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We love photography. We love our kids. So, it would stand to reason that if we can find a way to combine photography and spending time with our kids it’s a big win, right? Of course it is. If your kids are anything like mine, however, they’ve either already reached a point where they vanish into thin air the moment they even sense a camera coming out of a bag, or will reach that point soon enough. So, how do we enjoy our cherished hobby without abandoning our kids for hours or days at a time? If they’ve grown weary of their time in front of your camera, maybe it’s time to help transition them from test subjects and guinea pigs to budding photographers themselves.
I know– the mere mention of Auto Mode makes you cringe. Ordinarily I’d agree, but it’s time to get over it (at least for a little while). I’ve been teaching a kids photography class for three years, and I can state with absolute certainty that if I tried teaching my own son the way I teach my students, he would most likely never pick up a camera again. In the classroom, I start each semester with a demonstration. We talk about the exposure triangle (aperture, shutter speed, ISO).
To illustrate, I pull out an old, 1972 Pentax Spotmatic and do something that would be impossible with any of today’s DSLR’s– I open it up. I take off the lens. I open up the back. I show them how the shutter stays open longer at slower shutter speeds. I demonstrate how the aperture ring works on older lenses. Let them see what’s going on from front to back. I show them how these concepts work on a practical, visual level. From exposure, we work our way to composition, to lighting, etc. It’s a logical progression and it works. An effective classroom approach, however, won’t often be the same recipe for success when we try it on our own kids. Why?
Because our kids just want to spend time with us and take nice pictures. They spend enough time in school learning nuts and bolts. If you are going to get (and keep) them interested in photography, you’re going to have to teach them without teaching them.
You’ve taught your kids all kinds of things without sitting them down and making a formal lesson out of it. This is no different. But whereas in the classroom I start with the technical, with my son I start with composition and let the technical fall into place later.
We all know that composition consists of the placement of our subject and other elements within the boundaries of the frame. What you have to remember, though, is that your child views the world from a much lower vantage point than you do. So, start by getting down on their level and see things as they do. It may also help at first to leave the big guns at home and use a point & shoot or even an iPhone. The iPhone is an amazing compositional tool. A live view that you can share with your kids will be a huge help in guiding them towards alternate angles and helping them get what they see with their eyes within the confines of the frame.
This is where they will start expressing themselves creatively. It also gives you a chance to get inside their heads and maybe even let them teach you a thing or two about creativity. In some ways, pressing the shutter button is almost secondary at this point.
Start by thinking about what frustrates you most about basic photography and make sure to remove as many of these stumbling blocks as possible. The more you do to create a successful environment for them, the better your chances for successfully instilling a love for photography. Stationary subjects like landscapes are a great place to start, as are pets, toys, or even cracks in the sidewalk for that matter.
As long as you are helping them select relatively stress-free subjects on their visual level, you increase their chances of success. Remember also, that creativity does not usually fall too far from the tree. Free from our adult notions of creativity, your kids might very well have some pretty awesome creative visions of their own. Be open to those visions and be sure to give them a chance to guide the journey as well.
Once they get more comfortable with capturing their vision in a box, you can start introducing games, challenges, and scavenger hunts. You’ve got their interest and attention. Now hold onto it by making it fun and exciting. Shooting themes (e.g., “Lines,” “Red,” “Doors,” “Reflections,” etc.) is a great way to both engage their imaginations and expand how they see the world around them.
As children become more and 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. By now you are hopefully comfortable with your own grasp of exposure, as well as the interplay and symbiotic relationship between the three elements. Once again, it’s all well and good, but your 8-year-old is going to get a glassed-over look in her eyes and expel the biggest yawn you’ve ever seen the moment she starts hearing things like “depth of field,” “stopping down,” and shooting “wide open.” So what do we do? We teach it visually by example.
Imagine a room with a large single window covered with a curtain. Congratulations– 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 of 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.
Once they have a handle on aperture and shutter speed, you can add ISO to your demonstration with the use of sunglasses. Technically, ISO is a measure not of the light entering your camera, but of your camera’s sensitivity to that light. For purposes of this discussion, starting with 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 with the removal of the sunglasses.
I suppose my most important piece of advice is to make sure you keep all of this in perspective. We love our kids first and photography second. “You’re doing it wrong,” or any variation of it is strictly off-limits. Allow for mistakes and imperfections. Celebrate and embrace them. Just remember, though, that your kid can read you like a book. The second they realize you’re getting pushy or not having fun, it’s over. You didn’t just wake up one morning an accomplished photographer. You worked at it. If you guide them right your kids will work at it, too.
And one day they might even take a killer, life-altering photo and thank you for it.