Kids these days are taking selfies before they learn how to walk and talk. In fact, I’ve already learned that showing my toddler digital pictures of family members and himself is an awesome way to get him engaged with the world (and to distract him from a tantrum).
But beyond the fun you can have with fun filters and sticking out tongues at the camera, the digital cameras can be a portal to a world of artistic vision and skill-building.
Learning digital photography is a great way to help your kids discover their own hidden superpowers, particularly their ability to observe the most minute and beautiful things in the world around them. It also teaches them principles of visual composition. And the advantage of digital photography is you can look at your results right away, and edit them too, so the lessons are quick to sink in.
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Whether you have a high-tech camera or a great smartphone, start out by showing your child the different tools available to them: from zooming and light meters to flash to portrait and landscape orientations. These tutorials will help you get a handle on the basics before you teach your offspring.
Once your kid understands the basics, here are a few projects that will get them really interested in using the camera for more than the fun filters.
You’d be surprised at how soon you can teach kids basic artistic principles: I remember learning about foreground and background and warm and cool colors in a first grade art class, and it is one of those lessons that has stuck with me forever (seriously, I still think about that class even when I’m scribbling rainbows with my kid).
A trip to a local gallery, museum or even coffee shop with arty photos hanging up on the walls, can be a great jumping-off point to show your kids how images strike the viewer. As you look at pictures, ask: Where is the focal point? What is happening with light, color, and perspective? Why are some pictures more blurry and abstract, and others painstakingly detailed? What kind of image does your child like best, and why?
You can also use an online image search, art book, or magazine to begin this lesson. Then, ask your kids what kinds of pictures they’d most like to take.
Photo walks are a great way to teach your child to see the beauty around them. Wake up for the sunrise or catch the sunset and take your kids out to take pictures of the beautiful sky and the changing light, which shifts by the minute at these special times of day. Start by pointing the lens at the sky and the clouds, and then talk about whether or not the photos you take capture the feeling as well as the colors. Does the mood and accuracy change when you shift the angle or use a flash?
Then move onto different objects around you. Where is that celestial light reflecting on the ground? What’s dark and what’s illuminated?
You can do this even without a vista of the sky. Use one single day to focus in on the changing light. How does a shadow from a tree, house or even mailbox look in the morning compared to the same spot in the afternoon, for instance? Take successive pictures of the same window, street, or rooftop and talk about how the view changes as the clock does.
For older, more patient kids, expand this into a year- or season-long project where you photograph the same spots every day or every week. Then, organize the photographs on your computer, so you can flip through them and watch the changing landscape and light.
Particularly fertile times to do this are in spring or fall when the trees actually change color and gain or shed foliage over a matter of a few weeks.
Fall is an amazing time to get down and dirty with leaves, nuts, pine-needles, and other fascinating pieces of natural detritus. Kids love exploring this stuff anyway — my son brings leaves and acorns home from the park every day — so now is the time to take advantage and train the camera on these curious finds.
But it works in all seasons, too. Have kids practice photographing the veins of a leaf up close, then further away, then a whole group of leaves from a short distance. Use the camera to look at strange patterns and textures in the natural world — bark, petals, or clumps of dried grass.
If nature isn’t immediately accessible, use things in the house. Spoons, toys, bedspreads, water droplets in the sink, the grain of wood, and droplets on windowpanes — all these things contain hidden treasures to look at through the lens.
Taking pictures of people is a challenge that kids will be eager to tackle. To begin, a teddy bear or doll can be a subject of a practice portrait sessions, before you move on to siblings, parents, and other obliging relatives. Try doing profiles, front-facing portraits, and candids. Experiment with light, flash, positioning, and angle as your subject sits relatively still.
Then, move on to capturing people in motion. If the clan or neighborhood gets together and runs around outside over the holidays, be ready to snap the football game, LARPing session, or whatever floats your familial boat. Get your child to photograph dad cooking dinner. Ask your kids’ teacher if she can snap friends at recess or on the playground for her project. Capturing motion is tricky, and involves taking a lot of shots until the right one shows up, but it’s also a good way to immortalize the joy and energy of childhood, and to make your kid a part of that process.
Once your photography project is finished, show your kids some basic editing tools online, from changing the saturation and brightness for the little ones, to full-on Photoshop-style edits.
And then, of course, you can share the pictures on social media, either yours or theirs if your child is old enough to have accounts. You can even create a photobook, or a separate, password-protected blog to showcase your budding Ansel Adams’ work in a safe and beautiful manner.
Sarah Seltzer is a writer and editor in NYC.
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