’s pretty standard. I haven’t had to do anything really crazy. Depending on where we’re shooting in the office, one wall of our office is just like a gigantic window, it’s all windows, but the other side of the office isn’t, so depending on which direction I’m shooting, sometimes I have to overcompensate on some of these settings just to make it look consistent from one photo to another, but the base preset, I’ve boosted exposure a little bit, we’ve boosted contrast a little bit higher than I usually do, again, just for the purpose of getting that clarity on the thumbnails as they shrink, so just boosting contrast a little bit.
I am using a radial filter on the subject. This is kind of advanced Light Room talk, but a radial filter is, you can make it whatever shape you want, like based off a circle shape, and so I’ll put an oval around you, and anything outside of that filter, I bring the exposure down just a little bit, not so much that you would ever notice, and say, “Oh, that looks unnatural,” but if I show you a before and after photo, you’ll see that that radial filter really separates the subject from the background, and again, that’s just for the purpose of really making those photos punch on digital.
Everything else is pretty standard. I bump the clarity a little bit, saturation is up just a tiny bit. Vibrance, again, up a tiny bit, and then I just tweak all those things from photo to photo to make them look consistent. As I mentioned, I’m starting with the auto-white balance, and trying to match them as naturally as I can in post from one photo to another, but we haven’t done anything really extreme or off the wall. Part of my style is I love using natural light, and making the photos look as natural as possible, so that’s what I’m going for.
Brady Shearer: Luckily, we have so much natural light here. Well, of course, you also always shrink my waist so that I look just a little bit thinner.
Alexander Mills: Yeah. I didn’t think we were going to get into that, but …
Brady Shearer: We’re all about transparency here.
Alexander Mills: Yeah, I take the photos from Light Room, put them into Photoshop, and do some pretty extreme retouching there, just on your general physical physique.
Brady Shearer: Yep. Like, my biceps always get increased.
Alexander Mills: Yeah, we bring those up, we bring the waistline down.
Brady Shearer: Of course. You need to have that V-shape on me. You’re not gonna click on a YouTube thumbnail if you just saw regular Brady. True story though. First time I was shooting my head shots, first time ever, it was in college, I was in second year, and we were shooting head shots for the eventual Pro Church Tools first site, and I was in the midst of losing that freshman 80 or whatever it was that I put on, like something crazy. It was like a freshman 30, and I was probably about eight pounds away, and I had lost 20 pounds already, and so the photographer was my best man, my close friend Steve, and so we took the photos, I was like, “Steve, you need to bring my waist in just a bit, because I’m gonna lose that weight in like, three weeks or four weeks, but we have to shoot it now,” and so he brought my waist in, and I never lost that weight. I would always look at that photo, I’d be like, “That’s not me! I never got to be that thin!” That’s actually a true story.
It’s interesting that you mentioned … It’s important to know where you’re delivering the photos, and then working your workflow and preset in that manner to reverse engineer how you want it to look on that platform. We know that we’re delivering to these really small thumbnails, and it’s interesting that you mentioned also that radial filter, because that’s something that’s done in film as well, which is fascinating to think. You can set up with a professional, hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of lights, and scrims, and modifiers, and have all these professional lighting people, and you can get it perfect for film.
Then what’ll still happen is, they’ll put that same filter on a video and they’ll use motion tracking to track where the faces go, where the key face goes throughout the scene, and then they’ll do the same thing where they boost the exposure just a bit on that person’s face, and they reduce it in everywhere else, and what this does is, it takes away the focus from anywhere else. They really want you looking at this key face, the person that’s talking right now, or these key two faces, and so film does the exact same thing, and they’ll do it more advanced using the motion tracking, ’cause obviously it’s not a still image. That’s interesting, ’cause I remember first doing that on a video, and seeing someone pop, and I was like, “Wow!” And to see you do it on photo reminds me of that.
Okay, let’s transition into, if you’re listening, why is church photography so important? Because the thing that comes to my mind first is, your church’s website. We’ve talked a lot about this, I’ve talked a lot about this with coaching churches, we’ve done Pro Church podcast coaching edition, the new ones drop every Thursday, and churches have asked me, we’ve done a little bit of work on their website, like, “Yeah, you’ve got some graphics here, you’ve got your logos and colors, maybe even a little bit of consistent visual brand, but I have no idea what your church actually is like.”
There’s no pictures of what the auditorium looks like, what a worship service would look like, what the outside looks like, the people within your church, no smiling faces. It’d be like if you went to a restaurant’s website, and they didn’t have any pictures of the food at all. Some restaurants that are really high-class, fancy with tons of great reviews on Zomato, and TripAdvisor, maybe they can get away with that, but it’s just a bad practice to not show, quote-unquote, “your product”, what you’re trying to get people to engage with.
You might reject the term “product” if you’re listening, and that’s okay too, it just comes down to the fact that your website is gonna hit a new visitor, and if you’re not representing who you are as a church, and what you’re all about visually, there’s no amount of words that could make up for that, and there’s no amount of great orange gradients that might look cool with a sweet font over the top, but that still doesn’t represent who you are.
When it comes to churches’ photography, and you know, maybe they’re not working with as great of a lighting set up as here, and maybe they don’t have the greatest camera, or the greatest lens, and their gear isn’t as good as they want it to be. What would you recommend to a church who recognizes the importance of photography, but feels a bit stuck?
Alexander Mills: For sure. The importance of photos, and you talk about this a lot, in a lot of the things we put out.
Brady Shearer: I do talk a lot.
Alexander Mills: That’s true, but you talk about this subject a lot. The importance of having photos of real people on your digital presence. We just recorded an episode of Ask Brady just yesterday, where you were talking about Facebook presence and Instagram presence, and how we don’t need another graphic with a bible verse on it. What people want to see on digital is real people, and I think a lot of the people that maybe we’re talking to today, work in church or volunteer in church, or have been in the church world for a long time, and I’m one of those people, so I’ll speak for myself, but sometimes I lose touch of the perspective of the first time visitor, the unchurched.
Brady Shearer: It’s almost impossible not to.
Alexander Mills: Yeah. Maybe some of us have been in church for so long that we forget what it was like to walk into church for the first time, or maybe some of you are like me, and you grew up in church, and your dad’s a pastor, and you never walked into church for the first time, you were always a part of church, so you actually have no idea what that’s like. When you think about your website, and your presence online, a lot of the people that are going to be coming to your website are going to be first time visitors, newcomers, maybe people who are completely unchurched, never been to church before. When they come to your website, they are looking to see what to expect.
When they come to your website, and they see some great graphics and some great text, when they come to your actual church, they have no point of reference of what they’re going to be seeing, and so when you meet them online first, your first point of contact with a first time visitor online, and they see your building, they see real people, they see real faces, they see photos of real events that you’ve hosted, real groups. When they step foot in your church, it’s already gonna be a little bit familiar. They’re already going to be more comfortable, and they’ve never even been there yet. I think that’s so important and so vital, and all the more important that you don’t use stock photos of people that don’t belong to your church on your website.
Brady Shearer: I’m shaking my head angrily now.
Alexander Mills: Because you mentioned restaurants earlier. That would be like a restaurant putting stock photos of somebody else’s food on their website.
Brady Shearer: “That’s not your burger, that’s In and Out Burger.”
Alexander Mills: Exactly.
Brady Shearer: “False advertising!”
Alexander Mills: We do that in church and we’re okay with it, and we can’t be okay with it anymore, and like I mentioned earlier, you can have the best brand, you can have the greatest aesthetic when it comes to your graphics and your fonts and your gradients and whatever, but you have an opportunity, a unique opportunity with visuals, whether it be photos or videos. We’re talking exclusively about photos here, but this is applicable to videos as well. You have the opportunity to tell a story that you can’t tell with a font type, and you can’t tell with a gradient, and you can’t tell with a graphic.
You have an opportunity to tell a story. You have the opportunity to be a visual story teller, and you and i both want to see churches take advantage of this, and you don’t have to have the best gear. You don’t have to have all these lenses that I’ve talked about. You don’t have to have the 5D Mark IV. I’m shooting weddings on a 5D Mark II, and I don’t want to. I want to shoot them on a Mark IV, but because I have worked to establish a style, and I know what I’m doing, I can shoot. I could shoot with a Rebel XT or whatever, and I could produce a great image, because I’m telling a story.
That would be my encouragement to the people who are listening, to church people, is to shoot with a purpose of telling a story to first time visitors for your digital presence. Whether it’s your website banner or Facebook post that you’re posting throughout the week, Instagram, whatever it is. Show people what your church is like, who you are, and again, I’ll speak for myself, don’t shoot just exclusively photos of your church’s finest moments. Maybe just special events that you put on. Don’t be ashamed of where your church is at compared to another church or whatever, that you don’t have these lights on stage, of whatever it is.
Shoot your church as it is, be proud of your church as it is. Shoot your people as they are, and be honest with the story that you’re telling, so that, like I said, when first time visitors see those photos and they come to your church, they’re familiar already, they know what to expect, and I think that that works to break down some walls, to break down some barriers, and to help you essentially communicate the gospel message, which is what this is all about.
Brady Shearer: I think what you hit on is the most important part of this entire podcast, which is that when someone walks into your church for the first time, and they’re seeing the lobby, and they’re seeing the greeters, and they see the building, and they see the parking lot, and they see the auditorium, and they experience the worship, and they hear the message, and they have to listen to the announcements and then they leave. All of that should be translated to your church’s website.
The same way that someone is making a first impression with your church when they walk through doors, they’re making the identical first impression when they hit your website’s homepage. What you need to do is, take that visual experience, what they would see through their own eyes when they walk into a church, and give that to them via the website. That way, it’s consistent. If your website is full of photos that have nothing to do with your church at all, and even if it looks great, but it’s just colors and type. That’s not you. It’s your color, sure, and that’s your logo, sure, but those are just arbitrary choices. Those aren’t the people, that’s not the community, that’s not the culture, that’s not the experience and ambience of what your church is actually like. Only photos can do that. I think that’s the big take away.
Okay, that’s a good place to wrap up. Alex, can you tell people about where to find you, maybe your Instagram, online, what you’re up to there?
Alexander Mills: You can find me on Instagram @Alexander.Mills. I post lots of photos of coffee and fish and my wife.
Brady Shearer: Fish?
Alexander Mills: I like to fish.
Brady Shearer: Oh.
Alexander Mills: Yeah.
Brady Shearer: I’m learning all these new things about you.
Alexander Mills: Not like, I don’t post pictures of like a filet of salmon.
Brady Shearer: I was thinking you went to McDonald’s and shot a double Filet-O.
Alexander Mills: Filet-O-Fish, yeah.
Brady Shearer: Do you just went to different fast food joints, and posted pictures of their fish sandwiches?
Alexander Mills: No, but I think that I’m going to start a new Instagram and devote it exclusively to doing that.
Brady Shearer: I would follow and like every post, and then buy all the food.
Alexander Mills: Perfect. So you can find me there too. We’ll comment in the show notes what that Instagram handle’s gonna be.
Brady Shearer: Okay, sounds great. Thanks for coming on, Alex. Now I guess we will go back to work. Normally this is where I sign off and say goodbye, but really we just have more to do.
Alexander Mills: Back to work.
Brady Shearer: Love it. All righty, there you have it, my interview with Alexander Mills, talking about constructing a visual brand using photography, not relying on type, logo, colors, but instead, doing it strictly, or at least primarily, with photos. We talked about the first step to developing your unique look, and how Alex has constructed that, and really, it comes down to shooting a ton, and being intentional about it. We talked about best focal lengths for church photography, and Alex’s favorite focal lengths. Interesting, using prime lenses more than zooms. We talked about managing ISO, white balance, aperture, and shutter speed, creating a Light Room preset for consistent looks on your photos, and building your church’s visual brand with photography, that call to action, and really challenge to churches at the end, especially when it comes to your church’s website. Your home base online, the most important part of your digital presence, making sure it is stuffed with great photos.
Thanks to Alex for coming on the show, although a thank you might not be necessary, because I just asked him and forced him because I am his boss, I make him do as I please during work hours, especially when it comes to podcasts talking about photography. With that being said, it is now time for our review of the week, this one comes from Robert Madrid from the USA, it says, “Five stars. First off, thanks for sharing your knowledge. I barely found your podcast last week, I’m listening to the new ones and from the beginning. You are an inspiration.” Well, thank you Robert Madrid. I think your name, Robert Madrid, is an inspiration. Very cool name. Thanks for leaving a review inside of Apple Podcast, it means the world to me and the Pro Church Tools team. If you’re listening, head over to ProChurchPodcast.com and leave us a review. It would mean the world to me, like I said. It’ll be sent directly to me as well. I’ll get to see it, I might just read it on a future session of the Pro Church podcast.
We publish a new interview session every single week on Tuesday. New session every single week on Tuesday, so make sure you subscribed. Again, ProChurchPodcast.com is the place to go to subscribe, we’ll talk real soon. Thursday, we’re publishing a new coaching edition so look out for that. Thanks for listening, and we’ll talk very, very soon.