How to teach kids photography, part two

I wrote on Wednesday a few thoughts on how to teach kids photography–ideas that I’m trying out with some success with my own daughters. To organize my thoughts in order to share them with you I’ve broken down the lessons I’ve learned so far into ten bullet points. The first three were published Wednesday, three more today, and the final four will be published on Sunday.

Here are today’s ideas:

7. Help them learn how to see. After they are comfortable with the idea of photographing as a special thing take it to the next level. During the summer, when they have more free time, give them real photography assignments. Make it fun, make it basic. Here is what I did with my kids. I wrote up basic photography assignments, printed them out, and left them on the kitchen table on the mornings when we were going to go shoot. The kids were excited to start their day off with a sort of surprise–something novel after the boredom of summer has started to threaten. Don’t forget the food! Afterwards go home and have the kids choose their favorite twenty images from the day. Put them on the TV and view them as a group (again, don’t forget the food). Make a sort of casual rule that everyone has to say one intelligent thing (or at least one coherent thing–sometimes you have to take those first steps when we are talking about teenage kids) about each image. No just sitting there. They have to engage. When all the lessons are done have the kids edit the best images into a portfolio book. Mail a few copies to relatives. Make it a big deal because it is.

6. Take them to art museums and discuss the works. Let them express their own thoughts. Let them hear yours, too, but not in a way that leads their thinking, that determines their opinion. Show then good photography. Let them make their own connections. Don’t push them to love Ansel Adams, if you do. Don’t rub their nose in the Bechers even if you find the work fascinating. It might seem like nothing to them. Point out whatever catches your interest in the images–a dog at the edge of a frame, a trick of the light, a similar image elsewhere in the gallery. Get them to see images rather than to memorize why certain images are important.



Last year I drove down the California coast and back with my family, stopping along the way to see photography exhibits. At Santa Barbara we saw an excellent Brett Weston Exhibit which raised his work in my estimation. I walked around looking at the images with my kids, discussing each one as their interest directed, and moving back and forth between rooms at the show when we realized certain images, separated at the exhibit, appeared to be made on the same day at the same place. We saw a show at the San Diego Museum of Photographic Arts which was showing Ansel Adams prints including several very early prints which I have never seen before and even a Sierra Club scrapbook with his images. The kids didn’t care for this show as much. We also had the odd experience of seeing three Richard Avedon shows, one in San Diego, one in Los Angeles, and one in San Francisco. Like all such bodies of work you quickly go from looking at the images as photographs to playing the “can you name the personality” game. It was fun even if the prints at the San Francisco show were sometimes of abysmal quality. (One large one in particular, of Marian Anderson, was such a bad print I’m convinced it was retrieved from the trash. Horribly dark and fogged, chemical stains. It was unsigned. We’d just seen an image of the same print, albeit in a smaller size, a couple of days earlier.) Let the kids explore, intellectually and emotionally.

5. Give them control over their camera. Teenagers are naturally lazy, like many artists. If you give them a camera with manual mode and auto mode you might as well weld the dial to auto mode. They’ll never use it. As soon as they are ready give them a manual camera, if at all possible. Next best is a semi-automatic. Next best? Stress to them the glories of shooting in manual and show them why. Most modern cameras are nearly hard-wired into full automatic mode, giving a dismissive nod to manual controls which are buried in menus or submenus. Older cameras, especially film cameras, are better in this regard. A few digital point and shoots–very few–pass the test here.

On Sunday I’ll offer four final ideas to teach kids about photography.

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