How to Make Kids Into Photographers
Sometimes it seems like kids today are born snapping photos. But if you want to help them explore photography beyond just selfies and Instagrams, it takes more than lending them your iPhone. So here are some great ways to share your passion with the young ones in your life, and maybe learn something about your own photography along the way.
Take your time
Don’t feel like you need to jam everything about photography into your first session with a kid. The educators we spoke with emphasized communicating bite-sized ideas that children can play with before introducing more complex concepts. Photography has a lot of technical detail that can smother a child’s enthusiasm and creativity if deployed all at once. Choose a single thing to try to communicate on a single day, and allow the knowledge to build over time. If the first day is fun, they’ll be game for a second. Niki Even, program director of San Diego’s Outside The Lens, says the goal early on is just to “get them out of selfie mode and help them start thinking like photographers.”
Start with the familiar
All of the educators we spoke with suggested starting with subjects with which children are intimately familiar—such as their families and their immediate environment. The two offer different challenges: One can be used as a portal into portraiture, the other will help kids find new and unexpected ways to see their bedroom, their house, or their street.
Expose them to exposure
After you have a few sessions under your belt, gradually introduce the concepts of shutter speed, aperture, and ISO. Be sure to cover each one independently. Come up with ways to clearly demonstrate the way each one works and how it might be used, playing around with motion blur, over- and underexposing frames, and more. Digital cameras are a blessing for this, letting you quickly tweak settings to opposite extremes and display the results directly on the back of the camera.
Write it out
Challenging children to write or tell stories about the photos they take is a key way to broaden their understanding of the work they’ve made, and to help them think about what they might like to make in the future. All of the educational programs we looked into include writing as a part of each child’s final presentations. When confronted with a blank piece of paper, it can be difficult for children to write about their feelings, but focusing their thoughts using an image that’s important to them can help give them access to emotions that might otherwise have remained hidden.
Put down the camera
It’s easy for the device itself to be distracting, especially for younger kids. Seeing results moments after you shoot something can create an overly speedy mindset. Lacy Austin, International Center of Photography’s director of community programs in New York City, suggests having beginner students make cardboard frames and take them out into the world. “It’s a very engaging way to get the kids thinking about framing and thinking about what’s in the foreground or background,” she says. Composing without the distraction of actually capturing an image isolates this intellectual challenge, giving you a chance to introduce concepts like changing perspective, filling the frame, and the rule of thirds—without the distraction of immediate results.
Give them a project
How do you turn a kid who takes pictures into a photographer? Help the child create a small body of work. Most kids are used to taking photos when something (either extraordinary or mundane) happens to them. Turn that around and make the kid happen to the world. Help your charges come up with ideas for a photo series and brainstorm interesting ways to accomplish it. Making multiple photos as part of a single project will do a lot to focus children’s efforts.
Make an edit
In this world of throwaway shots and unlimited exposures, the art of editing has never been more important. Emphasize that each of your photographic outings may yield only one or two excellent photos. When reviewing the day’s work, get them to talk about what they do or don’t like about individual shots, and encourage kids to be decisive and share reasons that back up their preferences. This is also a great time to reinforce concepts of framing and exposure, as well as to start helping them formulate ideas about storytelling and grouping shots for photo essays.
Teach them with film
Nothing makes kids slow down like knowing they only have 24 frames to work with. “The kids who do analog before going on to digital tend to be better shooters,” says Trina Gadsden, executive director of Seattle-based Youth In Focus. “Working with just the few frames they have makes them think of their work as a finite resource.” ICP Teen Academy’s Photo 1 course, the prerequisite for all their other classes, focuses on analog black-and-white photography. “They really respond to film,” says Bayeté Ross Smith, one of ICP’s instructors. “It has a different value because they’re putting so much more time into it. And then they have this physical object that shows what they did.”
Don’t be afraid of the darkroom
If you can rig up a home darkroom, it’s like giving a kid superpowers—the impact on his or her understanding and connection to the medium will be immeasurable. “The first time you see an image come out of a white piece of paper, it’s magical,” says Gadsden. “You feel like you can solve world peace.” Plus, a darkroom day is a great alternative on rainy days. If your space won’t allow it, you can teach the basic principles of analog photography using a Sunprint kit.
Keep things light
When frustration (for either you or the child you’re working with) sets in, it’s time to take a break. The golden hour will happen when the sun sets tomorrow, too. Don’t worry about moving quickly—allow children’s photographic fascination to grow organically and it will be a pleasure to them the rest of their lives.