Teaching photography to a 5-year-old

Photography: it's child's play. Really!

When I was about seven, I became seriously aware of photography, and I wish someone had started teaching me things back then. Of course, digital photography didn’t quite exist, so that makes it a lot more difficult (and expensive) to learn by trial and error, so things have changed a lot. I was on the train the other day, thinking about how I would teach photography to a young’un with the current technology available.

I discovered I couldn’t think of how to do it–so I got in touch with one of my friends who is a teacher, and she got so stoked up about the idea that she went ahead and wrote up a phenomenal article for Photocritic…

Starting early ain't such a bad idea

How old were you when you took your first real photograph? You know, intentionally focusing on something to produce an image. Four? Eight? In your teens? Maybe even later? I was about five, and it was using my Mum’s compact camera. I was seven when my Dad taught me how to use an SLR. Of course, this was back when I had no option other than to steel my patience and wait for the fruits of my pointing and clicking to be developed, but I was hooked from the start.

Besides children being inquisitive by nature, and wanting to imitate adults, the instant gratification of digital photography makes the chances of them wanting to have a go with a camera quite high. Let alone the fact that smartphones have made photography ubiquitous. Why wouldn't they want to have a go when so many photos are being taken of them?

So, when a five year old is looking at you and your smartphone or camera expectantly, how do you teach him or her to take a photo?

Starting simple: Basics + framing

Initially, I wouldn’t teach her  or him anything more than the simple mechanics of the camera (and I’m assuming this is a smartphone or a compact): look here, press this button. Let him or her play around, click randomly, get a feel for the camera and what it does. They will learn plenty from experimentation and discovery: not holding the camera still will make fuzzy pictures, you’ll also get blurry images if you get too close, and if something is too far away it’ll be tiny in the photograph. If they start to show an interest in the images that they are making and begin to ask questions, then you can start to teach them. However, keep it fun and keep it simple. By enjoying themselves they are more likely to want to continue, and well, we are talking about five year olds, after all. Lay a firm foundation of basic understanding – and this will be very basic stuff – and who knows to where they’ll progress.

Begin by encouraging the little one in question to think about what it is that they want to photograph and why. An easy way to accomplish this is with a simple viewfinder. You can make one from a cereal packet: cut the middle out of the large panel leaving a frame roughly four centimeters deep. Hand it to your budding Ansel Adams and get him or her to wander around and use the viewfinder to frame potential images. Whilst they’re doing it ask them what their focal points are: that flower, those blocks of Lego, the red car parked on the street. By encouraging them to think about their subjects you are helping them to construct an image successfully: they are taking a picture of something, and that something needs to be the centre of attention. The idea of the cardboard frame transfers easily to the camera’s viewfinder, helping our youngsters to select their images.

Introducing perspective and focus

From there you can broach the idea of perspective, starting with the cardboard viewfinder before moving onto the camera. Show them that by standing closer to something it will appear larger, and conversely you make something look smaller by standing further away from it. Get your little photographers to experiment: how far away will they need to be from a tree before they can fit all of it into a frame; how close can they get to Mummy’s hand before it spills out of the frame? Essentially it is close equals big and far equals small, but we’re accustomed to the concept of perspective and for a five year old it is fairly revolutionary, so be patient.

Willis, taken by Tom, age six.

Willis, taken by Tom, age six.

Focus is probably something that should follow on from here. In their initial playing around our young photographers have probably found out that holding the camera too close to the subject will result in a fuzzy picture. Helping them to understand why this happens can be accomplished by getting them to hold their hand in front of their face, at arm’s length, asking them to focus on their hand, and then move it steadily closer to their eyes. Does it start to go fuzzy at any point? When is this point? By likening the camera lens to their eyes you’ll help them to understand that the lens can’t focus sharply on something that is too close.

The concepts of ‘light’ and ‘dark’

The last aspect that I’d want to broach with a five year old is the influence of light and dark on a picture, anything else is going to be too technical and quite frankly unnecessary. Again, using the analogy of the eye and the camera lens will help to explain the effects. When they wake in the middle of the night, and their room is dark, they can’t see very much. The camera lens is the same as their eyes: it can’t make an image in the dark. If they want to take a photograph in the dark, they are going to have to introduce some light (like switching on their bedside lamp in the night), that’s why cameras have flashes. Of course, if a light is too bright they cannot see properly, and looking into the sun hurts their eyes. This is why they mustn’t take a photograph facing into the sun or with a light in it, because the lens won’t be able to cope with the light, just like their eyes.

If you feel the need to cover shadow–and please bear in mind that our five year olds have taken in a great deal already–it is probably best to do it if they take a picture particularly affected by it, and then start with a demonstration of shadow puppets on a wall. Explain how the dark areas are cast by things blocking light reaching the wall and that the dark area in their picture was created the same way. Maybe the shadow in their picture was created by them standing between their light source and their subject? Ask them how they think they could avoid having a shadow in their picture next time. Most of all, be aware that you might need to keep an eye on where and how they stand to take photographs, and that encouraging them to move could be necessary.

So, by keeping it simple and letting them discover as much for themselves as possible it mightn’t be long before you’ve photographs taken by your children sitting along side photographs of your children.

Tom, taken by Georgie, age nine.

Tom, taken by Georgie, age nine.

This article was written by Daniela Bowker and originally published on 24 June 2007. It's had a small update. How far we've come since then!