Getting Kids Interested in Photography
Article and photos by Dr. Robert Berdan
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How Old Should Kids be to Start Learning Photography?
Today kids are playing with technology at very early ages. My son used a laptop to read his first Dr. Suess books at the age of 3. In 1995 I helped design and build a science exhibit which introduced young children as early as 2 years of age to digital technology. Some of the kids that came to the science center could barely stand yet they were able to push a big red button on the table which evoked different sound effects and pictures on a computer screen and it captivated them.
Although digital technology is compelling, I believe young children are better off first learning how to use a magnifying lens or pair of binoculars to begin exploring the natural world before embracing a digital camera. Take your kids for a walk in a park or forest and let them explore nature using only their own senses. Later on an instrument, be it a camera, microscope or telescope might encourage them to learn more. I received a microscope for Christmas when I was in grade 6 (9 years old) and it changed my life. The microscope made me look more closely and eventually resulted in my pursuit of several degrees in biology. After two years playing with a toy microscope, I received a professional microscope upon graduation of grade 8 and shortly after I wanted a camera in order to share images of the microscopic world with others, see my article - Taking Pictures with a Microscope reveals Invisible Worlds. Once I received a 35 mm SLR camera, an Olympus OM-1 for Christmas, I began to point the camera at just about everything including friends, sports, landscapes, night sky, mushrooms, you name it.
Today I still take pictures for the same reason, to share the many wonderful places and things I see with others that don't have such an opportunity. I would like others to appreciate the natural world as much as I do and hopefully help protect it for future generations. A camera also encourages me to travel and explore new places as I document my journey through life. I believe the camera has become a raison d'être and it helps me appreciate the miracle of just being alive.
My first camera was a Kodak instamatic, middle camera. The photographs I took with this camera were pretty bad and I learned early on that equipment matters. I tried a Polaroid, but the cost of film was too high and the quality of the photographs were mediocre.
Today children begin using computers in kindergarten and even young kids are beginning to have cell phones. According to one study 85% of teenagers between the age of 14-17 in North America have a cell phone and 69% of 11-14 year olds and 31% of kids aged 8-10 (ref S. Davis). If kids are using cellphones most of the newer phones have built in cameras. For many the images from the camera are good enough to share via e-mail or on Facebook pages. In the future it is likely that cameras will continue to get smaller and it may be that the best camera is the one you have with you. Miniature cameras are even being built into watches and can be purchased for as little as $25.00 (e.g. DHgate.com). I believe very young children should focus on developing their own senses of sight, sound, smell, taste and touch without the need for digital tools - at least at first. I think kids in the ages of 8-10 are suitable to start photography with a very basic camera or cell phone and if their interest grows, then between the ages of 11-14 they maybe ready for a more sophisticated camera.
Young girl using a computer and Microsoft Artist software to paint a picture at the Calgary Science Centre Exhibit - Cybersense in 1995.
A dedicated digital camera will provide more features and higher quality images then a cell phone and there are a wide variety of cheap digital cameras starting as low as $17.00 at Amazon.com, though reviews suggest that the cheapest cameras are unreliable and produce poor quality images. However, if you are willing to spend up to $40-$50 to buy an entry level digital camera, most reviewers seemed satisfied. Another way to get kids interested in photography is give them your old digital camera while you upgrade. For about $200-250 it's possible to get a compact digital camera that produces high quality images and movies e.g. Pentax Optio which is also fully waterproof and permits focusing as close as 1 cm. Olympus also advertises a tough compact camera that is waterproof and durable enough to be dropped from 2.1 meters.
Small compact digital cameras are capable of taking good photographs. The photos above were all taken with an older 7 Mega pixel Pentax Optio camera. I often carry the newer 17 Megapixel Pentax Optio WG-1 camera as a backup or when ever I want to photograph in water. The camera also provides the ability to shoot HD video, time lapse movies and can create stitched panoramas. I used the Pentax Optio camera to take pictures of nesting robins in my backyard including a movie of the baby birds at the nest in my garage (see Photographing the Common Robin - A Symbol of Spring).
Squirrels, rabbits and a variety of birds visit my backyard and the backyard is a safe place for kids to begin photographing small animals. A feeder is a great way to attract a variety of birds and squirrels and the kids can also learn to identify the different animals that visit. .
White-tailed Jackrabbits visit my backyard frequently in Calgary, NW. throughout the year.
If you are going to start young kids on digital photography, their first camera should have only a few controls, perhaps an On-Off button, a push button to take a picture, and an LCD screen where they can review their pictures. The technical aspects of photography can be taught later. If they are using a camera with lots of features start them out using P or Program mode where everything is automatic. The camera should simply be a device to encourage children to search and isolate things that interest them. If they become more interested in the process of photography, perhaps around 10-12 years of age, then I think it is worth providing them with a camera with more features. It should be noted that some professional photographers and artists shun more controls and I know of one artist that prefers to use an old fashioned pin-hole camera. There are many ways to capture and interpret what we see before us - what works best depends on what the child or new photographer wants to do with their images. The camera can become a tool for discovery and self-expression. Most of us simply don't see things unless we specifically look for them, the camera provides a reason to look more carefully at the world around us. Being able to see is the single most important component of photography.
Vtech Kidizoom camera includes a two-eye viewfinder, 1.3 mega pixels and is recommended for kids 3-8 years old, cost $39.99 and comes in three colours, pink, blue and orange - available from vtech. While I have certainly not tested different cameras for kids someone else has at TopTenReviews web site and they choose the camera above as their first pick. Their 2nd choice was the Speedo Waterproof camera for $97.34 shown below.
Speedo Waterproof Camera received a rating of 9.3/10 and includes 5 Mega pixels, 8X digital zoom, water resistant to 9 meters, includes a SD slot for added storage (has 32 MB built in memory), floats and includes rubberized grips for easy handling.
I don't believe its a good idea to start kids out using an older film camera or instamatic cameras that spit out prints. For one thing film is expensive, requires additional steps before its possible to see the image and frankly, almost any modern digital camera with more then 8 Mega pixels is superior to the best 35 mm films. Many digital cameras also offer the ability to shoot movies. Who knows where the next Steven Spielberg will come from?
To a young person or a sensitive photographer, patterns of peeling paint and rust might make for an interesting image. Many of us begin by photographing things that attract, interest. or matter to us. Rust and paint may not matter to you, but to a budding artist it can be beautiful to look at. Some photographers like to spend time in metal scrap yards searching for unseen beauty. Want to see similar photos see my article "Patterns, Textures and Abstracts in Photography".
Holding The Camera Steady
Perhaps the first thing that kids and new photographers need to learn is to hold the camera steady when they take a picture. Start by holding the camera with two hands, bring the arms in tight to the body, and squeeze the shutter gently. In low light a tripod may be required, but photographers can also brace themselves against a wall, fence post or other solid object to reduce camera shake. If kids are inside and the camera has a flash, show them how to use it.
Show kids how to hold the camera with two hands, bring their elbows in tight to the body and push the shutter button gently. Kids can also lean against a wall, chair or other stable object to make them more steady. These same rules apply to all photographers shooting in low light.
If the camera is not held still it can result in blurring of the image as shown above.
The proper way to hold a camera is with two hands and elbows tucked in. Stand with your feet slightly spread apart and relax. Some photographers even hold their breath when they click the shutter button.
I believe the kids shouldn't be coached too much as to what to photograph, let them explore and photograph things that are meaningful to them. If a child shows promise or talent then maybe encourage them to pick up some books on photography, or take a class. Some high schools now offer introductory courses on digital photography and I have had an opportunity to teach some of the teachers in summer programs at SAIT. If a students interest in photography grows then I would suggest encouraging them to visit the library or buy some photography books by masters of photography. There are also a wide variety of photo-magazines that can provide inspiration and some instruction.
Pets can be challenging and fun for children to photograph - this is my cat named Itchy.
Some Suggested Photo Activities for Young Kids
1. Scavenger Hunt - ask the kids to find certain objects and photograph them - see scavenger hunt guideline - PDF
2. Have kids look for and photograph things with specific colours - objects that are green, red, blue, yellow etc
3. Suggest kids to try and photograph snowflakes that land on their jacket or frost on a window
4. Teach and ask older kids to capture perspective, maybe a road, or fence - I had to do this to get a badge from Boy Scouts
5. Ask kids to photograph their pets, bugs, trees, leaves, flowers or some of their toys
6. Ask kids to look for repeated elements e.g. steps, fence posts, blinds to make them aware of repetition
7. Ask the kids to try not to put everything in the center of the picture - but rather off to the side (rule of thirds)
9. Most of all encourage the kids to have fun with their camera and look for things they can do with their pictures.
Once your kid gets some interesting pictures you may want to explore things they can do with the photos such as print them on a T-shirt, coffee mug, calendar - see London Drugs for ideas on how to use photos as gifts or to simply enjoy.
I believe a good photographer can take interesting photographs in their backyard and its the first place I use to test any new photographic equipment I purchase. If you would like to see some pictures I took in my backyard see my article Photographing in my backyard. Good pictures can be found anywhere. Taking good pictures takes practice and time followed by evaluation. To become a better photographer each of us has to become critical of our work in order to push ourselves to achieve better results. The subject is important, but so is the lighting and the angle from which we take the photo. Good photographs don't come easily even to seasoned pros. I average about 1\100 to get a good photo and about 1\1000 to get a great photo. At one seminar by National Geographic, they said each article that includes about 15 images is edited from 75,000 to 100,000 images - that works out to about 1 shot out of 5,000 photos taken on average.
Close up of apple blossoms, Pink Spires also called Siberian Crab Apple, taken in my backyard with a compact Digital Camera (Pentax Optio). To see more pictures in my backyard click here.
If you have a young budding photographer in your family great places to take them are parks, woodlands, or a local zoo or museum e.g. Drumheller Dinosaur museum. The zoo is a great place for any new photographer to learn how to use their camera and can result in some very good photos. One of my favourite locations in Calgary is the butterfly room at the Calgary zoo. The butterfly's are colour full and will sometimes hold still and pose. There are also lots of baby animals in the zoo and smaller animals that are just walking around the grounds like the peacocks that can be fun to photograph.
Baby tiger at Calgary Zoo. To hide fences push your camera up close to the fence so when you take the picture the fence is not in focus and becomes invisible like in the photo above. A telephoto lens works best for these type of pictures.
Some kids get started in photography because they want to photograph some activity they are involved with such as as sport they play, rock climbing, sailing, or maybe they play in a band and want to take some promotional photos. Teenagers may want to photograph their friends and post the photos on their Facebook web site.
One of the many butterflies I photographed at the Calgary Zoo
One thing I learned from my son is that you can't push your interests onto your children. Maybe they do not want to compete with their parents or they simply want to find their own path of interests. My father on the other hand became interested in photography when I would not share my camera with him when he was going on a vacation trip, I said I used my camera every day and needed it at school. In response my father purchased his own camera and in a short while was producing winning photographs at the local camera club. Today we enjoy going on photo-trips together and photography is something that has brought us closer.
Some amateur and professional photographers like to spew out a list of rules that photographers should follow, the truth is there are no rules for effective photography. Their are guidelines suggested to help improve composition, but real visionary's frequently break the rules and follow their gut feelings. For instance you don't always have to hold a camera steady. The picture below is an example where I simply moved the camera during a long exposure just for the fun of it.
Long exposure hand held photo taken of night of lights around a pier. The movement resulted in light trails. The photo isn't recognizable at first, but who can say this is not an interesting interpretation of the scene. Not everything has be photographed exactly as it appears. Perhaps all photographers could benefit from letting go sometimes and exploring new possibilities with our cameras.
In the moto-X photo above I deliberately panned the camera to follow the rider resulting in a blurred background that conveys a more artistic impression of the rider and it also suggests how fast the rider is going. Only a part of the picture is sharp - the rider.
I believetkids at the age of 12-13 are ready to take up the study of photography in a serious way. I have taught some students this age that had talent. Sophisticated DSLR cameras are not intimidating to most teenagers in fact they might even enjoy all the different features - I did. What takes time to develop is seeing, seeing things that matter and capturing them in an effective manner. Better seeing is something all photographers strive for our entire professional lives. To get better at photography requires experience and practice, just like playing a musical instrument. At some point it becomes automatic and now I rarely think about the camera settings anymore, I try to focus on the subject, composition, background, edges and the lighting. Digital cameras can speed up the learning process as they provide instant feed back on the LCD monitor, furthermore the cost to take pictures is virtually free. The cameras today are also far better then those in the past and many include auto focus, auto exposure, anti-vibration and the ability to shoot at very high frame rates. But no matter what type of camera is used, it still takes time to develop an aesthetic sense of what makes fora good picture. The truth is it also requires luck, but the more a photographer is out shooting, the luckier they become.
Young fox having a conversation with me while I took his picture in Prelude Territorial Park.
The amazing thing about photography is that it's possible to start at a very young age and continue to grow and improve throughout our lifetime. When I was younger I spent a significant amount of my time training and playing sports, but in my mid 30's I had to retire from sports competition because of sore knees and the risk of doing more damage to my spine. As a result I began to taking more photographs, hiking, and kyaking. I believe our sense of what makes an effective photo continues to grow with us as we age, learn and experience the world around us. I also believe I have yet to take my best photo even though I have been photographing for over 40 years. I enjoy photography today even more then when I started.
The abstract photo was taken in downtown Calgary, it's a reflection of city hall in a puddle of water on the sidewalk. Most folks walking by wouldn't give this scene a 2nd look, but the colours and the patterns reflecting in the puddle of water caught my eye.
Colourful reflections in a pool of water - the image is an abstract that invites a viewer to try and identify what it is.
Here is another abstract I took while going for a walk in the park near Silver Springs.
I believe anyone can master the basics of good photography, however not everyone will want to pursue it as a serious hobby or as a profession. However, a camera can be used to document our lives, family, friends, and special occasions and most of us want to record at least some of these events for posterity. According to a Photo Industry 2010 study, 78 percent of US households owned a digital camera and 62 percent owned phone with a camera, but there are more camera phones than digital cameras. Camera phones however remained as secondary devices to digital cameras for purpose of taking and sharing pictures primarily because of the poor image quality, though this will likely change in the near future as cell phones produce higher resolution pictures. In 2012 one billion cameras were shipped in smart phones and tablets and 2.7 billion are projected to ship by 2018 (News line Photo News). I have seen some folks use their tablets to photograph pictures and it just seems weird to me as they hold it in front of them with their hands outstretched.
Sometimes people just do crazy things - above teenagers take a dip in the icy waters of Lake Louise in January while others take pictures. Every time I see this photo it brings a smile to my face because I know how cold that water is.
You have a child that is 12-16 years of age and they begin to exhibit a strong interest in photography - what can they do to learn more?
I sometimes teach teenagers that show a strong interest in photography and want to improve. My advice to them is to shoot as much as possible, look at the photographs of other photographers whose work they admire. Pick up photo books at the library, read online photography articles and if possible take some workshops. Check out local camera stores, some workshops are free, others are reasonably priced. If possible seek a mentor who is experienced in photography. There are also online courses in photography and Photoshop - I offer free Photoshop online courses on this web site. Most of all I try to encourage students to follow the path that interests them and see where it leads them. Teenagers might also consider joining or forming their own camera club and use some of their pictures for a school year book or newspaper. I was lucky that when I was 16 I got a summer job as photographer working for a small town newspaper and my boss, the editor taught me the importance of always getting the persons face and he also introduced me to working in a darkroom. It was also nice to begin making money with my camera so I could put it towards getting more equipment. It seems after 40 years of photography much of my money still goes into buying new lenses or camera accessories.
Many young kids are fascinated with bugs which can be found almost any where any time of year. Above is a close up view of a moth found in my clothing closet. Magnified about 10X using macro-equipment.
What benefits are their to learning photography?
Photography is widely used in business reports, by real estate agents, graphic designers, insurance agents, police, web developers, teachers and research scientists to mention just a few professions. One doesn't have to become a professional photographer to find uses for their photographs. Today we are seeing camera phones used to record distracted bus drivers, street crimes and other illegal activities. The fact that more and more people own a phone with a camera and have internet access is already beginning to affect politics and other events in our lives. The camera combined with the Internet is a very powerful tool that can affect change and responsibility.
One of my concerns is the amount of time young people spend interacting with their digital devices and how it might affect their lives. It's not surprising to me that on September 1, 2011 Alberta had to bring a distracted driving law into effect for every ones safety. The question is, if young people spend a growing amount of time looking a their digital phones to surf the web and communicate by texting, what are they missing? I embrace new technology, but I also seek out refuge by going on photography trips where I leave my cell phone at home or turn it off and sometimes I refuse to use my laptop. I want a vacation from technology in order to immerse myself in nature to replenish my spirit and to live in the moment. Only then can I really see. I believe creativity thrives in silence. I am not sure how digital technology will affect future generations, I think there will be benefits, but maybe they will also lose something valuable. Most city folks rarely get a chance to see the stars, but perhaps they won't know what their missing until they do see it.
Big kids like to play with cameras to, above a group of adults at one of my winter photography workshops, we are photographing Elk beside the road. A camera is great excuse to lose your inhibitions, crawl on your stomach, climb a tree, do just about anything to get a good shot - and it's OK because when folks see your camera they know you are photographer.
Do pictures represent reality?
If there is one thing we all need to learn is that photographs are only representations of the real world and some photographs are interpretations and are not real. We need to teach our children to be skeptical and think for themselves and not believe everything they see pictures, on TV, or on the Internet. Using Photoshop it's possible to create images of anything we can imagine. Remember the House Hippo TV Commercial - if not you can watch it on YouTube here. Another fun movie commercial by Samsung is about a bear washing his clothes and then morphs into a polar bear - view it here.
Above image shows photographs of a hippo that was stitched onto a lizard using Adobe Photoshop, Lesson 101 is don't believe everything you see in a picture - even the masters of photography in the film days knew how to create fake photographs similar to this. My favorite Master of Darkroom Photography is Jerry Uelsmann. He created images in his mind then used his camera and darkroom to bring them to life before the advent of Photoshop.
A couple of big kids that just finished climbing a small mountain (more like a hill), Dr. Wayne Lynch and myself. We were searching for elusive blue grouse in Kananaskis but they were a no show, but at least we got some exercise. Visit Dr. Wayne Lynch's web site to see his stunning animal photography and a variety of his and his wife (Aubrey Lang) animal books for kids. Wayne gave up a career in emergency medicine to become a wildlife photographer and writer and that says something about how much fun photography is.
I am not an expert in child development, however I am teacher as well as a photographer and I believe that introducing children to photography is a positive thing that will encourage them to look more closely at the world we live in. Photography makes us notice things that non-photographers ignore and never see. I believe that anything that increases our awareness of the natural world and makes us more curious is a good thing. The world can be an amazing place if we take the time to really look at it. The camera, like books, microscopes, telescopes are just tools to help us learn and remember who we are and where we have been. If your child shows an interest in photography I would encourage it, if they prefer another interest or hobby wonderful, the camera is just one of many tools we have. For me the camera keeps my mind young and lets me play, I simply love to take pictures.
Note if you are parent of have child with a photography question I would be happy to answer any questions by e-mail, you can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.