(It’s not impossible!)

How to teach photography to children

This bear was brought in by one of the children and proved to be a popular photo subject. He could also sit still, unlike the children. We named him “Ansel.”

By Bob Couey

Teaching primary school-age children basic photography. How tough could it be?

When I was recently offered a part-time position teaching photography to young children at an after-school education facility, I anticipated this assignment could be challenging. No matter. Photography is my passion so I was looking forward to enthralling young minds and interesting them in the creative field I love and admire.

The children made these ornaments. Cut a 4x6 print into 12 half-inch strips. Use a hole-punch to make a hole near the ends of each strip and connect them with fasteners. Squeeze your ornament into a bulb shape, add some metallic string, and hang for Santa. Maybe he’ll bring you a new camera.

Who’s the student?

My initial approach to teaching smaller kids the art and basics of photography was to lecture, project various photo examples for discussion, lecture a little more, then gradually move into some hands-on work. Easy. After all, this concept had been effective with adults in photo classes I had taught at the local university. Consequently, it would be fine for the kiddies, right?

Wrong.

“All classes need to engage the students all the time,” said the after-school facility’s education director. “Otherwise, kids will tune out. Trust me about this,” she insisted.

Yes, I trusted her because she was absolutely right. Having raised two inquisitive children, you’d think I’d already know this fact. But those were just two children and they were reasonably easy to herd. Plus, they feared me. However, a classroom of unfamiliar children is like a brood, a mob, and they can come at you from all sides and at the same time.

What to teach?

I had 14 weeks of subjects to fill to satisfy my agreement with the facility. How could I possibly entertain and educate sugar-high kids for that amount of time and keep them interested in photography while maintaining my sanity? I’m a commercial photographer, not an elementary school teacher. What did I get myself into?

The first order of business meant tossing away my existing photo syllabus and starting from scratch with a new lesson plan. As far as I was concerned, most of what I believed about teaching photography was not appropriate for anyone under 12 years old. I needed to revamp everything. So, I started at the very basics of lighting and what I call “subject separation.”

A little separation

At the very first class focused on this concept of “subject separation” I tacked random examples from magazines on the wall. This included subject separation in color, focus, contrast, texture (and various combinations of all). Armed with stacks of magazines, I challenged the schoolchildren to find matching examples and cut and tack them below each main example.

Examples of subject separation used on the first day of class. These magazine pages were individually tacked on a wall and kids rifled through magazines to find similar examples of subject seperation which they posted below each main example.

Of course, the kids were all over the place with their examples, but they were having fun and comparing notes with other classmates. As long as the kids were exploring and finding fun imagery, I was fine with it. Photography is all about observation. It’s not an exact science.

Portraiture

In the following weeks, we dealt with portraiture and I showed the kids examples of soft (umbrella), direct and natural (outdoor) light. For these sessions, I engaged all the kids to act as professional photographers, “reflector holders,” equipment grips and art directors or “stylists” for their fellow classmates in a studio-like environment.

We had lots of fun and rotating each student through these areas gave them a better understanding of what it might be like to work on a professional photo set. Additionally, the kids soon learned how to compose a portrait, anticipate the ideal expression by avoiding the “say cheese” technique they were more familiar with.

And I discovered something else; since kids typically process comments and constructive criticism differently than adults, regular encouragement is essential to keep children motivated. Encouragement is not always praise and it’s important to appreciate the difference and reserve high praise for good work, yet remain positive and encouraging all the time.

Still-life, macro, Photoshop and more

As my photo classes progressed, we explored more techniques in portraiture, still life (“tabletop”) setups, vintage botanical macro photography, photo crafts, Photoshop, black and white darkroom work and even a David Hockney-style photo collage. Lots of hands on stuff. Although some projects were more or less successful than others, each class offered something new and compelled students to conceptualize, think about still imagery while telling a story with their own unique vision.

The still life photos were a lot of fun and even though I provided some props of my own, the kids were encouraged to bring items from home. That made the assignment more personal and interesting to the students.

To say this 14-week teaching assignment was challenging is an understatement. However, while I like to believe the kids absorbed something worthwhile from me, I probably learned as much from each of them. Patience is indeed a virtue and all kids learn and conceptualize in different ways and at different rates. As teachers and/or parents who interact with children, it’s up to us to recognize and accommodate those differences.

Ideas for parents

For parents who want to engage their child or children in the art of photography, my classroom experience is similar to teaching on a much smaller scale. Bear in mind that hands-on learning is key and kids often perform much better with something tangible in their hands and a license to explore rather than a blah blah speech about great photographers.

Many kids don’t know they can’t do something and have yet to learn that failure is taboo. Use this fact to inspire your children. With a few basic photo principles, you can spend hours exploring photography together. Don’t be afraid to experiment either. Your kids might amaze you.

A joyous experience

Photography is visceral so it’s an ideal endeavor for even small children. They can have fun with creating imagery and will grasp even complicated principles of single-lens reflex (SLR) camera apertures, shutter speeds, lighting and more.

Make learning these concepts interesting for them and applicable to what they are doing NOW and not after the lecture. Or use a point-and-shoot camera or even a cameraphone to explore and create imagery. It’s all about spending time with your child and discovering photography together.

Photography can be a joyous experience. Trust me about this.


For more than 22 years, Bob Couey managed the Visual Services department at SeaWorld San Diego. His work has appeared in People magazine, Us Weekly, Los Angeles Times, Sports Illustrated, Associated Press and more. He currently teaches photography at UCSD Extension.

Posted on March 9, 2012.

Comments

Comments


Reply by R Dailey

October 20, 2016

I am a teacher at a Title 1 school and I started a photography club for 4-5th graders. I currently have 12 students who are in the club and they have really enjoyed the first two meetings we have had. I am, however, finding it difficult to come up with some elementary short lessons to teach on the elementary level. If anyone has any ideas or suggestions please let me know. I do not want to bore them and I want them to be able to take pictures but most of them have never held a real camera before. I have one student who is familiar with digital SLRs cameras (5th grade), and she has been very helpful. I need all the help I can get!


Reply by Andrew Hudson, PhotoSecrets

November 15, 2016

Hi R Dailey,

Thanks for your comment. I only have the information posted above. Perhaps an Internet search will yield some ideas.

Best wishes,

Andrew Hudson, for Bob Couey


Reply by Anonymous

February 29, 2016

I am a photographer that got thrown into teaching art this year to fifth graders. Some GREAT ideas. All we have is iPads. So we will do what we can. But now I have some focus.


Reply by Email (optional)

January 30, 2016

I live in East Hanover NJ. Are there any photography classes in my Morris County area? My granddaughter is almost 14 yrs old any info that you can share with me would be very much appreciated.


Reply by Andrew Hudson, PhotoSecrets

February 1, 2016

Hi. Try a Google search. I did one for photography classes in morris county nj and several colleges, camera stores, workshops and photographer classes came up.


Reply by Dan

March 29, 2015

Have you run any workshops for children to create pictures with their phones? interested in training kids in refugee camps to take pictures so they can share experiences from their point of view.


Reply by Dkzody

June 24, 2013

I like the idea of teaching children photography by letting them take pictures that tell a story. The photo alone could tell the story, or a series of photos could be used. This could be the culminating project for a class. Getting small children to sit still and listen to someone drone on about taking pictures is not much fun. They just want to go take pictures.


Reply by Malia

May 22, 2013

I know that bear!!!! and i know that foundation!!!


Reply by USMAN GARBA DORATI

February 18, 2013

REALLY THIS LESSON IS INTERESTING AND EDUCATIVE TO ME


Add Your Comment

Comment:

Name:

Email (optional):

Submit your comment: