26 Feb 2012

Introducing teenagers to the basics of composition and photography

This is about one of the ideas that come to the mind on saturday evening with a glass of wine in hand and a good conversation with your better half.
My wife is involved together with her school in a project called "Lod√≥wka bez tajemnic" which can be translated into "Refrigerator without mysteries". The web page of the project can be found here. It's in Polish, but Google translator can help non-Polish readers quite well.
Anyway, part of the project is to photograph the teenagers participating in the project together with a refrigerator. When we started talking about the idea pretty soon we agreed that it would be good to let children make the photos by themselves with some introduction and guidance.  The idea was born.
But then the realization. We thought a workshop-like approach could work. The time was limited (2.5-3 hours), and we wanted to achieve some educational effect, next to the photos. And (some extra requirements from my wife) it would be great if a references could be made to the Dutch culture and art.
Having the limitations in mind I decided to divide the time into four blocks:
  1. Theoretical introduction to composition in photography,
  2. Discussion on how to create a composition with students and the refrigerator,
  3. Shooting session of the chosen composition (where each student had a chance to take the photos and experiment with the composition)
  4. Critique and selection of the best photos.
As one can see there is nothing about technicalities, like depth of field, shutter speed, ISO, "just" composition. Of course since composition is a huge topic, I limited it to the very basics: rule of thirds, leading lines, filling the frame, using patterns, using the frames. For rule of thirds I have built some context by showing the examples of the golden division in the architecture, astronomy and biology (remembering about the educational aspect of the workshop). Each rule I have illustrated with my own pictures. Purposedly I didn't choose to show too many bad examples (actually limited to 1 or 2 only).
Then I took some time to show how Rembrandt applied the composition rules on his two paintings: "The night watch" and "The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp". At last I have shown some pictures of Henri Cartier-Bresson.
Second part went surprisingly fast. Children decided quickly on three setups to test. Preparing a setup required some coaching. I was keeping to attend the students to watch the scene through the camera to see the limitations of the frame with respect to a naked eye. For some of them it was real discovery, by the way. Another aspect was to remind them to try different scenery, looking at the scene from the different angle, try totaly different setup.
We could do this since the fridge we use was just mobile fridge with a lot of fruits inside.
Then the shooting. They started by shooting in the standing position. After my suggestion to get lower, stand up on a chair they started to discover new possibilities.

The critique sesssion was something I was a little bit afraid of. The teenagers have a quite sensitive ego. On the other hand some of their photos deserved some critique and improvements. As a first precaution I have put all photos all together to make them a little bit anonymous. And made an agreement with the students that if we critique we do it constructively by indicating what could be improved having composition rules in mind.
And I must say, the session went surprisingly well. They listened to each other, took suggestions with attention and admitted possible improvements in their photos.

What did they learn? I think the rule of thirds and leading lines was the most easy to grasp and visible on the photos. Filling the frame and using the frames was a little bit faded. They practically didn't experiment with patterns. But it is understandable seeing the limited time.

Was it all with all successful? Well, I got some signs it was. I was running out of time and actually extended my time limit by 30 minutes - such a beginner's mistake. But some children called their parents asking them to pick them up later because they wanted to stay until the workshop is finished. According to the school staff it doesn't happen often.

Finally, some traditional "dos and dons"

  • Ensure the professional teacher is with you in the location all the time. Teaching is a serious issue and in case something goes wrong you have to use help of the professional. In most countries it is also required by law that there is a qualified personnel in a classroom all the time. So don't forget that. 
  • Dare to ask the teachers about your performance afterwards. They are professionals and their feedback on how well (or how bad) you were as a  "teacher"  is invaluable
  • Have initial setup to be photographed in mind. At least you know what might work best in advance. And you have limited amount of time so you need to steer the session every now and then.
  • Limit the group. I have worked with 7-8 children and I think it was an upper limit I would say.
  • Prepare a number of cameras. I had 1 DSLR and 3 compact cameras. So half of the group was shooting all the time while other half was posing. So everyone was busy.

  • Leave children doing nothing for a longer period of time. Initially I didn't pay enough attention to this aspect and suddenly a kind of chaotic atmosphere started to emerge. Thanks to the supervising teacher the situation got back quickly under control.