Have you ever tried teaching a teenager science, math or technology? If you have, you know it can be a lesson in frustration. Let’s face it. Science, math and even technology are pretty dry subjects, and it’s hard to find ways for students to learn about them, without having to read thick textbooks, memorize equations and perform the same experiments over and over again. Right now we spend so much time teaching the science of exposure, focus and, yes, even composition, we forget the reason we picked up photography in the first place was to create art.
Being a huge proponent of the “Learn by Doing” school of thought, I’ve come up with three captivating lessons you can use to teach a teenager, or even a whole classroom of teenagers, the ART of photography. And if a bit of science comes along for the ride, it won’t be any worse than the vegetables you sneak into their lasagna.
Selfies – if you can’t beat ‘em, teach ‘em!
Some studies have estimated that a third of the photographs young adults, ages 18 to 24 take is of themselves. It seems like a huge number, but I believe it. I’ve watched hundreds of teenagers get off their school buses at the incredible Tunnel View in Yosemite Valley, only to take a quick shot of themselves and hop right back on their bus. I’ve seen the same effect take place across the Country, from the Lincoln Memorial to the Golden Gate Bridge.
It would be easy to write off all teenagers as a generation of selfish narcissists, but I know that isn’t the case. I believe teenagers take and share pictures of themselves because they’ve been empowered to do so. That’s why smart phones have two lenses, one on the front and one on the back. And it’s one of the big reasons why social networking sites like Facebook even exist. So, until the next big thing comes along, or enough “old people” pick up the fad, selfies are here to stay.
But, love them or hate them, because selfies are so popular they can be a wonderful teaching opportunity. Because at the heart of each poorly lit, poorly composed and haphazardly focused selfie, lays the heart of a wonderful portrait.
Before we begin, it’s important to remember that many of us have issues about the way we look. This is especially true for a lot of teenagers. It’s possible the reason so many teenagers post “ugly” selfies, with scrunched up faces, stuck out tongues and other odd contortions is so they won’t be judged by how they “really” look. I can relate. It wasn’t until I learned about lighting, posing, cropping and retouching that I was comfortable enough to post my own Facebook photos. So be aware and try to be sensitive to the feelings of your students. I don’t think it’s necessary for every student to produce an actual selfie. Shooting a portrait of another student, a family member, friend or even the teacher should also be allowed.
Lesson #1: Taking a Great Selfie
The first part of any lesson is what I like to call “The Backstory”. Pick one of your favorite portrait photographers to share with the class. Mine would be Gregory Heisler, but you might prefer Diane Arbus, Eve Arnold, Edouard Boubat, Dorothea Lange or maybe Annie Leibovitz. It really doesn’t matter who you chose, as long as their photographs offer interesting lighting, great emotion and hopefully some creative compositions. Compare the works of your favorite artist to some random selfies. But make sure the selfies aren’t from the class and that they’re anonymous. The point is to contrast and compare the work of portrait artists to the quick and dirty selfies, showing how light, contrast, backgrounds and emotion can make one image memorable, while the other is simply forgettable.
The object of your “Backstory” is to instill the desire among your students to create their own innovative and memorable self-portraits. So make sure to ask your students what it is in each of the professional photos that makes them unique and powerful. On the opposite side of the coin, be sure to ask them what it is about the selfies they find lacking.
It would be extremely difficult to teach every concept of photography in every lesson. And I doubt if most teenagers, or adults for that matter, can retain all of that information all at one time. So, for this lesson, let’s concentrate on backgrounds, the direction of the lighting and posing.
Using some of the sample photographs from your favorite portrait artist, have your students take a look and describe the backgrounds they see in each shot. Ask them these questions as they inspect the images. Are the backgrounds sharp and in focus, or soft and blurry? Are the backgrounds darker than the subject, lighter or a combination that is both darker and lighter in certain areas? Do the backgrounds take away from the subject? In other words, are their eyes drawn to the background instead of the subject? Is there a lot of the background showing, or does the subject take up the majority of the photograph? The object is to get them thinking about every part of the photograph, from corner to corner, and not just the portrait itself.
As you already know, because it’s such a huge subject, you can talk light until the cows come home – which is when the light is gone, by the way – so we’re going to narrow our discussion to just the “direction” of light and the difference between harsh light and a softer light. And you can easily demonstrate both with a simple hand-held spotlight and an inexpensive diffuser. Pick a volunteer and have them sit on a stool in the middle of the class. Have the class join you as you walk around the volunteer, keeping the light aimed at the student, but raising and lowering the light as you go. Take another rotation with your diffuser in front of the light. You can break the class into smaller groups if you need to as the demo goes very quickly.
Have the students point out both the location and the strength of the shadows as you circle the student and compare how the light “feels” from one location to another and with and without the diffuser. It’s important to convey that there is no “Right” answer with lighting a portrait. Light is simply a tool the photographer uses to convey a feeling or emotion. You might ask your students which kind of light looked the most “dramatic”, and which kind of light seemed the most “flattering”.
Our faces tell our stories, but that doesn’t mean all of our chapters are flawless. Our skin can be blemished, our noses crooked and our chins doubled, and the selfie/portrait photographer has the choice of highlighting each of these features, or downplaying them. And while lighting can play a part in this, posing is easier to control and much more effective. A great resource for portrait posing is 8 Posing Guides to Inspire Your Portraiture
And now to the assignment, and it’s a simple one. Simply ask your students to come back to class with two portraits, either of themselves or someone else on a flash drive. The two portraits must have different backgrounds, different lighting and unique poses, and the students must be ready to explain the choices they made and why they made them.
I can’t stress this enough. Photographs that convey a mood are going to be more memorable than those that don’t. It seems like a simple concept, but even though I think about it almost every day, and I try my hardest to make it happen, not every photograph I produce conveys a mood. I guess it’s just not that easy. But that’s all the more reason to help teens start to look for the expressions, the objects and the kinds of light that help convey a mood.