Out of the eyes of babes

About a month ago, my teenage daughter saw the new, sleek Olympus camera (the E-P1) that I have been using lately. She said she wanted to try it out. I was not sure if she was motivated by purely adolescent curiosity or her generation’s obsession with the newest, latest thing. I do know that although she spent her childhood in front of my camera being photographed for fun and work, she never has shown much interest in being behind the camera. Watching her use the new camera and then looking at the work she made set me to thinking (and blogging.)

I have seen her try to use my older SLR cameras with less success. The technical things that I noted watching her easily photograph with the newer camera include:

1) The large screen on the back of the camera is what her generation is used to using. It looks like a computer monitor or a TV screen, so it is easy to embrace. The SLR, with its penta-prism and tunnel like viewing experience, is more of an acquired taste for the next generation.

2) Her generation does not do well with dials on top of the camera. She had little problem with grasping the idea behind the exposure settings but definitely preferred that all the information settings be laid out clearly on the back screen in large, obvious type.

3) Once I explained to her about exposure compensation, she was generally able to get a good exposure by setting the aperture, letting the camera set the shutter and then using the exposure compensation setting to quickly darken or lighten the image.

4) She learned how to control the focus in her images remarkably quickly. She could easily move the point where the focus was determined with ease and then experimented with different points of focus within her images.

I am obviously prejudiced because she is my daughter. Still, half of what she was doing and thinking looked like it is common to most kids her age. Yes, she is a digital native (a person for whom digital technologies already existed when they were born, and hence has grown up with digital technology vs. a digital immigrant, who is an individual who grew up without digital technology and adopted it later, like me.) She also grew up in our image-saturated age, with two of her three parents being photographers. I think she is equally an “electronic imaging native.” Does such a term exist? If not, lets create it now!

Watching her photograph, I had another thought on an aesthetic rather than technical level. She was completely unrestrained in taking pictures. If something caught her eye. She took a picture. She knows what film photography is, but she has none of the “subconscious baggage” common to former film-based photographers who tend to hold back and take fewer rather than more images.

That led me to think about teaching photography. Long-time teachers of photography argue that basic classes should start with film photography. The idea is that photographing with film forces students to slow down, compose their pictures more carefully and pay attention to how light is used (or misused) in their images. I certainly agree with that. Mistakes in composition and lighting are much more apparent in film and much harder to fix in the darkroom. The idea of getting it right in the camera, rather than fixing it in Photoshop later, is an equally strong argument for using film early in the photography education process. But watching my daughter photograph prompted me to think that maybe we need to add another phase to the very beginning of the process of photographic education.

Photography classes, especially in high school and college, should start with at least a month, or ideally a whole semester, where the students use digital cameras to simply take many, many pictures. They should be encouraged to work on full manual exposure. Or they should be required to work on partial automatic where they learn to set one of the exposure settings, the time or aperture and then let the camera set the other. In case they use a partially automatic setting, they should be using exposure bias to get the best exposure. After all, 99% of the time we “serious” photographers only use one of the exposure variables to shape the final image. We set a lens wide open to have shallow or no depth of field or we use a slow shutter speed to pan and show movement.

The students could be taught the basics of the camera’s operation and photography’s tools in large lecture classes that are built on showing a lot of imagery (and include small doses of technical teaching.) After the students have done the photography assignment given in the large group class, they would meet in small groups to share their work, ideally under the guidance/editing stewardship of a veteran photographer. In the case of college classes, that small group steward would be a graduate student. After the small groups have met and edited each student’s hundred-plus images down to a top five per person, the edited work would be shared with the larger class group.

If this sounds like the typical basic writing class with large lecture classes and small group tutorials that is exactly what I had in mind. In that model, some information is given out en-masse, but the real individualized learning and critiquing happens in the small group settings. The combination of the two has proven to be a remarkably effective (and efficient) way to teach the craft of writing.

The whole point of photographic education is to help the students learn how to see like a camera and tell their stories. We expend a great deal of time and energy teaching them how to use the tools of writing so they can communicate clearly and tell their stories in words. Why should they be any less carefully trained when it comes to telling their stories in images?

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