Teaching a child or teen about photography isn’t going to be the same as teaching photography to adults. As an adult, we already have some basic concepts of what a good photo includes or doesn’t include. Most of us had some type of art class in high school or in college, and we’ve had more exposure to art and photography that builds some knowledge that kids, especially young kids, don’t have. However, kids are naturally creative and curious and aren’t overburdened by rules and expectations which makes them perfect learners for the basics of photography.
With some guidance and feedback your child can go from rapid-multi-photo-taker to budding photographer where the camera and the photos it takes have a bit more meaning than just point and shoot or selfies. As you give gentle guidance (remember it is more about creativity than learning the rules in the beginning), your child can learn the basics and improve their technique over time. Most importantly, both you and your child will have a great opportunity to spend some enjoyable quality time together! And who knows, the unique perspective that children bring to art (and photography) might also give you some new inspiration!
For many kids, simply holding and being allowed to use the camera’s technology will be enough to get them motivated. However, for many others the interest may wane after only a few minutes. We all know how fast kids and teens get distracted these days. To inspire these kids, you will need to be able to demonstrate functions of the camera in a way that keeps attention at each learning session. One simple way to do this is to create a challenge that goes with each learning goal (our next blog post will give you some ideas) and follow the rest of the tips shared here. Additionally, don’t plan to teach “theory” for long periods of time. Balance theory with practice at a 1 to 4 ratio. For every one minute of theory, allow four minutes of practice (for two minutes of theory allow 8 minutes of practice, etc.) and try not to give more than 5-10 minutes of theory maximum in an hour session. This can be adjusted for less practice time as students age or when they have an especially keen interest in the subject.
Be Patient & Flexible
You start out planning a lesson on shutter speed, but your child decides s/he would rather follow a lady bug around on a flower. Let them. Save your “lesson” for another day and time and just enjoy the spontaneity of your parent-kid time. There are so many things you can teach your child about photography that any insights you share with them while they follow bugs will still be valuable and useful. If you are too rigid with your plans and lesson, you might end up pushing your child away from photography.
Don’t rush. Don’t try to teach too much as once. Children and teens require patience, time, and repetition. When planning a lesson or session, keep the concepts gradual and connected. Whatever you left off with in the last lesson, review that material and practice before moving on. It takes at least 5 repetitions for a “student” of any age to really learn a concept and even more repetitions for younger age groups. Don’t expect them to remember the lesson you gave one time when it was over two weeks ago and therefore don’t get frustrated if they don’t seem to grasp what you’ve shown them. If you express frustration or disappointment, you will get a lack of enthusiasm in return.
Keep it simple. Adults have a way of complicating and over explaining everything. Teach a single concept, teach it well, and allow lots of practice for deep understanding. With simple beginnings you can build on each previous lesson. Children also feel more successful and will stay more motivated if they can accomplish one thing or improve one thing. If you discuss four rules of composition and they only successfully grasp and use one of them, they will feel less successful than if you just gave them that one rule and only that one rule and they worked on it successfully. Even though at the end they still learned one thing, kids won’t see it that way. They will remember the three things they didn’t accomplish when you give them a long list of concepts.
Give Real Life Examples
Whenever the opportunity arises discuss photos that you see and what makes them beautiful or interesting. These can be photos in magazines, on billboards along the highway, or online. Discuss the positives and negatives of different photos without judgement. Remember, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Your child may love a photo that you hate, but you need to listen to their reasoning. It will give you insight into their thought process and perhaps spark ideas for lessons to try. Real life examples of art do not have to be limited to photographs. Museums with sculptures and paintings can also be excellent places to talk about composition, lighting, poses of people, perspective, and more.
Proper Camera Care
Learning how to take care of the camera and hold it properly are lessons all their own. Show them how to carefully remove and replace the batteries and memory cards without damaging the connectors. Teach them how to properly clean the front of the lens with lens cleaning cloths or tools. Correct camera hold is important for steady shots, but it is also the correct way to access the camera’s controls, as well as reducing the risk of accidental droppage. A wrist strap or neck strap are also good for photographers of all ages, not just kids!
Main Components & Basic Controls
Some of the first lessons should incorporated main or basic features of the camera, such as the shutter button and how to focus or using the zoom on a lens. A full, comprehensive explanation of all the buttons is not necessary to get started. Let them take some initial photos, then you can start to show them other buttons and controls one by one. Get them familiar with the parts of the camera and what those parts do along with some photography lingo. For example, discuss the lens briefly, what is going on inside (the lens takes in the light and focuses it) and as they learn show them buttons on the lens like vibration reduction, manual focus, the focal length designations, and more. Some common components for most cameras including point-and-shoots include the lens, the body, the shutter/shutter button, a zoom (built in or a kit lens), the flash, battery and memory card, on/off button, and a viewfinder or LCD (or both).
Once they take those first few photos, your reactions are critical to their future interest in photography. Obviously you don’t want to overdo it and claim they are the next Ansel Adams, but stick to the positives. What did they do right? Ask them what they think about their photos and ask them whether the resulting photo looks like what they imagined when they took int. Analyze what could have been done differently if the result did not match their expectation. Give them a suggestion on how to approach the situation differently and let them go experiment with those suggestions. Too much criticism with have a negative effect so stick to the “teacher’s rule” of two positives and a negative. Tell them two good things, then point out any basic mistakes or something simple they can work on to improve and empower them. Even if the photo is too dark or completely blurry complement them on their perspective or choice of subject. Continue to encourage their creativity.
So Let’s Talk Creativity…
The key to creativity is to allow you child to experiment and explore. Make sure they know that photography, like other art forms, isn’t “graded” like schoolwork. It’s about possibilities, new attempts (and failures), showing other’s what you “see” and sometimes “breaking” the rules. With digital photography there is little to no reason to limit the number of photos taken, so try things lots of different ways. There is no film wasted and bad attempts can quickly be erased. Learning by doing and by experimenting is often a better way to learn than other forms of instruction anyway! What if you take a photo from up in the tree? How about photographing the back of the flower instead of the front face? What happens if you slowly move the camera while taking pictures of the birds?
A creativity challenge is also a fun way to get kids interested in photography. Give them a list of tasks or subjects that are all different, or give them one object or subject and challenge them to photograph it in five different ways (different angles, using a different light, changing a camera setting, using a new location, trying a new compositional rule, and more). Use these challenges in moderation. Too many photos taken too quickly starts to make photography feel like a game instead of an art. Encourage them to go slow and put effort and intent into each photo. Give small constructive criticism on each resulting photo – start with the good things and offer one way to improve. This analysis after a photo session is critical. No photographer gets better at the craft if s/he doesn’t review their images for areas of improvement. Over time your child will get better and better at self-critiquing their work.
Teach Subject Matter
Photography has many genres – food, product, wedding, portrait, wildlife, sport, event, landscape, street, astro/night, architectural, corporate, real estate, etc. Each subject requires a different kind of technique. The way you photograph a macro image of a bee is completely different than the way you photograph a business woman for a corporate headshot. The way you take photos of an object varies from the way you take photos of a place. Show you child examples of lots of different types of subjects and genres of photography. Encourage them to take photos of a variety of subjects (people, objects, and places).
However, at the same time, teach your child to avoid distracting photos – images that have too much going on all at once. Have them select a single subject per photo. It can be helpful to show them the “fill the frame” method where they get close enough to the subject that it takes up most of the frame thereby automatically reducing the number of distractions and competing objects/people. Kids understand heroes at an early age. They know from television shows, books, and movies that the person who wins or perseveres is the hero (not necessarily a superhero, but can be the same). In photography, the main subject is the “hero” and everything that distracts from that hero is a “villain.” Have your child consciously work at removing the villains in an image by changing perspectives or rearranging the shot (move the camera or the subject closer or farther back, left or right, or higher or lower). What you are essentially showing them is that good photography requires attention to detail.
The one thing you cannot every truly fix in editing is lack of focus. As soon as they have the basic buttons and functions figured out, there should be lots of lessons and practice on attaining good focus. Show them focus points and autofocus area modes and teach them how to use them. Demonstrate with two objects at different distances and have them put the focus point over each object in turn and focus. They should see the camera refocusing each time. These lessons can later be the basis for teaching about depth of field and aperture.
Don’t try to cover all the rules of composition at once. Focus on one at a time. Leading lines, rule of thirds, and symmetry are really good ones to start with. Review the previously taught rules periodically and point them out when you see them in your child’s images or in other photographs. Ask your child to name compositional rules they see in magazines or on social media. See our previous blog post about Composition Basics for more ideas.
Okay, this is the “big one.” Photography does not exist without light. The word itself roughly translates to “write with light.” The entire exposure triangle is all about balancing the right amount of light for each image. The exposure triangle is too complex for most kids to grasp without a lot of background lessons leading up to it. It is a good idea when you are ready to teach the exposure triangle that you work on one aspect at a time, starting with ISO (what it does, how it works, how you change it in the camera). There are some free lessons on our website that might be helpful.
A great way to get started teaching about light is to just have you child point out the light sources as they are taking photos and where the angle of light is coming from. For kids and beginners, it is good idea to have them keep the sun at their back (this way they don’t shoot into the sun and hurt their eyes or damage the camera by accident). Have them also pay attention to the shadows that each light source creates. For practice, have you child take a toy or stuffed animal outside and take pictures from all sides and repeat at different times of day or in different locations (full sun, dappled sun, full shade, dark shade) all the while noting the changes they see. You can also teach them the “hand trick.” By holding your hand out in front of you (at arm’s length) and watching the light while you slowly turn in a circle, you can see when you have the best light angle.
Practice, Repeat, Practice and Above All Else Have Fun!
You must take a page from the educator handbook – repeat, repeat, repeat, and allow ample time for practice. Why do teachers assign homework? So that children get that practice. The repetition is what makes it stick. However, remember don’t drill-and-kill to the point that the practice feels like a punishment (I will use rule of thirds, I will use rule of thirds, written one hundred times on the blackboard will not make a great photographer).
"Your first 10,000 photographs are your worst" according to world famous photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson and the rule is true for kids and adults alike. Don’t be afraid to repeat an explanation of a concept, or explain the concept again in a new way until it sinks in. It can be helpful to have your child repeat the idea back to you in their own words. Encourage them to retake a photo that doesn’t “work” and fix what they can about it.
At the end of the day, photography with kids should be FUN. Allow for mistakes and imperfect compositions. This about what was most difficult for you when you first picked up a camera and the frustrations you had as you were learning. Then try to create a path forward for your child that eliminates those issues as much as possible. Learn to celebrate and enjoy the learning process and more importantly the quality time you will be spending as a family. Be open to their ideas and they might just inspire you to new levels of creativity too!
Photography promotes mental well-being, builds self-esteem, increases visual thinking skills, builds on math and science concepts (fractions, rays of light), improves critical thinking skills, and develops creativity. The conclusion? Photography is good for kids (and for you). Once s/he has a firm understanding from the lessons and concepts we outlined above, they may be ready to really dive into more advanced lessons on exposure, bracketing, or even manual mode. When you get to these concepts, tackle them step-by-step, one concept at a time just as you have been doing all along, and continue to encourage their efforts. Photography can be an incredible learning journey and it’s nice to have your loved ones along for the ride.