Introducing Photography Techniques: Some Basic Vocabulary for Teaching Kids How to See

There's obviously much more to photography than the few aspects described here, but introducing the basics will teach the kids a fundamental understanding of how to think before taking a picture. This introduction will also give you a platform to move further into the aesthetics with older kids.

If you have already had kids taking pictures while introducing the camera and the camera's basic features, you have been stressing the importance of looking, seeing the big picture and making conscious decisions. Now you're ready to get into the core decision factors: angle, pan, distance, level, focus and framing.

By the way, it's important to use this common photographic vocabulary rather than apparent synonyms that have emotional connotations. Focus should be described as soft or sharp, for example, not "strong" or "hazy." Why? Because those kinds of words more closely describe the emotional effect of the finished photo, not the conscious decision-making process that went into creating the effect. You should explain this concept to the kids and get them comfortable with using the accepted terms of art so that everyone has a common vocabulary. Emphasize that before taking pictures, one must make conscious decisions.

We recommend introducing just one technique a day and letting kids practice, but you may want to make adjustments depending on your session schedules, the age of your kids and the scope of your program. Start by showing some photos from books of photography, especially any that reflect themes you are working on in your classes. Spend a few minutes discussing what some of the photos communicate or what they inspire the kids to think about. Do this every day as part of your photography lesson.

Most important, remember to teach the skills as part of a project. Introduce a skill, then do part of the project that uses it (or that does not need more advanced skills). You must introduce techniques slowly and then practice them, and that practice should always be in the context of an inquiry-based project in order to be meaningful.

Activity Steps: 
Step 1: Review how to pass the camera, turn it on and off, insert and eject disks, work the shutter button, and use the viewfinder properly. Now explain the concept of angle, which is the tilt we give the camera when we hold it while shooting a picture. There are three angles: up angle, down angle and straight. Demonstrate each angle with the camera, and show some photos from your books that demonstrate use of each angle.

Get active while you're demonstrating with the camera—stand on a chair to point the camera down at someone, then kneel or lie down to take an up angle shot. Have the kids make paper frames like those made when introducing the camera's basic features and use them to examine objects in the room from different angles.

Now have them take the cameras and give them very specific directions to take photographs of something in the room. You might have them take one photo from an angle of their choice or have them take three shots, one from each angle. You can give them a specific object; let them choose an object; or have them take pictures of a type of object, such as "things that have green in them" or "things that have circles."

tip We recommend having kids do these exercises in pairs. That way, everyone has someone to work with and everyone still has something to do. If you don't have enough cameras for each team, have the kids who are waiting do a mapping activity to decide what they're going to photograph, or have them draw their subject in their journals.

  Have the kids transfer the photos to the computer so that they can practice naming and saving files. (Model the process again, of course.) Depending on your project and learning objectives, you can now do any of the following activities:

    • Talk about the pictures for a while in a mini group share.
    • Move on to another activity.
    • Move on to the next photography technique, if you're working with older kids.
    • Let the kids experiment with image editing using the photos they just took. You decide whether to teach photography all the way through before moving on to image editing versus teaching a few techniques of both processes each day. If you teach the topics in tandem, just be sure that you don't overwhelm the kids with too much from each topic each day. If you'll be doing them jointly, only introduce one photography topic and not more than one or two tools each time, and spend a little extra time reviewing what you learned from one class to the next.
Step 2: Review the previous concepts. Now introduce the idea of panning, a video term that refers to moving the camera from one side to the other to follow a scene. Here we use it to refer to the side from which one is taking the picture: forward, left or right. Again, show samples from your photography books and repeat the process from Day 1. Give specific directions for the photos they'll take involving panning issues only.
Step 3: Review the previous concepts. Now introduce the idea of distance: close, middle or far. Again, show samples from your photography books and repeat the usual process for introducing a new technique. Give specific directions for the photos they'll take involving distance issues only. You may want to revisit this topic later, adding concepts like very close or very far.

If your camera has a zoom function, tape over it at first, until the kids fully understand the concept of distance. Zoom is a way to create a different distance effect, but you don't want kids to become too fixated on the moving lens right now. Besides, zoom only works through the viewfinder, and you are still discouraging a focus on that. Make the kids move around to internalize the idea of distance, and teach them about zoom later.

Step 4: Review the previous concepts. Now introduce the idea of level: eye level, high or low. This idea refers to the height at which the viewer appears to be seeing the subject and is different from "angle," which involves tilting the camera. The camera may or may not be at an angle and may still be from a high, eye-level or low perspective. Make sure that kids understand this distinction. Repeat the usual process for introducing a new technique. Give specific directions for the photos they'll take involving level issues only.
Step 5: Review the previous concepts. Now introduce the idea of focus: sharp or soft. All of the techniques discussed here, including focus, actually fall along a continuum, of course, and consist of more than just two or three options—we've just simplified the topic here. Because focus is even more of a continuum than the others, you may want to make it clear that you are really talking about more or less sharp, more or less soft, and how focus changes relative to other factors, such as distance and angle. Repeat the usual process for introducing a new technique. Give specific directions for the photos they'll take involving focus issues only.
Step 6: Review the previous concepts. Now focus on the idea of framing. Until now, you've been using the paper frames to help kids slowly understand and think about seeing, but now it's time to really discuss ideas like subject and composition in more depth. For example, how does distance affect what's framed in a picture? How does one capture action in a frame? What happens when you leave things out of a frame? Have the kids take several pictures, but give them specific directions that combine all the techniques, such as "Take a picture of someone in the building from a high angle, at eye level, standing to their left, from close up, with a sharp focus while they are talking to someone else."

For Step 7 and beyond, review the previous concepts and provide some more time to work on various techniques in combination. If you haven't been introducing photo editing along with photography, now is a good time to start. Ideally, you are working as part of a larger project that will involve pictures, such as building a Web page or multimedia presentation, so let the kids begin working on their final photos when you think they're ready.