Teaching manual photography to children

Why teach your child to master the art of manual photography?

Teaching manual photography to children is a great way to combine mastering technology with the great outdoors. The process of learning photography outside will not only immerse your children in nature; but foster an independence and confidence that comes through creativity and artistic ownership. The natural propensity for children to be inquisitive and in the moment will also result in some fantastic photographs for them to take pride in, and for older children the editorial process can be just as engaging.

Step 1: engage your child in photography

The technical concepts of photography are easy to break down in to comprehensible steps that children can quickly experiment with and put into action. If you don’t have a camera with an interchangeable lens then a good first step is to discuss the idea of composition and what makes a photo interesting. Perhaps look at some photos of your own family to engage your child – and encourage them to look for leading lines and interesting angles. Perhaps some are too dark or out of focus, whilst some might have captured the feelings of the people in the picture. This can all easily be tested out in practice, and the best way I know to encourage experimentation is to emphasise that there is no right or wrong. The rules in photography were made to be broken!

Fun ways for younger children to practice manual photography

If you do have a camera with an interchangeable lens then I would recommend the lightweight and relatively inexpensive 50mm 1.8 prime lens (the older version is more affordable) as ideal for this purpose. For young children in the age range of 6 – 8 years old, begin with setting the manual focal point to the central position and encourage the practice of aiming the central focal point at whatever it is that they wish to capture. The process of half pressing the shutter to focus (and look for the red dot in the middle) before pressing down fully will also be something that this age range can enjoy mastering with relative ease, alongside getting down to eye level with the subject that they are trying to capture. Ask your child to see what happens when they get too close to the subject – and to listen out for the funny noise that the camera makes to tell them it is struggling to focus. How close can they get without that noise being made? Does the picture look better taken close up or further away? Encourage the use of the playback button and screen to quickly check their work as they go along.

Older children and manual photography – increasing creative control

For older children you can advance this by re positioning the focal point to the right or left third of the screen so as to introduce the ‘rule of thirds’ and the idea of balance in a photo. From the age of around 8 upwards, try switching from full auto to aperture priority (Av) mode so that aperture and depth of field can be explored – and creative control extended. Explain that an f number is used to measure the amount of light coming into the lens, which in turn will impact on the exposure of the image. A wider aperture (low number such as f2.8 or lower) gives more light and a shallower depth of field (a blurry background). Experiment with taking portraits with a wide aperture, making sure the focal point is on the subjects eye. Encourage exploration as to how this can fade out distracting background clutter whilst creating interesting bokeh (technical term for out of focus blur). In this mode ask your child to think about how the f number they select changes not just the exposure of the image, but how much of the scene is in focus.

Editing photos – A chance to learn and reflect

For any age group, the process of reflecting on the photos taken is a great opportunity for discussion. Children absorb concepts quickly when they are put into action; and will begin to make very astute comments as to why they prefer one of their photos over another. Even very young children will enjoy some basic aspects of the editorial process – such as cropping and changing to black and white. From 8 years upwards the more advanced aspects of editing such white balance, exposure and contrast can begin to be understood and mastered; and should you happen to have Adobe Lightroom (an excellent image management and editorial programme) this can provide hours of experimental fun.

Displaying your child’s work

The final step is printing and framing your child’s work. This is always a magical transformation for children to witness, and they will be fascinated to see their own beautiful image in print. To then see their work framed and hung on the wall offers an enormous sense of achievement and pride.

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Catherine Gil

I am a Hitchin based family photographer. I take photographs outside using natural light and stunning backgrounds. My style is vibrant and soulful, capturing the fun and playful connections between family members.