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10 Great Photography Lessons You Can Learn From a 2 Year Old

Child

Nowadays, fancy shmancy cameras can blast you with gazillion frames per second, but non of these can beat the time honored tradition of observation.

If there is one skill that has safeguarded my butt many times it’s the simple act of observing. If you don’t believe me, ask my wife. Observation is not only good when making images, it’s also good for insights. Well I’ve observed my son since day one, literally, and now that he is 2 years old, he is the one who is offering me great insights into photography.

I’ll make sure he never sees this article. Imagine when he’s 10 and says “You’ve learned so much from me at two, imagine how much more you can learn now that I am 10”. I’ll never hear the end of it. Anyway, here are:

10 great photography tips I’ve learned (and you can too) from my 2 year old, nicknamed Yoki

1) Be amazed at everything

Bathroom window

I was outside a restaurant waiting for the rest of the family, it was raining. Laplwie! (“Rain” in french) Laplwie! Yelled my son. A woman walked in with an umbrella, my son bent his feet and pointed all exited “Bwella!!! Bwella!!!”

An oh-so-cute scene. But it got me wondering. I’ve probably seen a million and a half umbrellas yet look at this kid jumping up and down because of an umbrella. Both of our eyes saw the same thing but our mindset was different.

Humans are by nature creatures that get used to things. When it comes to photography, the location is only interesting after a few days, beyond that it’s boring. If you go out and shoot the same area over and over again, you know what I mean. To freshen things up, the solution is to either seek new locations or things to do – or see things in a new way.

In the first case the transformation is external, in the second case it’s internal. I keep the scene of my son and the umbrella in my mind to remind me to always see things in a new way. Every location eventually gets boring, shooting the same kind of pictures over and over again can get boring, so the solution is to see things in a different way.

There’s the true story of an old woman, she was going completely blind but had an operation that restored her sight. She talks about how much she loves doing dishes and looking at the beautiful colors of the bubbles that get formed when she puts in the soap. How many times do we loathe doing our dishes? What is to be learned from this lady?

If you feel your photography is boring, see things in a new way, always tell your mind to see things as if you see them for the first and last time. Yoki does so, and so does that woman who regained her sight. Light and life is beautiful everyday, but to appreciate it takes a conscious effort. There’s a nice saying I like “Everyday is a new day to a wise man”.

Every time I find myself saying Photography is boring (not often but it happens), I remind myself of my son and the rain. Speaking of which, do you notice how rain can transform a scene? The lower contrast between the sky and the rest of the earth? How reflections of the puddles create interesting shots? Or how the rain hitting the ground makes interesting shapes? Or how a window in a bathroom can be a symbol of being locked in? Or how…

2) Kids enjoy themselves because they are in the present

Dark man

I like watching Yoki play, especially with his blocks. He looks so happy. This got me wondering, why don’t photographers have this sort of joy? Isn’t it as simple as enjoying what you do? I observed him even more and looked for what he was doing that photographers were not doing.

The main thing is that kids enjoy what they are doing, all that they care about for the time being is playing with the toy. I’ve been out on the street thinking about what to do the next week, I’ve been on assignment while doing mental financial calculation – exactly what Yoki isn’t doing.

Can you walk a mile? How much less enjoyable would it be if I gave you two nice pieces of luggage to drag while you walk that mile? Unfortunately we do the same thing mentally when it comes to photography. We bring our “stuff” along when shooting and just like dragging real life luggage around, it diminishes the enjoyment of photography.

When shooting, be like a kid with a toy; focus on what you are doing and nothing else. Minor White was adamant about clearing the mind before the act of photography. I listen to music and zone out to zoom into photography. Find what works for you, the important thing is to be lost in what you are doing.

3) Kids enjoy themselves because they don’t care about being the best

Haiti boat

From time to time Yoki comes in with something he’s done. Bravos, hugs and all around congrats are thrown his way. But you know what? I’ll continue doing so until he is older.

I remember doing my best for grades as a kid and all I could feel from my mom was how short I fell from top of the class. When kids are kids it’s all about doing their best, but as they grow older it’s all about how short they fall of being THE best. How can Yoki enjoy himself doing crafts if all that he thinks about is being better than somebody else?

What matters for kids is to do the best they can and enjoy what they do. That is also valid about photography, all that matters is that you do their best and enjoy making pictures. To enjoy your photography it’s all about enjoying what you are doing, as simple as it sounds. The moment you start ranking yourself is the moment you stop being content, because being in first place will be only thing that will matter at that point. Plus there’s always someone better than you, and someone better than them ad infinitum.

4) Kids enjoy themselves because they don’t care about comparisons

New york woman

I was watching my son finger painting. What came to mind was the fact that compared to how I can draw, his drawings are absolutely bad. But does he care that his dad can outdo him in drawing? No.

He’s too happy with his own stuff to even bother to compare with others. Take any photographer you respect, that person has another photographer they feel jealous of. But very few of them are genuine enough to admit that. When you tend to compare yourself with others, the answer to all this is do like children do – stop it, and focus on your own stuff.

When your work is your focus, everything others do might be better, but it sure won’t affect you. Photography is all about enjoying what you do and not about comparing to others all the while doing your best. Actually, I’ve found that the more you focus on your stuff the better you get. But, the more you compare the worst you get, because it sucks the life and joy out of photography. It’s all about loving what you do, and doing what you love.

5) Don’t get sidetracked

Penn station

One of the parenting tricks I have is to distract my son when I don’t want him to have something. If I don’t want him to use the computer, I pick up his alphabet phone toy and start playing with it. He never fails to forget about the computer. That taught me how easy it is to get sidetracked in photography.

One of the easiest traps of photography is the camera. So many get sidetracked by the camera that photography gets completely lost. I’ve been there, and lost 1000s of $$$. I was addicted to the gear. But that’s a story for another time. If you find yourself googling for accessories instead of going out and making images, you might have a problem.

The second way to get sidetracked is by focusing on other’s photography, and that includes the Masters. I know a few folks that have such powerful photographs, yet instead of developing their own voice they continue copying another photographer’s work. Such a waste – they are distracted from their own photography by copying someone else.

You can also get sidetracked by being too much into the masters. Do you want to be known for knowing the masters, or known for actually making images? One thing that is rarely stated is that no matter how great the masters were, doing your work is more important because it’s your own work.

To recap: photography is not about having the most cameras, that only shows you’ve got plenty to spend. Photography is not about collecting photobooks, that only shows you appreciate art. Photography is about making photographs, that’s when you are a photographer.

If anything has a bigger place in your life than your own photography, you’ve been sidetracked.

6) Pattern recognition

Man surreal

When Yoki was born, I resolved to always observe him, and more importantly to observe how he learns. I was fascinated by my son playing with a particular toy, this one called a shape sorter (see image right)

Shape sorter

How did his little brain work to put the shapes in the appropriate holes? The answer is patterns. The brain is wired to recognize patterns, so when Yoki took the star shape, his brain said “seek star shape” and ordered the eye to look around for that shape. When Yoki is out and starts saying letters and numbers, his brain is not really actively searching for the letters and numbers, the brain compares what he sees with the brain’s database of shapes and alerts itself that it’s a recognized pattern.

The first example is called the top-down mode (Where the brain actively seeks a pattern) and the second the bottom-up (where the brain is in a more receptive mode).

I was struck when I realized that photography on the compositional level was a huge, glorified “shape sorter” toy in real life. Here’s an illustration:

Top down

In my son’s mind the request was “seek star shape”. In my photographer’s mind, the request might be “seek vanishing point“. In the illustration above, I was on the street, but my brain only alerted me when it recognized the pattern I asked for (vanishing point). That is the top-down mode. It’s the process that happens when you are seeking a particular type of image. Here’s another illustration:

Bottom up

At the base of the brain there’s something called the Reticular Activation System (RAS), or as I like to call it the Really Awesome Secretary. A secretary’s role is to cut the fluff and only alert you when something is important, and that is what the RAS does. What’s important is relative and defined by each person.

What is important to my son Yoki? Letters and numbers, he’s going to see them everywhere, at least it’s going to appear to him that way. For me as a photographer what is important is what I want to see in my photographs. So I was in the streets not looking for anything in particular, but more than once my brain processed what my eye saw and it alerted me when it recognized a pattern (in the case above texture and portrait). That’s called the bottom-up mode.

It’s a frighteningly beautiful system that allows my son to play with his shape toys and me to recognize stuff when I am shooting.

7) You can’t recognize what you don’t know

Man haiti standing

Pattern recognition has it’s limits though, you can’t recognize patterns that you don’t know. Take my son for example, he will cry out “Circle! Oval! Sqwawe.”, but it will be quite a while before I hear him say “Hexagon! Trapezoid! Pentagon.”.

His palette of patterns are limited: square, circle, oval, square, star, heart. My palette is much more expanded to include a bunch more. So in a scene where there is a square and a pentagon shape, he will see the square only, but I will see the square and the pentagon. It’s the same principle at work when two photographers see different things in the same location.

When people who don’t know photography see the kind of pictures that can be produced out of a regular scene, they immediately credit the camera. But fact is that the photographer recognized a good picture (trained to look for certain patterns) whereas the non-photographer (not trained to look for certain patterns) could not see anything. So what’s a pattern? It can be anything from certain compositional types (Golden ratio, etc.), shapes, color, types of pictures (landscape, portrait, etc.), themes that interest you (people, animals, etc.) and more.

8) Everything is basic shapes

Under bridge

I was on my bed when the kiddo starts saying “S!” “S!” “The wetter S!” Hoho… I was sure he was seeing things because I never saw a prominent S in my room. But the kiddo was right, there was an S in the room, here it was:

Image: By Mathew Bajoras

By Mathew Bajoras

It was the light bulb. That reminded me how the world is like a glorified “shape sorter” toy. Absolutely everything visual can be broken down into line, shapes, space, color and texture.

It’s something that painters and artists understand at a fundamental level; everything can be broken down into basic elements. As a graphic designer I also understand this at a basic level because you can break down designs into simple elements. Here’s an example with a shot I made:

Simple elements

All of a sudden a window is a trapezoid, and people’s heads are ovals. This is due to the Gestalt law of perception called “Pragnanz”. Simply stated it says that we perceive complex shapes as simple ones (a face as an oval for example). Yoki recognizing the “S” out of the light bulb always reminds me of that, so I look for basic, broad shapes in my photographs, and more importantly how to arrange them.

9) People are aware of the camera

Lady power

My kid is not even five and he already knows to pose. It’s nuts. How does he know when the camera is up to strike a pose? Are we spoiling our genuineness by asking kids to say “Cheese”? I think so because it teaches kids to stop what they are doing to say cheese and look at the camera. But whatever the case, very early in life kids are aware of the camera. The result? Absolutely everybody in today’s world is aware of the camera.

That pretty much means no one is genuine when a camera is present. For pros this means you have to learn to relax your clients. For everybody else it means you have to be quick to get a genuine pose. The best moment is the split second before the person realize you are photographing them.

One interesting tidbit about the genuineness of the subject when faced with a camera, is that it is proportional to the type of camera. Pull out a point-and-shoot camera in the streets and people won’t care much, you’re probably a tourist in their minds. Pull out a double battery DSLR with 55-200 zoom and people will start acting differently. Pull out a Polaroid camera and people will react as if you are an “Artiste”.

People are conscious of the camera because they are conscious of their image, it’s ingrained since the start. If you can make people believe all you want is a snapshot, they won’t give you a second look. That, my friend is why I can only recommend a point-and-shoot lookalike for the streets.

10) Complacency hinders growth

Older lady

What’s that? I asked pointing to a square in a book. “Square!!!” “Carré” (Square in French) my son said. Good I said, now what’s that? I was pointing a rectangle, he looked at it and then pointed to the square “Square!! Carré!!”. Yes but what’s that? I asked pointing at the rectangle once more. He pointed at the square once more and named it again. Instead of taking a risk at trying to name the rectangle he pointed at what he already knew.

I was quite surprised at what happened, not because of how my son reacted but because I saw myself in it. It’s easy to get complacent in photography, I sure did. It happens when you do something over and over again and don’t challenge yourself. I largely abandoned longer than 35mm focal lengths because of that. The best thing I ever did photographically is to get a 28mm because it’s much harder to deal with.

I could go out with a longer lens and not challenge myself, but I would not grow and I would become complacent. When Yoki did this with his shapes, it taught me to never become complacent and always challenge myself. I’ve grown so much when I decided to go wide angle. Try it, it will not let you make an image without a fight.

To each his comfort zone, for me it was always sticking to fast apertures at 50mm, for you it might be something else. Find where you are too comfortable photographically, then challenge yourself. It’s the trick that pole jumpers use, they put the bar higher every time.

Finals comments

I love my kid, and I love watching him. I love to see how he works and how he thinks. He’s learning from me hHopefully a good thing) but I am also learning a lot from him, as you can see from the 10 tips above. But that stays between me and you, ok?

Be yourself, stay focused and keep on shooting.

Have you learned any photography lessons from your kids? Please share any additional tips in the comments below.

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Olivier Duong
Olivier Duong

is a Haitian-French-Vietnamese graphic designer turned photographer, he is the co-creator of Inspired Eye Photography Magazine. This ex-gear head now teaches photographers how to develop their eye, heart and mind. Join his photography newsletter to keep in touch. You’ll receive weekly inspiration, a free beginner’s course, tutorials and more.