How to Teach Kids Photography, Part One

Originally published on some long-ago blog of mine on November 9, 2011, updated slightly here.

There’s a sort of mythology growing in some quarters that once-upon-a-time cameras required knowledge of the craft of photography to use. That you had to know a little about f-stops and shutter speeds in order to make a photo. And that some of those people who learned about f-stops and shutter speeds were intrigued enough to learn about film speeds, about slide and negative film, about black and white, about grain, about metering, about latitude. They became, in a word, photographers.

Modern cameras, in this once-upon-a-time scenario, are all-together too automated. They are convenient, sure, but they are making all of the decisions for you–the very decisions that the photographer should be making as part of the series of creative choices that go into making a photograph. A camera with manual controls is sort of the gateway drug to creating real photographers.

And I think there is something to that.

One of the primary pathways along which budding photographers travel goes something like this: Start taking pictures. Friends think it is cool. Pictures are cool. Learn more about photography. Pictures get cooler and cooler. (The other pathway is when a 20-year-old art student realizes that painting is too hard, video too complicated, and then “comes to photography” after realizing that it is so damn easy –but that’s a different post!)

Kids, if they are going to become photographers–photographers from an art point of view–could use a little help.

So how do you teach kids photography? Here’s how I’m doing it with my two daughters. Learn from my mistakes!

To make this more coherent I have distilled my experiences (so far) and drawn out a few bullet points–ten, in fact–which you can consider with your own kids, or kids that you may have some influence over.

I’ll post the first three bullet points here, the rest to follow.

10. Get them their own camera. This may seem obvious but it is not. Don’t loan them one of yours. (Although you can give them one, but you really have to give it. If they put stickers or paint all over it don’t let them see you flinch.) Young kids will love a small point and shoot. Older kids need something more. Don’t buy an expensive camera–they won’t be able to take that to school, to the beach. If they lose or damage it you will be bummed in a big way. That’s inhibiting to them. Get something that can really be theirs, something that has a “cool factor” to it (i.e. different than anything their friends have). Don’t buy them a camera that you would like to have, that is cool to you. They aren’t on the same DPReview hamster wheel that most adult photographers are on. They don’t surf the net for hours craving the next Nikon D-this, Canon EOS-that. (That another post, too. Sorry.) Give them a photography experience, not a shopping experience. One of those mini-pocket digicams that you wouldn’t even look at would be perfect for an eight-year-old. A fancier one for an older kid. Just get them taking pictures.

9. Give them a push but don’t try to control them. It will be awfully easy, in your excitement to share your passion for photography, to get carried away. Let them discover things at their own pace. Things that are obvious to you weren’t always obvious and by learning them on your own you learned not only a new technique but also how to learn–and how to take pleasure from learning. Let them have their experience. Be ready to help and to clarify, but don’t overwhelm them. Don’t always give them the answers to their questions but show them the way toward discovery instead. You will want to tell them all about your passion for photography, you will want them to appreciate–and appreciate deeply–the technical issues surrounding the work. Heck, you will want them to appreciate you. Hold back. They won’t appreciate you. They are kids, after all, and they are your kids. They know you too well, they’re too close. They idolize pop stars, not you, no matter what your achievements.

8. Take them out photographing. Go to Yosemite. Go downtown. Walk around your neighborhood. Make photographing a special event so that they can focus their minds on it. Make photographing a special event so they start to separate the casual taking of a snapshot from the making of a Photograph (with a capital “P”). Photography, isn’t something you do with half of your attention, while running errands. Photography takes all of your mind, it deserves all of your mind. Don’t forget to make it fun. Don’t forget the food.

More to come.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Philip Ulanowsky

    All points well taken, On the other hand, years ago I taught children as young as eight (albeit, not my own; had none then) at a summer camp how to use a 35mm SLR, choosing from 28, 50, and 105 lenses, selecting an aperture for DOF, and take basic manual light readings with a Luna Pro. They had a ball and a few independently became enthusiasts in their teen years.

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