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5 Lessons on Missions Photography from a Pro

When I was first asked to come up with just 5 lessons that I have learned over my years of involvement in missions media, I thought that it would be next to impossible to limit myself to just five. However, after a few minutes pondering with a cuppa tea in hand, I realized that it was in fact quite an easy request to answer.

1) Let go and let God!

There are two aspects to this statement.

Firstly in all the trips I have done over the last 25 years, I have yet to NOT have a close encounter with God. By that I mean, on each and every trip I have ever done, God has taken hold of an aspect of my life, my faith etc., and turned it upside, challenged it, pulled it apart and set me right on it. While hard at times, I do look forward to seeing what God has in store for me. By being out of your comfort zone in a hard place doing his work, makes you ripe for Him to mould you for what He has planned for you. So be prepared to let go and to let God take hold of those things in your life.

The second aspect of this is to be prepared to let go of all your planning, schedules and time frames. In most developing nations, time and plans have almost no meaning or value, so be prepared to sit and wait for people to arrive, to have plans change or cancelled altogether, or to turn up to a place only to find it was as expected or that the person you had gone to see was in fact somewhere else. Let go and let God be in charge, when you do you will often find you are in a better place physically, spiritually and literally to get a story / images that showcases God at work or His people in action.

Team members from PENZ2012 pose at One Tree Hill in Auckland, New Zealand.

Mark Jackson with students from the 2012 New Zealand Experience team in Auckland, New Zealand

2) Be strategic in what you shoot and the stories you tell.

It is easy to walk out the door and take images when out on the mission field. There are so many great things to take images of and you may in fact become overwhelmed with the range of image possibilities that you encounter each day. There are so many options that most people do one of two thing. They either go shutter crazy and shoot off 5000 images an hour, or they take only a handful in the entire day.

Over 90% of the images people shoot never end up been used in any way. That is they never get edited, they are never shared with the wider community and they are never used to tell a story, or to show or point people towards Jesus, and that is a waste. A waste of time, effort and possibilities.

I would suggest that rather than walking out the door with no plan that you develop themes concepts and storylines that you want to try and capture images for. Be strategic in that. What is the story that will tell of the organisations work, that persons story or showcases God at work?

When you become strategic in shooting like this, you become far more effective in telling the story and the capturing of the supporting images for that story. You can then ensure you you have enough images to support that story. Ask yourself every time you go to take an image, “How am I going to use this image to tell today’s story?”.

Aim for three stories a day (Morning / Afternoon / Night) If you do just those three each day you will have ample material for a range of mission media presentation material and you will be effective, you will survive the trip and what you capture will be of real use!

3) You not just a photographer!

If you actually want to be a real help to the mission organisation you are working for, or to be a real blessing to the missionaries you are with, then stop thinking and acting like you are just a photographer. You are so much more than that.

To be of any real value to organisations or to those in the field, don’t just supply them with images. The chances are, if you do, then they will never be used. Rather supply them with completed stories (images and written words), PowerPoints and short video interviews that don’t need to be edited but can be put straight online in some way.

Those out in the field are already doing what they have been called to do, images and media are not their core business – it is yours! So don’t just take pictures, but provide them with completed typed up stories that they can easily share and distribute. They will think you are AMAZING by doing that. So, its not just about been able to take a photograph, you also need to tell the story around that image so that it can be used immediately.

I would also suggest that you learn how to shoot video on your camera, so that you can do snapshot interviews of people in the field that can be shared that night online.

ALWAYS try and complete each project in the field. If you leave it until you get home, the chances are you will never get it finished and back to those who asked for it.

When out in the field you are not just a photographer or a story teller, but you also need to be a great listener, a friend, a confidant, an adviser, a supporter, a server, a helper and a blessing to those you engage with. Be prepared and be willing to be so much more than just a photographer – you will be surprised by what else you have to be when out in the field!

4) Don’t hide behind the camera, get out from behind there and go build relationships!

It is really easy to hide behind the camera and not engage with the people we are taking pictures of… especially when we are in places and situations outside our comfort zone.

Missions PhotographyPhoto by IPS student Cory Vetter; PENZ2012

Let your camera be a tool to help you engage with your environment and the people in shot. The camera is what gives you permission to engage with that particular person at that point time.

By allowing you take that picture, they have given you an opportunity to capture their life, their world at the moment in time, and that my friends is a very real privilege!

Don’t be dismissive, take the time to engage with those you are photographing, be it a smile, show them the image, sit with them, acknowledge them in some way as a way of showing your appreciation of the amazing gift they just gave you.

Remember, they are not objects or topics, but like you they have hopes, dreams, aspirations and feelings. Jesus loves them just as much as He loves you, and a big part of what you do as a mission photographer is not really about taking pictures at all, but representing Jesus and demonstrating His love to all those you come in contact with.

So, don’t hide behind that camera, get out from behind it and meet the people of this world and see them as Jesus does.

5) You don’t have to be the world’s best!

Firstly, if you are heading off on a missions trip as a photographer let me say well done! You are in for one of the best experiences in your life. We live in a world that seems incredibly focused and hung up on perfection. I want to tell you that you don’t have to be the world’s best photographer to change the world. In fact if you look back over the last few years you will find that images shot on disposable cameras or smartphones have caused some of the most significant world changes in our time. They change the world and the way we think about things, not because they were perfectly exposed, framed or fulfilled the rule of thirds, but because they captured and told a story with honestly and integrity. It is the fact that the image was taken, then the story was told that influenced change, not because of it technical merits.

Some of the so called best images of all time are blurred, poorly framed, badly lit and often taken quickly, yet they have still changed the world in some way. I take great comfort in this fact, so should you! So, take the pressure off yourself and realize that God can still take and use those not so perfect shots for His Glory. I have seen this happen time and time again in my own career where the images I thought where too bad to be shown in public ended up been the image that caused change in government policy, made the news headlines, etc.

While your images may not be perfect, or your sentences particularly well written, the fact that you took the image and wrote the words now means there is an avenue for that story to be told. If you hadn’t taken the image, or wrote those words – then who would of told their story. Do the best you can, with what you have and do it with integrity, respect, honesty and love, then that is all that can be asked of you. After that, all you need to do is to Let go and let God take and use whatever you have and do for His glory.

May your hands always be steady, may your viewfinder never fog, my your lenses never grow mold, may your batteries always be charged, may your cards never fail, may the light always fall just right, may you always believe in yourself and your ability, but most of all, may you know and experience God’s love.

Happy storytelling!

Mark Jackson
Mark Jackson
New Zealand

“If God can use a donkey to get his message across, then He can use an ass like me!”

Check out the other posts in this series:

5 Reasons to Go on a Short Term Missions Trip

A Vision for Missions Photography

Photography from a Missionary’s Perspective

What I Learned on My Summer Missions Trip

An IPS Student in Africa

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A Vision for Missions Photography

A Vision for Missions Photography

On Monday I launched a new blog series by sharing 5 reasons why you should go on a Short Term Missions Trip this summer. Today I want to further cast a vision for how you can use your camera for God’s glory and to expand His Kingdom.

In the past 15 years of my personal mission with a camera, here are 5 of the biggest reasons I’ve experienced to use a camera for missions.

1. Share your Gift

As a photographer you have a gift, a way of seeing the world that’s unique from those around you. God has made everyone different, yet we’re supposed to fit and work together as the body of Christ to share His love with others. If you don’t use your camera, you are actually neglecting your talents and the body will suffer as a result. Of course, photography probably isn’t your only gift, so be sure to moderate!



Me, my camera, and some new friends. Photo courtesy of Karen Kallberg.

2. Remember God’s Mighty Works

Throughout Scripture God calls upon people to remember the mighty works He has done for them. Photography is perhaps the best way to remember that has ever been invented! Photographing people coming to Christ, being baptized, handing out food, or just going about their day on a trip will forever recall those events and works of God.


Summer Missions Trip Memories

A group photo helps students remember their experience at a summer camp and what God did in their hearts.

3. Share the Story

Instagram taught us that photography was meant to be shared. We share everything from selfies to latte art. Shouldn’t you also be sharing the story of what God is up to? Maybe it’s your story, maybe the story of your team, or maybe a story you encounter as you go, but be sure to put that camera to work sharing the stories of what God is up to.


Garbage dump in Phnom Phen

A photo of this little boy tells a far more powerful story than just trying to describe the scene in words.

4. Build Relationships

Your camera is either a bridge or a barricade. A barricade is something you hide behind when you should be talking to people. A bridge is a tool you use to build relationships with people you probably wouldn’t even have met otherwise. I have found that my camera is one of the best ways to meet people because everyone likes photography and they want to know what you’re taking photos of any why. Boom! Instant conversation and relationship. Use it!


IPS - Where Photographers come to Learn

This photographer isn’t hiding behind her camera, but used it to start a conversation.

5. Encourage Participation

When you use your camera to share the story of what God is doing you invite others to participate with you in that story. Your photos are a great way to get people to pray for you and your team or to contribute financially. Back in the early days of my travel I began posting daily update photos and text to let our team supporters know what was going on. Our website received hundreds of thousands of views as people wanted to know what we were up to and join us in prayer!



A missionary used dozens of my photos like this one to get her supporters praying for specific people in her world.

Photography is fun and using your camera for the glory of God is important. Don’t put your camera away, and don’t you dare hide behind it when you have the opportunity to use it to minister to others!

Have a good story about how you’ve seen God use your camera? Tell me below!

Check out the other posts in this series:

5 Reasons to Go on a Short Term Missions Trip

5 Lessons on Missions Photography from a Pro

Photography from a Missionary’s Perspective

What I Learned on My Summer Missions Trip

An IPS Student in Africa

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5 Reasons to Go on a Short Term Missions Trip

Summer is the season for Short Term Mission Trips [STMT] and I’m a fan. I hope you’re going on a STMT this summer, because it will probably change your life. My life was changed in Taiwan in 1999 and ever since then I’ve been hooked!

Rowan in Taiwan with Friends 2003

I’ve made some amazing, life-long friends through short term mission trips. Here I am with some of them in Taiwan in 2003.

If you’re on the fence about a STMT as you read this, let me give you 5 reasons for why you should go:
1. Change of scenery – Getting out of your normal is a good thing. It presents you with new challenges, new patterns, and new things to think about. This is where growth happens.
2. Culture – Most people don’t think like you do. Stepping into another culture gives you the gift of seeing the world in a different way.
3. The team – Chances are good that you know some of your team well, others not so well, and maybe others not at all. Being forced to spend lots of time in a new culture in a different routine will, you guessed it, help you grow!
4. Ministry – Setting aside a week or two from your normal life to focus on meeting the needs of others in the name of Jesus is good. It will probably challenge you to spend more time giving and less time taking when you get home too.
5. Encouragement – Your trip might last a week, but the missionary or church you’re going to support is there long-term. Encourage them, give them life, love them in the name of Jesus and you’ve made a long-term impact in just a few short days.

Over the next few weeks I’m excited to share a series of posts focused on STMT and how you can use your skills as a photographer when you go. Here’s what you have to look forward to:

  • Using your Camera on STMT
  • Essentials of Cross Cultural Photography
  • 5 Tips from a Pro
  • A Missionary’s Perspective
  • Lessons of Sustainable Travel
  • Packing Essentials
  • Personal Stories from IPS Instructors
  • And more!

So what do you think? What’s your number one reason to go on a short term mission trip? Tell me below!

Check out the other posts in this series:

A Vision for Missions Photography

5 Lessons on Missions Photography from a Pro

Photography from a Missionary’s Perspective

What I Learned on My Summer Missions Trip

An IPS Student in Africa

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The Pop-Up Flash is Evil! Or is it…

The Pop-up Flash is Evil – or is it?

The professional photographer in me despises the pop-up flash as Amateur and Evil. “What a horrible thing to do to a budding photographer, give them a light that is almost guaranteed to wreck their pictures!” However, if I am totally honest, I have to admit that it has a place, and can actually be a really useful tool. I cannot afford to ignore any tool available to me, even one as small as the pop-up flash.

First the disclaimer… the pop-up flash on your camera has some inherent issues: it’s weak, directional, front-lit and causes red-eye. If you’re OK with pushing through all that… keep reading!

Example Number 1

I was hundreds of feet underground in a salt mine, somewhere near the border of Austria and Germany. As you might expect, there is no sunlight hundreds of feet underground. This makes things rather dark. Rather than give up shooting, I just pushed myself to make it work. I adjusted my camera to ISO 1600, f/2.8, and 1/30sec to maximize the light I was able to capture from the tunnel lights. Next, I activated the pop-up flash. Finally, to take this shot, I timed it so that we were just passing a light when I took the photo. This combo of settings did 2 things for me, 1 – at 1/30 of a second I got some nice movement on the walls of the tunnel and 2 – the flash has a motion stopping effect on the faces of my friends so that they are less blurry than you might otherwise expect. This shot wasn’t possible without my pop-up flash.

Example Number 2

Good selfies are an important part of everyone’s life. Here I used a pop-up flash to make this one just a bit better. I wanted to see the background behind me and Jocelyn, but knew that it was quite a bit brighter than our faces would be in the shadow. Add the pop-up flash and I was good to go. Of course, this photo also illustrates another problem too: flash fall off, but I’m not going to deal with that today!

Example number 3

For this fun group shot I set up the camera in manual exposure mode, turned the pop-up flash on and handed it to an agreeable stranger on top of Grossmunster church in Zurich. You will probably look at this and say, “I don’t see the flash.” Yes!! That’s exactly what I want you to say when I use a flash. If you see the flash you are no longer seeing the subject! So, what’s the flash doing? On an overcast day like this one, all the light is coming from above. This means that there are often nasty shadows over the eyes, under the nose and under chins. In this photo, they’re pretty much gone. The flash has blended perfectly with the natural light to fill in those shadows, leaving us with nicely exposed faces.

Right now you should be asking, “How do I do this?” Two quick methods:

Method 1 – Find the night exposure mode on your camera. It is often an icon that looks something like this little icon. This tells your camera that you want to use the exposure settings to properly illuminate the background and also use the flash. Think “friends in front of nighttime cityscape.” Of course, you can use this anytime you want to! Try it in the tunnel, the selfie or the tower. Be careful with this setting, because it can give you a slow shutter speed which can lead to blurring.

Method 2 – Using the creative modes on your camera (Program, Aperture, Shutter, and Manual) set the camera as you normally would so that the scene is properly exposed, then just hit the little button to activate your pop-up flash. The camera will use an advanced metering method (through the lens) to adjust the amount of light the flash is outputting so that it balances with the available light.

For me, recently, it’s been the pop-up flash. What oft-neglected little trick have you recently discovered or rediscovered in your photography? Let me know below!


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Night Shoot in Zurich

Today I want to tell you the story of a photo I took in Zürich, Switzerland a few weeks ago. Night shoots are super fun because there is so much you can do with them. After shooting a couple nice city-landscapes across the river I started playing around with a flash and created this image.

I love this shot because of the depth and interest that it has. The classic Zürich cityscape is shown off nicely in the background, but the story of a photographer working hard to create amazing imagery fills the foreground.


We were traveling pretty light, so my equipment list is minimal:


My shooting process went something like this:
  1. Set up approximate framing for the final shot
  2. Set aperture, shutter speed, and ISO so that the background [cityscape] looks good. This takes 2 or 3 shots.
  3. Connect the flash to the camera using the built in wireless sync
  4. Using the Canon 600EX-RT in manual mode, adjust the flash output until the exposure on the model looks good. [Do NOT change the aperture, shutter speed, or ISO!] This took 4 or 5 test shots.
  5. Fine tune position of model and framing up the composition.
  6. Use 2 second self timer to trigger the camera to avoid bumping it during the exposure.
  7. Viola!


Here you see my original, unedited image as well as a sketch diagram of the 3 key components in the image:

Here’s the editing steps I followed:

  1. Adjust white balance and exposure so that photographer looks good
  2. Add graduated filter to the cityscape to balance the color and exposure
  3. Add second graduated filter to the cityscape because I couldn’t make the first one strong enough [This is the first time I’ve ever had to do that!]
  4. Add round graduated filter to darken out the boat on the right
  5. Sharpen image and apply noise reduction
  6. Viola!

I hope this is interesting and/or helpful to you! Tossing a flash in your bag that can be triggered wirelessly can add a lot of fun options to a good night shoot.

Got a question? Leave me a comment below!




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