Saturday, April 12, 2014

Teaching Kids Photography: Shooting Modes, Focus, and Exposure

Photography is a great hobby to share with kids, and the ever-increasing accessibility of point-and-shoot cameras and camera phones makes this even easier. This is the first article in an occasional series about Teaching Kids Photography. Part 2 focuses on Composition and Design. (You might even learn something new yourself!)

Teaching Photography: where to start?

Last semester, I ran a monthly Photography Club for upper elementary and middle school students. Many of the students had never really been given an opportunity to use a digital camera and were excited to learn. The biggest question in my mind, of course, was where to start?

I knew that one of my goals was to help teach them how to control their cameras and to get the kind of shots they envisioned. So, I decided to start with a brief overview of the commonly available shooting modes, so that they could immediately move beyond Auto and exert some measure of control over their camera.

Common Shooting Modes

Students either brought in a phone or camera from home or shared some of the few point-and-shoot cameras provided by myself and the school, so everyone had different menus and options to choose from. With that in mind, I only introduced some of the more common shooting modes that are widely available on digital cameras.

Photographing started right from the start. Here, a student captured me in motion, discussion shooting modes.

Below is an easier-to-read version of the slide that I was showing, detailing some of the most common shooting modes available on point-and-shoot and DSLR cameras.

Examples of Shooting Modes in Photography | Boost Your Photography

Macro and portrait modes were by-far the most popular. Later on, some kids chose to explore some of the more unusual shooting modes and effects, like taking pictures in 'toy camera' mode to make everything look small and dollhouse-like or fisheye-type effects. By understanding what mode to choose for a given photography situation, the kids were better-able to capture the kinds of shots they wanted.

Toy Camera Effect on the nearby construction site

Focus and Exposure

My other main lesson for our first meeting was the link between focus and exposure with point-and-shoot cameras. With a point-and-shoot camera, when you press the shutter down halfway, the camera locks focus. Pressing the shutter the rest of the way takes the picture. But what I wanted the kids to understand was that pushing the shutter down halfway also locks the exposure or how light or dark the final photograph appears. (For more technical details about exposure, especially with DSLR cameras, read All about Exposure and Troubleshooting Your Exposure.)

For our first experiment, I asked everyone to turn around and point their cameras at the window. Then, holding down the shutter halfway, I asked them to look at how the camera interpreted the scene. The second step was to change the composition slightly so that it included a good section of the wall next to the window and to repeat holding down the shutter. They were amazed at the dramatic differences in light and darks between the two views.

Focus and exposure locked at the center of the image.
Focus and exposure also locked at the center of the image.

This led to a quick discussion of the strategy of "Focus and Recompose." The idea here is that you first decide on the composition you want (say, a view out the window). Then, you hold the shutter halfway down and see if the version in the viewfinder matches how you wanted the scene to look. If not, change the composition slightly, depress the shutter halfway, and then move the camera back to the original composition. Even without knowing anything else about exposure or camera settings, the kids were easily able to control and manipulate the desired lightness and darkness in their photographs.

Photography Exploration

The most important part of any photography lesson, however, is the application. After the initial lesson and discussion described above, we took a forty-five minute slow-moving walking tour outside on the playground and nature trail. I hung back to answer questions, and the kids were free to explore and photograph whatever inspired them. The following are just a few small samples of their creativity during our first meeting. (I have deliberately left out identifiable photographs of the students themselves, so just imagine an additional quantity of portrait-style and "I'm taking a photo of you taking a photo of me!"-style shots here too.)

Close-up photograph of a milkweed pod
Exploring patterns from beneath the play equipment
An effort to capture the motion of jumping
Blur from intentional camera movement using a slower shutter speed
Shooting shadows with attitude

Conclusion: Teaching Kids Photography

There are endless different ways to teach children photography and to nurture a love of photographing and exploring the world around them. Since I was working with older kids (10-14 year olds), it made sense to start with some of the technical controls before letting them loose to explore. With younger children, you might want to focus more on just the idea of focus or on holding the camera still when shooting. Part 2 in this series focuses on teaching about composition and design.

Where did you start with teaching children about photography? Share a tip or advice in the comments below!

Boost Your Photography: Learn Your DSLR is now available from Amazon. Get the most out of your camera with practical advice about the technical and creative aspects of DSLR photography that will have you taking beautiful pictures right away.
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