Note: I wrote this article back when I was studying to be a priest in the Archdiocese of St. Louis; I am no longer a seminarian (or a priest), but I will continue to update the article over time so it can be of use to my fellow photographers.
As a seminarian, I often participate in very big liturgies at the Cathedral Basilica or other places at which many families are present. Invariably, there's always a few picture-takers who end up disrupting parts of the Mass or other liturgical functions in one way or another, and they usually don't even know they're doing it. Nor, more importantly, do they know how to not disrupt the liturgy!
I take a ton of pictures at liturgical events (it's one of the things I usually am asked to do for the bigger liturgies in the Seminary's chapel), and I don't think taking pictures at liturgies, in and of itself, is a bad thing. But when taking a picture involves six different camera beeps, a person walking around in the main aisle, two flashes, and a little laser-light shining on the archbishop, problems ensue. And this is why many large churches have signs at the doors saying "no photography allowed during liturgies."
For the picture on the right, I went up into the chapel's choir loft, turned off my camera's flash, and stabilized the camera against a wood pillar so that I could still get a sharp picture without my flash on. You can take pictures as good as this one without distracting anyone in the church!
This article is meant to help those who would like to take a picture during a liturgy (whether it be a baptism, wedding, ordination, or something else) to do so with 'decorum,' that is, 'doing so in good taste or respectably.'
The Golden Rule of Church Photography
I have not found any good articles on picture-taking in Churches, so I'll posit a golden rule here:
"THOU SHALT RESPECT, AND NOT DISTRACT, WHEN TAKING PICTURES DURING LITURGIES!"
Is that bold enough for you? Basically, it comes down to this: liturgies are set up for the worship of God. They are not set up for picture-taking. You should respect other people who are present and worshipping; if you're distracting them, you're not respecting them. But, more importantly, at liturgies in a Catholic church, you need to show respect to Jesus, who is present in the Eucharist and in the tabernacle. He is present so you can worship Him; not so you can get a really good picture of Him! How would you like it if someone you invited to your party came, took a bunch of pictures of you, and never said a word to you, then left? Pretty disrespectful!
The first purpose for a liturgy is the worship - make sure you have that covered! You don't need twenty pictures of your nephew's baptism to remember it forever. It would be better to experience the baptism firsthand, and maybe just take one meaningful picture, or get a picture from someone else to remember the event by.
Ways to Respect, and Not Distract
In the picture at the right (taken at the 1999 Papal Mass in St. Louis), I was stuck way in the back, pretty high up, but I didn't jump out of my seat and walk up to the sanctuary stairs to take a picture; I simply took this picture and turned off my camera, and enjoyed the liturgy. I didn't have the flash turned on, and I took the picture quickly and nonchalantly, making sure those around me didn't notice.
So, how can we show respect and take a picture of a baby being baptized, or a confirmation, or something else in a Church during a liturgy? Here are a few of the essentials:
TURN OFF your flash!
Every camera on the market has a button on it which will turn off the flash. The number one most alarming and distracting thing that can happen during a liturgy, and one which will even get you kicked out of some churches, is the bright flash that goes off when you take a picture. Not only is it distracting, but it usually makes the picture turn out dark, because your camera's flash only has about a 10-15' range. Turn off the flash, and hold the camera up against your eye, using the viewfinder, and you will likely get a better picture (and you definitely won't have any red-eye problems!).
DON'T MOVE around all over the place! (Unless you have permission)
Instead of walking all over down the main aisle and in front of everybody, pick a good place from which to take a picture at the beginning of the liturgy, and stay there. Unless you're a professional photographer with practice at stealthily moving during liturgies, you're a distraction, and you're being disrespectful. Even if you're a pro, try to stick to one out-of-the-way place, and use a zoom lens and zoom in to get pictures. Walking in front of people is a surefire way to distract and disrespect.
TURN OFF the camera's sound!
Every camera has some way to mute all its 'cute' beeps and clicking noises. If you press a button, and hear a beep, or if you take a picture and hear an obnoxious shutter clicking sound, you need to turn off those sounds (the muting option is usually in one of the menus). Along with the flashing, it's an obvious sign that someone is taking pictures and not showing much respect for those trying to pay attention to the liturgy.
TURN OFF the 'focus assist' light!
If your camera can't focus without the little laser-light that shines in everyone's eyes before your camera takes a picture, then don't use your camera. You have to turn that light off! It is very distracting to be watching a lector or priest, and see a little red dot or lines pop up on his face all of the sudden. It's as if some rifleman is making his mark! Turn the light off (again, look in the menus for the option to turn off the 'AF assist' or 'focus assist' light). If you can't turn it off, put a piece of duct tape or some other opaque material over the area where the light is, so the light won't shine on someone.
TURN OFF the camera's LCD!
You should never use the LCD to compose your shots anyways; just put your eye up to the viewfinder, and that will not only not distract, it will also steady your camera against your face, making for a better picture (especially if you don't have the flash on). And if you must review the pictures you've taken, hold the camera in front of you, down low, so people behind you don't notice the big, bright LCD display on your camera.
This is my best advice, gathered after a few years of taking pictures at many different liturgies: Masses, baptisms, confirmations, graduations, etc. The main thing is to try to be respectful of Jesus and of other people present at the liturgy. Don't distract. And, if you are asked to not take pictures, or if there's a sign saying 'no photography allowed,' then don't take pictures. You can always ask a priest's permission before the liturgy, but if he says 'No,' put away your camera and enjoy the freedom you have to focus on the Lord and His people rather than your camera's LCD!
Frequently Asked Questions
Question: What about taking photographs during the consecration?
Answer: The moment of the consecration during the liturgy is the highest moment of intimate worship by all involved in the Mass, and it would be devastating to distract people from focusing all their attention on the transubstantiation—the transformation of the bread and wine into the true presence of Jesus Christ in his body and blood. I typically put my camera away during the Eucharistic prayer. There are only a few pictures I've taken of the consecration, and I only use a quiet camera (not an SLR, with its loud shutter sound), and stay in the back of the Church, so as to not distract anyone. And all the rules I listed above apply here as well.
Question: Is there any official Church teaching on photography at Mass
Answer: Not as far as I can tell. Usually, each local Church has its own guidelines for photography during Mass. Most will tell you to not use flash, and be respectful of others, while others may only allow one photographer (e.g. the pro hired by the couple at a wedding) to take pictures.