A couple of months ago, one of my favorite CMteam members, CMblog Editor April Nienhuis,
approached me about writing a post about getting your family interested in photography. Summer had
just begun and life was crazy, but she said she was thinking of a fall/winter post date so I gladly signed
on, thinking that gave me plenty of time to come up with ideas. And think I did, all summer long. But I
kept hitting dead ends, because I felt like I was just lucky that my daughter happens to share an interest in
photography with me, probably simply because it’s been such a constant in her life and because she and I
are so close. But the more I thought about it and discussed it with friends, the more they helped me realize
that I really have encouraged her budding interest even though I wasn’t aware of it. And you can do the
same with your little ones!
As with many of us, my lifelong interest in photography became a true passion when my daughter was
born. I was frustrated that I couldn’t seem to bring the beautiful images of her that I saw in my head to
fruition, so she became my constant model as I practiced. She was as used to seeing me with a camera
glued to my face as she was without. A camera, to her, was as common a fixture in life as a hairbrush or
a telephone, and as such, she wanted to practice just as much with it as she did with them when she was a
toddler. And I was eager to let her play. I always had what she called my “little camera” in my purse (my
point & shoot), and every time she expressed an interest, I would wrap the strap carefully around her tiny
wrist and set her free.
Eventually we both thought of that little camera as hers, and the sense of “ownership” and pride that came
with that dramatically increased her interest and learning. Once she had a camera to call her own, and a
folder with her name on it on my computer, her interest really took off. Since then I have always passed
my old cameras down to her. Emily went from shooting in the little green box and then the pre-set shooting
modes with her point & shoot, to learning about the exposure triangle and basic composition with the Canon xTi; now she is toggling, back-button-focusing, and shooting in full manual mode with my old 40D. I find it
works pretty well in that she is about one “camera step” behind me in knowledge, so my “prior” camera
is a perfect fit for her (though I admit, she knows enough now that she covets my Canon 5d mark III!). And I would want to keep that “prior” camera as a back-up anyhow, so it works out beautifully. As a side note, we have all of our photography equipment included in our homeowner’s insurance via a Personal Articles rider, so
everything is insured should there be any loss, theft, or accidental damage with either of our equipment.
That greatly reduces my worry in letting a child have a camera, and the less I worry, the freer she feels to
really explore with it.
But even if you prefer not to give your child his or her own camera, they can still have a wonderful time
with a disposable camera! I brought a couple with us for Emily to Disneyland when she was quite young.
Since they sell digital disposables now, even the worry of lots of photos of their feet isn’t a problem since
you don’t have to pay to develop the images. I absolutely loved seeing the trip through her eyes!
Along with learning about the camera, I find that our children are so comfortable with computers that
they are natural at learning editing techniques, too. With Lightroom especially (though she’s dabbling in
Photoshop as well), adjustments such as exposure, white balance, and cropping are very simple. Emily can
also experiment with more artistic edits in Lightroom with presets (and in Photoshop with actions), which
is helping her to learn about coordinating the mood and feel of a particular image with a “matching” style
of editing (for example, a fun image of her friends all hula-hooping might call for a bright and fun pop
of color, whereas a more peaceful image of her dad spending a quiet morning reading the paper might be
beautiful in black and white). And with Lightroom’s crop tool overlays, she has learned about the rule of
thirds, the golden triangle, and the golden spiral, which she now uses when composing her shots straight out of the camera.
You will be amazed at what kids at all ages can see and learn! When they are very little you can give
them “jobs,” like “take a photo that is mostly blue,” or “take a photo of something that is in the shape of
a square or a letter of the alphabet.” Tailor your request to their age, ability, and interests. Sometimes it
is fun to give them a list of items to find, like a scavenger hunt. If they aren’t yet reading, you can create
a list with clip-art of things they are likely to see during your outing like a taxi, a gas station, or a cow.
If you have more than one child, you could print out little bingo-type cards for them to play a game with,
taking photos of each item. For more than one child and bingo I like to print several cards with slightly
different items on each (so they are not all seeing the same things and finishing their cards at the same
time), and once one wins a game, they can trade cards and start again. (This is particularly fun on car trips
as it kills time and documents their trip!)
When children get older, it’s fun to give them a journal that they can fill with their images and words. It can
be a short-term thing, for a particular event or trip; or longer, like to document a certain grade in school or
year of their life. Be sure to use acid-free glue or photo corners if you would like to keep it as a memento!
As children get older and their understanding increases, you can take them far beyond the basics of exposure and the rule of thirds. Emily has learned all about using the exposure triangle to expose not only correctly but creatively. And I have begun talking with her about leading lines and negative space, about “framing” your images with things in the foreground and about changing perspective rather than always shooting from a standing “height”. More recently, we’ve been having fun taking turns creating “assignments” for each other while we’re out shooting together. For example, “take a portrait that doesn’t include a face” or “take a picture using depth of field to tell a story.”
Another thing I find helpful in encouraging her interest is to involve Emily in planning and styling a shoot:
letting her select props, clothes, or even just specific details like letting her pick balloon colors. Often too we take little “photography breaks” from the real world together, just her and me. It can be as simple as a quick lunch or dinner date where we brainstorm shoot ideas or a shopping trip where we happen across the perfect veil, sunglasses, or scarf that inspire one or both of us. Usually the planning with her is just as fun as the shoot itself! And of course we take little photography field trips as well, where we both shoot.
When we really want a break from reality and are in need of some quality one-on-one time together, she and I will even go on a little mini-vacation for a night or two and shoot together. We pick a place that we know is gorgeous but not too far from home and that I think will have good shooting locations. When booking our hotel room I make sure to request a corner room, knowing that will likely get us the best and most controllable light. I make sure to pack only clothes that we both like in photos and that work well with whatever shoots we have in mind. Sometimes we will even bring a few props: a teddy bear or quilt we love, an umbrella—whatever has most recently piqued our interest. We pack plenty of batteries and memory cards and all of our lenses, and we always bring the remote and tripod so we can be sure to get a few photos of us together.
Another thing that can be really fun for them is to turn the tables on them, letting them completely direct a shoot of you. Emily gets to select all of the clothing, any props she wants, even the location (within reason!). And she gets to tell me what to do such as posing! You never know what you might get—the bio image below and on the ‘about me’ page on my website are from allowing her to control the whole shoot!
I think most importantly, with kids it is crucial for you to be enthusiastic about what they produce! Be specific about what you like about an image, and be gentle with your constructive criticism to help them learn. Embrace what they do differently from you, too! Print their work and encourage them to show their family and friends. Frame or get canvases made of their favorite images and put them up in their bedroom, or even print your favorites of their work in your living room. Openly admire their work in front of other adults that they look up to. I also ask Emily to “Guest Post” for me from time to time on my blog, where I publish her work with her words (and I helped her to create her own watermark just for that purpose), and then I read her the comments as they come in. I swear she beams from ear to ear with each one!
To me, the best part of seeing my daughter’s emerging interest in photography is that I feel like I am getting a glimpse into how she really sees the world. I feel even closer to her as I see our life through her eyes. I am always amazed by her unique perspective, and I love the fact that she and I can be photographing exactly the same thing and yet come up with completely different images. It makes me feel like I am getting to know her even better through her work. And that makes me adore her all the more!
Jessica Holden, California
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A native of the San Francisco Bay Area she calls home, Jessica Holden is a photographer, freelance book editor, and mom with an eye for capturing the everyday moments and ordinary things that make life extraordinary. She’s been married to her one and only for 15 years, and she’s an impossible romantic. Her daughter is the light of her life and, as you may have guessed, she’s Jessica’s favorite photography subject. Jessica is inspired by beautiful light and how it plays with objects. As a little girl she was mesmerized by watching her grandfather create masterful charcoal renderings of sun-streamed redwood groves; since she can barely sketch stick figures, she tries to achieve that same radiance with her camera.