I started teaching photography to underprivileged youth through a non-profit organization eight years ago. I wanted to share my photography expertise and experience with young people who otherwise might not have the opportunity to learn this art. Turns out, it has been an incredibly rewarding adventure. Spending so much time in the organization has helped me grow as an artist, but also as a person. It has enabled me to help others develop their passion, as well as refine my own skills. Over the years, my instructional style has evolved and I’ve learned that there is no “one size fits all” when it comes to education. I have learned many strategies for teaching youth photography and connecting with them in general.
You may be considering volunteering with a similar organization, or thinking about adding a teaching section to your photography website. It is important to remember that your job is twofold: to develop your students’ technical skills, but also to spark their creativity. My experience has proven certain strategies to be more helpful than others. Among them, these are the five main things you should keep in mind when teaching photography.
Start off simple
As a photographer, you could probably spend hours on end sharing thoughts and tips about photography in all its forms. However, this can be quite overwhelming for people who are not as experienced as you. The key to avoiding this is holding back on technicalities and focusing on basic concepts.
Essentially, you want to break your knowledge down into pieces of information that anyone can understand and choose a single thing to focus on at the beginning. A good starting point is to learn about the camera and advance from there. Once the students have a strong understanding of how to operate a camera, it will be much easier for them to actually start thinking about how to compose an image.
Focus on basics
One of the main concepts you’ll need to get across when teaching photography is composition. It is essential that your students understand how to pick a main subject for their photos as well as how to support said subject with other elements. A basic photography composition rule such as filling the frame will do wonders for beginners. Occupying the entirety of the frame with the main subject will allow them to develop their eye for composition without being distracted by background clutter.
Once your students start feeling comfortable with filling the frame, you can start exploring how other elements in the composition can contribute to the final image. For example, complementary colors can boost a photo’s focus and clarity, allowing the image to pop out even more to its audience. Your students might oversee any element that is not a main focus of the composition. It is your job to show them that everything inside the frame contributes to the photo, and that background elements could either enhance or detract from their subject. Teaching this concept in steps, rather than all at once, will help ensure that your student doesn’t get frustrated or give up.
Hold their attention
It’s no secret that young people tend to be distracted easily. A subject as engaging and hands-on as photography will likely make it even harder to keep them focused. Most of the time, all they want to do is go out and start shooting photos. Some teachers feel frustrated by this because they want to be able to explain the technical learning first. However, it is important to keep in mind that exploration is a big part of their learning. Allowing them to explore the camera and start taking photos of everything is a great way to get them comfortable with photographing whatever strikes their eye.
Most photographers delve into photography after being inspired by a real-life experience, rather than a lot of reading about the topic. I was first inspired to capture photos after seeing the ocean for the first time. I wanted to capture the magnitude of the waves crashing against the shore and be able to share this experience with others. If I hadn’t had the freedom to follow the subjects that inspired me, my interest in photography may never have sparked beyond a flicker.
If your student is eager to get out right away, that’s okay! Taking a broad range of photos will allow them to see what they find interesting and enjoy capturing. You should find a balance between teaching skills and allowing your student to explore what inspires them.
Experiment with different modes
Many of us don’t pay attention to the different camera modes when taking photographs. Manual is actually the default mode for the vast majority of photographers. Nevertheless, automatic modes are a great stepping stone for beginners. And for those working with youth, they are also a great strategy for keeping your student’s attention. During my photography lessons with beginners, I use these camera modes to encourage them to explore how every scene reacts to the different settings:
Portrait is usually used when the student wants to take a photo of a single subject, whether it is a single object or of a person within a crowd. This mode allows the camera to use a large aperture which will keep the main subject in focus while making everything else out of focus due to the low DOF (Depth of Field).
Macro mode is usually used for photographing flowers, bugs, and anything else that may be tiny. This is a really fun camera mode to introduce because kids love getting up close and personal when first exploring photography.
Sports mode will automatically set the shutter speed to a higher speed in order to keep everything sharp and not blurry. When your shutter speed is set to a higher speed, it lets in less light but also captures quick moving things to appear as if they’re frozen in time. This mode is extremely helpful for young students because, at times, they love to run around and take photos at the same time.
Keep them encouraged
Geniuses are made, not born. Obviously, the initial work of your students will be far from a masterpiece. This is absolutely fine! It’s the fun part of learning photography. Not every single photo will come out as they imagined it might, and it is your job to make sure that they don’t get discouraged by this. As Ira Glass describes, it is perfectly normal for a beginner’s product not to match the intention or creativity. The important thing for youth to understand is that for their work to improve, they need to keep trying and creating.
When a photo doesn’t turn out the way your student intended, the best thing you can do is encourage them to do it again and see what minor changes could be made to get the photo exactly how they pictured it. The more they create, the better they will become. You may have to support them through this process several times. Encouragement is the best way to get them back out there and behind the lens to take more photos.
Strategies for teaching photography will depend largely on the age, overall curiosity and your relationship with the person your working with. When teaching youth photography, it is most important to remember that your teaching should be a balance of skills and encouragement. Starting slowly will help ensure that they feel supported and inspired.
Making sure that each task is simple enough to master will mean that your student will stay engaged and eager to learn more. If you feel that you are losing your student’s attention, focus on what inspires them. Sometimes this might mean stepping back from teaching technical skills. Of course, not all of these tips will work for all youth, but I found these to be the most helpful and the most fun.
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All photos by the author.