How to Teach Your Kids Photography

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We love photography and we love our kids. It makes sense, then, that finding a way to combine photography and spending time with our kids would be a major win. If your kids are anything like mine, though, they’ve either already reached that point where they vanish into the mist the moment they hear the zipper on your camera bag, or will reach it soon enough. So, how do we enjoy our hobby without abandoning our kids for hours or days on end? If they’ve grown weary of their time in front of your camera, it may be time to put the camera in their hands and see what kind of magic they can create themselves.

Starting with Composition and Auto Mode

I know– Auto Mode is one of those dirty terms that has no place in “serious” photography. Try putting those feelings aside for a moment. I’ve been teaching a kids photography class for almost five years, and one thing I know for sure is that if I tried teaching my own son the way I teach my students, he would never pick up a camera again. In the classroom, I start each new group of students with a demonstration. While discussing the three elements of the exposure triangle (aperture, shutter speed, ISO), I pull out a 1972 Pentax Spotmatic and do something that would be impossible with today’s DSLRs– I open it up. I take off the lens. I open up the back so they can look straight through, seeing for themselves how the shutter stays open longer at slower shutter speeds. I demonstrate how the aperture ring works on older lenses. I show them how all of these concepts work together on a visual level. From exposure, we work our way to composition, lighting, etc. It’s a logical progression and usually works pretty well. An effective classroom approach, however, is not always going to be the best way to teach our own kids.

Our kids just want to spend time with us and take nice photos. They spend enough time in school learning nuts and bolts. If your goal is to get– and keep– them interested in photography, you need to make it as accessible and stress-free as possible. Dumping a whole lot of technical concepts on them at once isn’t going to cut it. So, while I may start with the technical in the classroom, with my son I started with composition and let the tech fall into place later.

We all know that composition consists of the placement of elements within the boundaries of the frame. Remember, though, that your child views the world from a lower vantage point than you do. Start by getting down on their level and seeing things as they do. It may also help at first to leave the DSLR in the bag and use a point & shoot or even a smartphone or tablet. The smartphone is an amazing compositional tool. A live view that you can both look at together will be a huge help in guiding them towards subtle adjustments, alternative angles, and helping them move what they see with their eyes into the confines of the frame.

Composition is where creative expression begins. Seeing how kids compose their images gives you a glance inside their heads, and maybe even lets them teach you a thing or two about creativity.

Subjects and Locations

Start by thinking about what frustrates (or frustrated) you most about basic photography,  and make sure to eliminate as many of those stumbling blocks as possible. The more you can do to create a successful environment for them, the better your chances are for successfully instilling a love for photography. Landscapes are a great place to start, as are other subjects that don’t move around much– pets, toys, flowers, even cracks in the sidewalk. Helping them select relatively stress-free subjects on their own visual level increases their chances for success. It’s also worth remembering that creativity doesn’t usually fall too far from the tree. Like I mentioned about composition, when freed from our adult notions of creativity, our kids might very well have some pretty amazing creative visions of their own. Be open to those visions and give them a chance to guide the journey as well.

Once they get more comfortable capturing their visions, start introducing games, challenges, and scavenger hunts. You’ve got their interest and attention. Hold onto it by making it fun and exciting. Shooting themes (e.g., “Lines,” “Doors,” “Distance,” “Blue,” etc.) is a great way to both engage their imaginations and expand how they see the world around them.

What About Exposure?

As kids become more comfortable with the ideas of composition and choosing their subjects, they will be in a better position to not only start asking questions about why their photos are too light or too dark, but to understand the answers as well. You can try getting technical about the exposure triangle at this point, but your 8-year-old is going to get a glassed-over look in their eyes and hit you with the biggest yawn you’ve ever seen the moment you start using terms like “depth of field,” “stopping down,” and “shooting wide open.”

So, how can you make sense of these technical concepts in a non-technical way? Read on.

Imagine a room with one large window covered with a curtain. You’ve just stepped inside a camera. The window and curtain combine to act as your shutter and aperture. If your kids can get their heads around the concept simply by way of discussion, great. If not, pick a room in your house and demonstrate. If I open the curtain just a little, I have a smaller aperture. If I open it wider, I have a larger aperture. If I open and close the curtain very quickly, I have a faster shutter speed, and if I open and close it more slowly I have a longer, slower shutter speed. Demonstrate this with various combinations, showing them how their choices affect how much light enters the room and for how long.

You can add ISO to the demonstration with the use of sunglasses. Technically, ISO is a measure not of the light entering your camera, but f your camera’s sensitivity to that light. Starting with the sunglasses on and taking them off will be comparable to raising the ISO. The light entering the room has not changed, but it obviously becomes brighter when you take off the sunglasses.

Start with Film

I kind of go back and forth on this one. There is obviously something to be said for the instant gratification that a digital camera provides, but I’m also a big fan of the discipline and restraint that can be learned from shooting a roll of film. When your student knows they are limited to 24 frames, “spray and pray” is no longer an option. They need to make their composition choices more carefully. They learn patience. Every shot counts. I’m not saying that you HAVE to start with film, but I honestly believe that a strong foundation in film makes for a better photographer. As I mentioned earlier, working with a film camera allows for learning possibilities that just don’t exist with digital cameras. Perhaps “Including Film” is a more appropriate heading. An added benefit to including film in the process is that you can stress early on that it’s about the photos– not about the gear.

If you are going to include film in teaching your kids photography, building a camera can be a great activity. The Konstruktor DIY Camera Kit and the Recesky TLR DIY Kit are two great options. Seeing how all of the components come together provides a greater understanding , and that leads to better photos.

Have Fun

I tend to be skeptical about any list that ends with “Have Fun,” but there it is. If I had to pick one important piece of advice for teaching kids photography, it would be to have fun and keep it in perspective. “You’re doing it wrong” is strictly off-limits– in words or actions. Don’t just allow for mistakes and imperfections, but celebrate and embrace them. Remember– your kid can read you like a book. The second they realize you’re being pushy or not having fun, it’s all over. Try to remember that you weren’t an accomplished photographer the first 50 times you picked up a camera either. You worked at it. Guide your kids right and they’ll work at it, too.

Your Turn!

Got any tips of your own for passing the love of photography on to the next generation? Share them in the comments and join the conversation.

  • D.Pulsar

    Great article, at the right moment. I was just thinking about make a gift of this Konstructor for my 10 years old nephew and spend two days with him between Paris’s streets (yes … I’m french) and my bathroom with some red lights and chemical product, just to make him realize photography was not always like nowadays (nothing about “it’s was better before” or “it easy today”, no, it’s just different). This article will help me to make those two days as fun as possible

    • Jeffrey Guyer

      Sounds like fun! Just be prepared– at 10-years-old, he’s definitely going to need your help with the Konstruktor kit.

      • D.Pulsar

        Yeah I know, I already post a comment on your previous article about Konstructor. Provide him some help is part of the plan ;-)

  • http://wilcfry.com/ Wil Fry

    My 3-year-old has been taking pictures for more than a year, using her mother’s old cell phone, which we keep charged just for that purpose (it can’t make calls anymore). When I get out my camera, she gets hers. :-)

    • Jeffrey Guyer

      That’s great, Wil! Are you saving any of the photos for when she gets older?

      • http://wilcfry.com/ Wil Fry

        Definitely! :-) In the past few months, I’ve let her hold the remote control for my 60D a few times too. She looks through the viewfinder and pushes the button. Fun for the whole family. :-)

        • Jeffrey Guyer

          That rocks. I love hearing stories like this.

          • http://wilcfry.com/ Wil Fry

            I have a Flickr set of them: http://flickr.com/gp/saintseminole/1D3tNr/

            The oldest is at the bottom, when she was not yet 15 months old, and the newest is at the top. (None of these are from the phone she plays with; those images are stuck in the phone. These are all from a couple of point-and-shoot cameras and my 60D.)

  • Fred Smith

    Nice article.

    Some kids have great imaginations that haven’t been ruined by teachers telling them that a cow must have four legs, or that an apple should be a particular color. I like to tell my kids to be as creative as they want, telling them what they can do and then letting them ask me how to do it. They learn better by asking questions than by being told what to do. A few weeks ago my 10-year old asked me how to make the background blurry. He may not remember what “opened up” or “closed down” means, but he knows what can be done and for now that is good enough.

    When I was a kid, film and printing was relatively expensive. Therefore, we did what we knew would work without experimenting very much. In a digital world, mistakes cost nothing making it easier for kids to experiment and learn.

    • Jeffrey Guyer

      Great points all around, Fred. Thanks for taking the time.

  • Amaryllis

    I’m only 19, so I don’t have children, but I do have kid cousins who are interested into photography, or more generally into my camera. I saw them the other day and they kept on wanting to use my camera, so I let them (carefully) use it, but since I didn’t want them to spam and fill my memory card, I allowed them 5 shots per turn (they were two, so it was 5 shots for the first girl, then 5 shots for the second, then it was my turn for a while, and then when they’d ask again it would be 5 shots per person again). And I have to say, a few of those shots came out great! The older girl was really careful when choosing what she’d take photos of and, if the composition was not perfect, the subject was pretty cool and, at times, it was something I wouldn’t have thought of.

    So, maybe it’s not necessary to start with film, but if you ask them to only take a certain number of shots, it can work, too. If necessary, using very small SD cards and very big formats can do the job too ;) For my camera (a Canon T3i), using a 1GB SD card along with RAW+JPG files makes about 25 shots, so that could probably work :)

    This said, really nice article! If I have children someday, I’ll definitely read it again to make sure they don’t run away when they see a camera :)

    • Jeffrey Guyer

      Thanks, Amaryllis. That is a great point about limiting the number of shots. Another thing I sometimes do with students is make them cover their LCD screens with gaffer’s tape to keep them from chimping and to hone exposure skills.

  • GS_790

    For all the details we have to fiddle with, photography is most importantly about putting a picture in a square. I don’t teach but I do help buy gear, and my first question is always, “what technical challenge, or technique, are you trying that your current equipment cannot do?” This has turned out to be pretty disarming.
    I like the idea of an iPod touch for kids. It’s cheap, it’s cool, and it has a good camera (and games too!). You get an uncomplicated platform to focus directly on putting a picture inside that square.
    Personally, I enjoy playing the role of the ignorant guide, so we learn together, and this roll helps keep me from bringing in too many details too quickly.

    • Jeffrey Guyer

      That’s a great approach. Thanks.

  • barry

    Excellent! I Agree with all of your methods except 2. First of all why start with film? For a kid who learns by hitting every button rather than reading instructions (at least my kids do), it makes no sense to limit that experimentation by limiting them to 24 exposures and making them wait for film to come back or to the realization of costs (I tried starting my daughter on Polaroid until my wife stepped in. Film is something for an advanced or serious hobbiest or professional user. Not for a kid or even us adults! Think of photography before cell phones and then after. Digital opens the world up for the new user.
    Second, your room with a window analogy will also put your kid to sleep. Just take different digital pictures with different results. And then in the simplest way possible explain why some pictures came out dark and some came out light. I shadowed my kids taking pictures and we both shot the same pictures together. I would explain stuff to them only when they asked why theirs were different. And, I made sure to point out pictures of theirs that I liked better than mine. I started asking them how they did that which made them think about what they were doing, and allowed them to eventually feel comfortable asking me how I got a particular result.
    One of the best photographic and philosophical discussions we once had was the difference between human brains and camera brains. But learning was and still is organic and natural for us both, into the now high school years.
    The best lesson that I have learned from exploring photography with my kids is that the definition of a special affect is, “Any repeatable error”.

  • Peter J. James

    If i had been limited to film when i learned i would have been thoroughly discouraged. I suppose it’s something to do with my short attention span and unrealistic expectations of myself; If i had been shooting film, i would have had to wait for the results and would have be disappointed with the results. And i would have forgotten what settings i had used to get the bad results, so i would learn nothing. (I also hate keeping track of mundane details, blessedly digital does that for me)
    But this just speaks for my own personality, others learn differently.

    However, now that i have some understanding of composition and… those other important aspects of photography which escape my immediate grasp of nomenclature… i would love to get into black and white and develop my own stuff. 35mm, then medium, then large format :O