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.
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.
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.