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The Ultimate Guide to Church Photography Policies
Church photography is an amazing tool for sharing the gospel, which is why we’re so passionate about teaching it at Church Marketing University.
However, despite the advantages of church photography and videography, there are two major factors you must consider: your people’s safety and privacy rights.
So, how do you respect people’s privacy while authentically showcasing the life of your church?
If you’re like most of us, you didn’t get into ministry to wade through legal documents. You’re in this to share the good news of Jesus! So, in this guide, we’ll help you sort out the privacy issues associated with church photography so you can start using photos to reach more people than ever before. In addition to researching this guide, we’ve compiled some sample privacy policies that you can access in the Church Marketers Facebook Group.
The good news is, we’re not lawyers, so the information you’ll find here should be easy for anyone to understand. But that’s bad news, too. Because we’re not lawyers, you’ll need to make sure you check that your system is legally acceptable in your area. However, you’ll find plenty of examples in this guide to help you create a plan that will comply with your national and local regulations, whatever they are.
At this point, you might be questioning if this is worth it- after all, do you really need photos of your people? So, before we talk about how to make sure you’re respecting people’s privacy while using photos of them, let’s talk about why church photography is important.
Included in this guide:
- Why your church needs photos
- Approaches and Case Studies
- Tips from Industry Experts
- Special Cases, like photographing teens or documenting which adults cannot be photographed
- For further resources and examples, check out this post inside the Church Marketers Facebook Group!
The Quick Case for Church Photography: 5 Reasons You Need Photos of your Church
If you’re reading this guide, there’s a good chance that you’re convinced your church needs photography. You probably already know that it’s an amazing tool for reaching the unchurched, giving them a chance to see what your congregation is like before they attend.
But, in case you haven’t thought much about it, here’s the quick case for church photography:
In our survey of over 2,000 churches, good use of photography was one of the factors that set growing churches apart from the pack. Why? Here are a few reasons:
- Photography gives people a preview of what it’s like to attend your church. There’s a difference between telling people about your church and showing them what attending is like.
- Good photos increase trust. Good photography demonstrates that what you’re saying about your church is true. It also helps reassure people that you have nothing to hide. Because we live in a culture that is increasingly post-Christian, this is more important than you may think!
- Photos reduce fear. Especially for those who are nervous about attending or meeting new people, your photos can help them prepare themselves before they come.
- Photography helps you tell the story of life with Jesus in a compelling way. Stories are much more powerful when people can put a face (or a face and voice, in the case of video) to the person telling it.
- Photography empowers your artistic members to use their gifts for God. If you aren’t developing and empowering people to use their artistic gifts for God, you’re missing out on a huge opportunity to help them grow in their faith.
We could go on, but this list should give you some points to consider as you move toward taking more photos of your church. If you want to make sure you’re taking photos in a way that respects people’s privacy, keep reading!
Church Photography Approaches and Case Studies
In this section, we’ll explore some broad approaches that churches take to privacy and photography. Then, we’ll dive into specific case studies so that you can see how different churches deal with these issues in the real world.
Approaches to Church Photography and Privacy
Churches choose to deal with photography/video/media rights and usage in different ways. In this section, we’ll give an overview of some of the various strategies you can use. Of course, every strategy has countless variations, so later in this guide you’ll find specific case studies so you can see how this works in the “the real world.”
Option #1: The “No Photography” Zone.
Some churches will deal with the issue of privacy by not using photography- either throughout the entire church or by banning it from specific areas. No one’s photo is taken or circulated without their consent because no photos are being taken.
- Pros to this approach: It simplifies things quite a bit, since you’re not running the risk of violating anyone’s privacy by using their photo.
- Cons to this approach: You miss out on a huge opportunity to make people comfortable with your church before they ever show up. If you’re trying to reach people who have never been to church before, your lack of photography could be a major turn-off. It also means that it will be harder for you to help your artistic members use their gifts to glorify God.
Obviously, we’re not big fans of this approach. If you aren’t either, don’t worry! There are plenty of other options.
Option #2: Post Disclaimers and Take Only Group Shots.
While it’s still a good idea to obtain consent from the parents of children before using their photos, people are usually more comfortable when they (or their kids) aren’t the sole focus of the photo.
- Pros to this approach: It’s really easy to take photos. Just snap, snap, snap, done!
- Cons to this approach: It’s hard to take compelling shots when you can’t focus on individual faces. If you do run into a problem down the road, it’s difficult to remove photos of specific people who ask you to take down any images in which they or their children appear.
Option #3: Post Disclaimers, take whatever photos you want, and obtain consent for minors after you figure out which images you want to use.
If you’re dealing with new photographers or your church is fairly small, this strategy can save you a lot of time and hassle. For the purposes of this guide, we’ll be calling this and similar systems reactive strategies.
- Pros to this approach: It can save you a lot of time and hassle.
- Cons to this approach: As your church grows, it can be a pain to continually obtain consent. Depending on your relationships with the individuals involved, it might also be awkward to admit that you already took a photo of someone (or their child) and would like to use it. This system also means there will initially be a waiting period between when the photos are taken & when you’re able to post them, because people need time to give consent.
Option #4: Post Disclaimers and obtain consent for minors before taking photos.
This approach gives people a chance to let you know if they don’t want their photo taken, and is proactive because you get consent before ever taking a photo of a child.
- Pros to this approach: It reassures people that you are respecting any privacy concerns they may have regarding themselves and their children.
- Cons to this approach: You must have a highly organized system in place in order to implement this strategy. You also have to be diligent about keeping things updated and communicating changes to all those involved in the photography, editing, and posting process.
Option #5: Obtain consent before taking and/or using any photos, ever.
Compared to some of the other options we’ve discussed, this one might seem a bit extreme. However, in the European Union and other places, it can be legally required. Basically, the idea is this: it’s not enough that people don’t stop you from using photos of them when you post a disclaimer. They have to actually give written consent before you can use their photos. At the time of this writing, churches in the U.S. and other countries may not be legally obligated to follow these guidelines, but many believe that it’s only a matter of time before it is required. So, even if you choose a different approach, just be aware that you could be required to change strategies in the future.
- Pros to this approach: It’s extremely respectful of people’s privacy rights.
- Cons to this approach: It can be a nightmare to implement at first, especially if your church is large.
Of course, not every church’s system fits neatly into one of these categories. Some of them combine elements of each. We’ll take a look at some real-life strategies later in this guide.
Photographing Kids: Proactive & Reactive Strategies
As I interviewed church leaders from across the country, two distinct patterns emerged in how they handle the issue of photographing younger children. Some churches employ what I’m calling a proactive strategy- that is, they do everything in their power to make sure that they never take a photo of a child whose parents have denied consent. In proactive situations, responsibility tends to fall on the photographer to make sure they’re not taking photos of the wrong kids.
Other churches use what I’m calling a reactive strategy, where they have systems in place to make it obvious after the fact which children can have their photos taken. In reactive situations, responsibility falls primarily on the people who post the photos. They sort through images to make sure the church doesn’t post or store any photos of kids whose parents don’t want their pictures used.
Ultimately, no matter what type of strategy your church chooses, the end result is the same- you’re respecting the privacy of families and children by only using photos you have permission to use. Depending on your church’s culture and current systems, you might find that your actual process for photographing kids and obtaining consent is a mix of proactive and reactive strategies. That’s how life works, and there’s no shame in experimenting with different methods until you find one that works.
In the next section, you’ll hear from different churches about how they handle the issues of photography disclaimers and photographing kids. We’ll say it again- there’s no one-size-fits-all solution to this issue. It’s all about making sure you’re following state and local laws regarding photography, as well as fitting your plan to the culture & current infrastructure of your church. Please consult a lawyer before enacting any of the strategies we discuss.
Church Photography Case Studies
I reached out to church leaders via our Church Marketers Facebook group, and asked how they handle photography disclaimers & photographing minors. As expected, each church has a slightly different take on how they handle these issues, and we’re hoping that their strategies will help you figure out your own. Here are some in-depth examples from just a few of the church leaders I interviewed:
Faith Lutheran Church (Appleton, Wisconsin)
Faith Lutheran Church in Appleton, Wisconsin (Go Packers!), uses their kid’s registration system to get consent for photography from parents. When parents register their kids, they’re given three options for consent:
- Any photography
- Group photos only
- No photos
Kids who are registered as “Group photos only” or “No photos” have that information printed on their name tags. If the photographer doesn’t see a note on the kid’s name tag, they know that the child’s parents have given full consent for their photos to be used.
A perk of using the registration system is that it keeps this information organized. The photographers can pull lists of “No Photography” kids and “Group Photos Only,” so they know approximately how many are in each classroom and can identify them when they arrive.
During Sunday services, teachers help the photographers remember which kids can have their photos taken, and which can’t. While the photographers are shooting group shots, teachers give special attention to the kids who can’t have their photos taken, so they don’t feel left out.
Of course, all bets are off during larger events like VBS. When the kids are all mixed together, running around, or if there are simply more of them than usual, they use different colored dots to signify “No Photos” or “Group Photos Only.” The dots are easier for the photographers to spot on the fly, and make it possible for them to delete photos if they notice a kid with the “No Photos” dot has slipped into a shot.
So, when it comes to photographing kids, Faith Lutheran has what we call a proactive strategy. That is, they try their hardest to make sure that they never take photos of kids whose parents have withheld consent. The responsibility for making sure this happens is shared by the photographers and the children’s ministry workers, who work as a team to make sure the “no photo” kids aren’t photographed. When it comes to big events, they simplify things for their photographers and switch to a reactive strategy.
Unlike Faith Lutheran, Fairhaven Church has a less structured approach to photographing kids. Because they only take photographs a few times a year (usually 4-5), they notify parents via email before the weekends when they’ll be taking photos. This way, parents have the option of talking to someone if they don’t want to have their kids photographed. When a photo of a particular child is selected to be used prominently on social media, the website, or anywhere else, they seek out the child’s parents for permission first.
Fairhaven’s strategy contains proactive and reactive elements. By giving parents a heads up, they’re proactively giving them a chance to speak up and let someone know if they don’t want their child photographed, or if there’s a reason why they can’t be photographed. If it’s a Sunday where they’re only photographing in the children’s area, then parents always have the option of keeping their kids with them that day.
However, as a last failsafe, they also make sure they seek permission from parents before they use an image. This guarantees that the parents are aware of the fact that their child was photographed (after all, it’s easy to miss an email), and gives them one last chance to let the church know if they have any objections to their child’s image being used. That’s a solid reactive strategy. It’s also a really smart “heads up” for parents, so that they’re excited instead of surprised when they see their child’s photo being used by the church.
First Sundays is a church plant. As such, they’re a smaller congregation that meets once a month in another church’s building. They don’t have the systems in place to automatically get written consent from parents right now. However, their marketing director, has a personal system that she uses to make sure she’s using only approved photos:
- She focuses on times of worship/singing and speaking during the service, but is sensitive to the Spirit and tries to never intrude when He is moving. She also keeps parts of the service (such as prayer time) private.
- Most of her shots of their community are posed, so she makes sure she obtains verbal consent from people before taking a close-up picture of them or their kids.
- If she has kids in a shot, she makes sure to check with the parents before posting it.
- When they have special guests, she makes sure to introduce herself and ask if she can tag them in the church’s posts. Most of the time, they’re excited to have the exposure.
- She also asks permission before sharing other people’s posts on social media. She’s so diligent about this that some people have told her, “Whatever you see me post, just use! You don’t have to ask!”
As a church plant, First Sundays does have an advantage when it comes to capturing photos. Photography has been a part of the culture since their launch, when they hired a professional to take pictures for them. Ever since, their marketing director has carried a camera with her, so members are used to being photographed. This certainly makes her job easier, and she’s found that she’s been able to be less conservative about the shots she takes and posts as time goes on.
This positive graphic is the centerpiece of GT Austin’s strategy for communicating about their photography and videography. They post it everywhere- as a slide in their scrolling announcements, in their weekly handout (bulletin), and on their kids’ registration forms.
When parents it comes to photographing kids, they employ several strategies to protect their privacy:
- During the image editing process, they “white out” the names on kids name tags.
- They make sure that the “no photos” label is easy to spot on the nametags of the kids whose parents have requested that their image not be used. As Christopher Rixon says, “It’s too much for my photography team to remember who not to take pictures of, at least in the moment.”
- During posting, they delete any photos that contain images of kids who aren’t approved.
GT Austin’s system is almost totally reactive, since they want to empower their photographers to be able to focus on getting good shots. The responsibility for making sure no photos are posted without consent rests on the social media team, who have to make sure that the church’s records are up-to-date and that they delete or crop any images with people whose photos they cannot use.
Summit Park Church
Summit Park Church sees photos as a crucial element of their online marketing plan, so they make getting them a priority. Throughout their history, they’ve hired photographers to make sure they’re getting good shots of their people. At the same time, they’ve recruited a volunteer photography team, with members serving every weekend and during special events. Disclaimers, like the one above, are posted throughout the building, and obtaining consent for photography is built into their kids registration system. Additionally, they make sure that all photographers are screened prior to joining the volunteer team, and are easily identifiable with an official Summit Park lanyard.
In order to empower their photographers to get great shots, Summit Park uses additional volunteers, called “hosts.” Hosts have bubbly personalities, are leaders in the church, and work with their photographers to answer questions, help them stage shots, introduce them to people, and explain why they’re there. Hosts are also trained on photography etiquette (such as no-photo zones and times of the service that should be kept private) and are familiar with the photographer’s shot list so they can help the photographer get the right images, every time. Finally, they also steer photographers away from any children who cannot be photographed, address lighting concerns, and help set people at ease so that they can get a life-giving shot.
As you may guess, hosts make a BIG difference in how people perceive photography at Summit Park Church. It’s a relational approach to making sure the church has the photos they need to create killer social media posts and website content.
Before they upload images to the church’s photo organization system, Summit Park also performs one last check to make sure that they aren’t posting any photos that include people who have denied consent. This means that, at any given time, they have a library of images that are approved for use by their social media team.
Summit Park Church’s strategy is mostly proactive, but has reactive elements when it’s time to upload the photo files.
Ready to write your own church photography policy? Check out the resources in the Church Marketers Facebook Group!
Recommendations from Experts
Quick Tips from Ben Stapley
Here’s a great explanation of the issues involved and a recommended approach from Ben Stapley, the Weekend Experience Director at Christ Fellowship Church:
- First, don’t give release forms to your photographers. You want them taking great photos, not running around trying to get a bunch of signatures.
- Instead, include a release statement on your intake form for your family ministry. I say “intake form” because it only has to be done once. And I say “family ministry” because parents are the only ones really concerned with this. Here is a sample. “Our church uses photos and videos of our guests for communication purposes. Signing this release grants us permission to use your and your child’s image for these purposes.”
- To cover your butts legally for general church events you could have small disclosures printed and posted at your welcome center saying something like “Photos and videos are taken at our events. By walking onto our site you grant us permission to use these for communication purposes”.
Ben’s suggestions are a well-rounded plan for addressing the two main concerns your church will be trying to balance when it comes to this issue: getting consent without inhibiting your photography team from doing their work! If you’re interested in learning about how other churches balance this, too, keep reading! In the next section, we’ll dive into the two main approaches that churches take when it comes to photographing kids.
If you’re ready to get started, you can check out the Photography Disclaimer examples inside the Church Marketers Facebook Group!
How Real Churches Get Photo Release Forms | 5 Ideas from Brady Shearer
Now that you’ve heard from some real-life churches, what are leaders in the church communications space saying? Let’s dive into this video from Brady Shearer:
- Add a photo release disclaimer to your kid’s check-in process. No surprises here. This is the most convenient time to inform and obtain consent from parents about using their child’s photo.
- Use red wristbands so that photographers and photo editors can easily identify kids whose parents do not want their photos taken. One piece of advice that the church leaders in our Facebook group gave on using wristbands or similar items is to make sure that whatever you use makes the child feel special, not excluded. This principle carries over into how you take photos, too.
- Add a disclaimer statement to your bulletin and/or website. Let people know that photographers may be present at the church and during events, and that if they want to opt-out of having their picture used, to stop by the table in the church lobby to let the church know.
- Post a sign as you enter the auditorium. Hang a sign in front of the doors to your auditorium, announcing that entering means you’re giving consent for your photograph to be taken. If you go this route, it’s thoughtful to also create a photography-free area where people can go if they wish to opt-out while still attending service.
- Be aware of national, state, and local laws. In some areas, asking people to “opt-out” if they don’t want their photo taken is not strictly legal. Instead, the burden is placed on your church, as the organization taking the photos, to make sure that people “opted-in” to have their photos posted. In these cases, posting a disclaimer won’t protect you in the event of a lawsuit. Consult a lawyer if you’re not sure what laws apply to your church.
Church Marketing University Recommendations
Now that you’ve read all these ideas, you might be wondering if there’s one particular system we’d recommend. In fact, there is! These recommendations are based on helping you to increase trust and forge healthy, respectful interactions between your congregation and your photography team.
However, please remember that we are not lawyers. While objections are far less likely if you communicate well, you should always consult a lawyer to be sure you’re covered.
Okay, with that disclaimer out of the way, here are our recommendations when it comes to navigating privacy issues with your church photography:
- Post disclaimers in prominent places so that people know cameras are present and how to avoid having their image used.
- Announce your photography policy 2-4 times per year from the stage. (More often if you’re getting started in a church that isn’t used to having photographers)
- Have a system in place for gaining consent and taking photos of kids and identifying them later.
- Train a team that can take photos consistently, so that you always have a cache of authentic images of your church. Every weekend is ideal.
- Use hosts.
- Have a plan for making all the kids feel included when you photograph in the children’s area.
- Stage shots, whenever possible, and take advantage of practice times and mic checks to get photos onstage. (This helps keep your photography team from being a distraction during service).
- Respond with empathy & be quick to take down shots when people request removal.
If you’re interested in learning more, check out the resources inside the Church Marketers Facebook Group.
Special Cases: Photographing Teens, Adults Who can’t or don’t want their photo taken, and Foster Care Situations.
Throughout most of this guide, we’ve focused on making sure you have permission to photograph minors, but the conversation has revolved around minors who are involved in your children’s programming. What happens when you’re dealing with minors in your youth or student ministry? Since teens often come with friends (and some students can even drive themselves!) it’s uncommon to have a registration form when teens start attending. So, if you can’t rely on your pre-registration process, what can you do?
While we don’t have any *perfect* answers on that, here are 4 ways you can address this issue:
Tactic #1: Avoid photographing teens until you have consent from parents.
While this will not be easy on your photographers, you can do it if you have a core group of kids whose parents have given consent. Staging photos, focusing on faces, and other tactics can help you get great shots that you’re allowed to use.
Tactic #2: Encourage teens to photograph themselves
You can provide backdrops, create fun, photo-worthy activities, host hashtag contests, and try other ideas to get your youth creating buzz about your church. Middle and high school students love online content- both creating and consuming it- so if you empower them to be your church’s mouthpiece for ministry, they will take it and run with it.
While you should always ask permission (and give credit) before reposting content, these posts can help you populate your church feeds with authentic, crowd-sourced images. However, the real value will be the fact that they’re talking about church where their family and friends can see it.
Tactic #3: Use medical release forms as an opportunity to get photo release forms signed, too.
Even though you might not have a check-in system for older minors, you likely do host events that require medical release forms from their parents. Find a way to integrate adding photo release forms to this system, too, and you should be able to get those forms into the hands of most parents.
Tactic #4: Leverage emails to have parents opt-in to photographs.
This strategy is courtesy of Nathan Teegarden.
If you provide weekly or monthly email updates for parents, use your email list to deliver photo release forms and request signatures from parents. If you’re able to tie why you’re asking for permission to the mission and vision of your church.
For example, you could say something like, “As you know, we’ve been teaching over the last month about sharing your faith. While the connection might not seem obvious at first, having photos that show what our youth group is like on the church’s social media makes it easier for your son or daughter to invite their friends.”
Adults Who Can’t be Photographed
Another issue when it comes to church photography & privacy is adults who don’t want their photos taken.
We know, we know- you’ve posted disclaimers! While you may or may not be legally entitled to take photos of people who are on your church’s property (that’s a question for a lawyer!), the kind and respectful thing to do when an adult asks not to be photographed is to honor their request. Plus, you never know what could be motivating their request. Here’s one of our favorites stories from a conversation in the Church Marketers Facebook group:
Now, we’re not saying that you have someone in the witness protection program in your church. But if an adult requests to not be photographed, whatever their reasons, do your best not to take photos of them- and, be 100% sure you aren’t posting pictures of them!
Here are a few strategies you can use to make sure all your photos and video are good to use:
Tactic #1: Have a “no-film” area
This will help you proactively make sure that you’re not filming or taking pictures of anyone during your church’s live stream who doesn’t want their picture taken and posted. While the exact location of your “no film” area will depend on your sanctuary/auditorium layout, it’s usually simplest to choose a specific side, or an area in the back, where cameras are not allowed. You can hang signs from the ceiling or attach them to your seats to make it clear to people attending and photographers where the “no camera” zone begins and ends.
Similarly, you can have “no camera” zones in specific classrooms or areas of your children’s department, depending on your needs. We strongly encourage you to figure out a system for obtaining consent so that you can photograph kids, but your church might have special considerations or areas that you want to keep free of cameras.
Tactic #2: Keep a record
A “no camera” zone really only works in certain areas. If you want to have good photography of your church, some of those shots will happen in areas that are impossible to cluster- like your lobby or parking lot, for example. This means that you’ll have to employ a reactive strategy when it comes to making sure you honor the wishes of adults who don’t want to be photographed. For most churches, this means asking people who don’t want their picture posted to submit a photo of themselves for internal use. That way, the people managing the church’s social media accounts know exactly who doesn’t want their photo to be used, and can delete any images that contain their photo.
If you live in an area where posting disclaimers won’t cover it, you might want to employ a reverse of this record-keeping system, and keep a file full of images of people who have given their consent for their photo to be used. Google photos does a really good job of pre-sorting images with faces, so you could use it to create a system for your church where you only post pictures of the people with labeled faces in your Google photos account.
Foster Care & Other Situations Where You Can’t Obtain Consent
In some cases, the adult accompanying a child can’t give consent for the child’s photo to be used. (Examples include when children come with friends and, depending on your state’s laws in the US, foster parents). If that’s the case, you have to refrain from using photos of specific children until you can obtain legal consent.
For example, when we started discussing this topic in our Church Marketers Facebook Group, Duke Senter shared this story,
“We had a foster parent ministry at our church. We did a video (not photo) project with kids and got releases from parents. A parent forgot that in our state no public photography or videography display is allowed of foster kids. Had to re-edit the final project to cut that cute little guy out. Anyway, consult laws first, but perhaps remind/reach out to groups/categories that may be impacted beyond ‘just’ their preferences on how to easily opt-out?”
Even if you don’t have foster kids at your church yet, it’s a good idea to think through how to handle situations like this- you never know when it might come in handy!
Example Church Photography Release Forms, Disclaimers, and Media Policies
In the Church Marketers Facebook Group, we’ve included links to some additional church photography release forms, disclaimers, and media policies that we’ve found online. As you review these documents, you’ll find some characteristics they have in common, mainly:
- A promise to remove photos of people or their children, if requested.
- A statement that they will not knowingly post something embarrassing.
- A line saying that they will not tag people on social media without their express consent.
- An explanation of how you must go about requesting that your photo not be used, i.e., “We will honor your request for privacy if you fill out this form, contact this person, etc.”
- In some media policies, you’ll see a definition of acceptable behavior for photographers during services. While you don’t have to post this information in your media policy, you should have a plan for this and review it frequently with your photography team.
Free Church Photo Release Forms by Patrick Bradley
Aimed at church planters, this article is a quick summary of the issues surrounding photographing minors & why you need photo release forms at your church. The post also includes four example releases.
Guidelines for Using Photos of Congregation Members from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA)
This PDF covers some basic courtesies and guidelines for church photography, and is a quick read. It could be a great resource for helping you explain your photography policy to members of your photography and social media team.
Legal Guidelines for Photo and Video Use by Brotherhood Mutual
This article does a great job of explaining when you need permission to post and covers many special cases, such as photo and video of a guest speaker, live streaming your worship service, and, of course, photographing children.
Why Your Church Needs Photo Permissions by Joe Porter
This blog post on Church Marketing Sucks covers several considerations to keep in mind when considering whether or not you need a photo release.