As a conservation photographer who teaches workshops for young people, I sometimes hear from parents that their kid “isn’t into photography.”
I smile and respond in the same way each time, familiar with the quizzical look my reply will receive: “I don’t teach photography,” I say, as the parent’s eyebrows raise in confusion. “I teach biology, science, art, self-confidence, and seeing—and I use the camera as my tool to do it.”
Photography is not only for aspiring photographers. The camera is a multipurpose power tool that engages the user in their surroundings and with nature through, literally, a new lens. Does your child like art? Science? Adventure? Do they like creating and discovering things? Being outside? Being in control of an outcome? Being right? Then introduce them to the camera.
The physical picture a child captures is the result of an organic process. Accomplishment, empowerment, and self-confidence are a few of many potential outcomes. Here are some guidelines for getting started.
Be a Scientist
Think of photography as an adventure that you and your child can begin together, discovering the local wildlife in your area. Pick your intended spot (backyard, local park, supermarket parking lot) and spend a few early mornings and early evenings at the same time each day observing, as that’s when many animals are most active and light for photos is also best. From ladybugs to Northern Cardinals, photographing wildlife is most successful when you know a bit about your subject. Write down observations of birds, insects, and mammals you see. Try to identify and learn about each species.
Watch for how a raptor poops before takeoff or observe how Belted Kingfishers hover over a spot before diving into the water. Find out what Blue Jays eat. You might note if certain birds have a preferred perch, or for a lizard, a favorite rock to visit. Observing and learning these behaviors will help a child be ready and in the right spot, with the right equipment, to take a picture.
Gauge Your Gear
Different cameras have different possibilities. There is no right or wrong camera, but there are cameras better designed for different situations. A camera phone is a great introduction to photography—and it’s the one you always have with you. But let’s face it: A camera phone is not the best option for capturing a Bald Eagle flying 200 feet above. Knowing what your camera can and can’t do will help manage your child’s expectations and set them up for success.
For beginners using a phone camera or basic point-and-shoot, aim for photos that can be taken in close proximity; look for species tht are habituated to humans, like ducks on a pond, or pigeons in a park, or grackles in a parking lot. Try hanging a bird feeder outside your window. Alternatively, point your child in the direction of nature designs—can they find patterns in leaves or wood? Can your child photograph the entire alphabet in nature? Bring on the artist!
If a child has a real interest and is nailing beginner shots, it might be time to look at a basic DSLR body with an interchangeable lens. I’ve had 10-year-olds use them, but every child is unique and a mature younger child might also handle this more complicated set-up. Many companies sell amateur DSLR kits with a short and longer zoom lens option. For advanced children, look into lenses that extend beyond 300mm—usually the bare minimum that serious bird photographers like to use—and cameras that fire above five frames per second. This is also where a child can really experiment with more artsy and creative concepts, such as panning motion or playing with depth of field. It’s where a photographer begins to make a picture based on an idea in their head rather than simply taking a snapshot. I highly recommend workshops or classes at this stage.
Set Up a Shot
The slightest movement can cause an animal to take flight or run away, so do your best to be invisible. Wear dark clothing and practice being silent. A white shirt or hat is like a lighthouse—birds will see you immediately. If possible, use a blind to hide yourself. (An old tent with a hole in the right spot for the camera can work wonders.)
The idea is to get close, but not so close that the animal is spooked or disturbed. If you find a nest with your child, use it as an opportunity to teach them to respect nature. This is where you use the longer lens rather than trying to get physically close. If you don’t have a long lens, help a child accept that the safety of the birds is more important than getting the shot. I’ve found it helps to relate a vulnerable wildlife situation to something or someone in a child’s life they want to help protect.
Patience and consistency reap the best rewards. Your child may say they already have a shot of a sparrow. My response would be: Do you have the sparrow eating? Jumping? Flying? A portrait? A detail of its feathers? A wider shot showing the bird in its environment? Perhaps their preferred subject is something different than wildlife—the best thing you can do is nurture the interest and help them to use the tool to tell the story they choose to tell.
Review the Results
One of the most important parts of teaching youth photography is the review. Download and look at every picture. There are three basics to consider: focus, composition, and light. Talk about what these mean. As a fun activity, teach the rule of thirds: Divide a frame into nine boxes and aim to place the subject of interest at the intersection of the box lines, rather than the center. (Many cameras have a grid setting, so it’s easier to place the subject.) Always be encouraging, but also honest about what looks incredible and what is a little out of focus. Done in a positive way, this gives a child a sense of accomplishment, empowerment, and an incentive to go out and do it again. Most of the initial photos won’t be great, but there’s often one that brings out a “Wow!” And that’s the shot your child is going to remember and want to put on the wall.
At the end of my youth workshops, each student shows a portfolio of images to an audience. It never fails to bring tears to my eyes when a parent blurts out with amazement, “YOU took THAT?!” And their child, standing confident and proud next to their projected image, with a smile from ear to ear, says: “Yup!”