Throughout this series so far, I've touched on a lot of the more technical aspects of photography, but once children have become comfortable with the camera, its settings, and the basic principles of photography, it will be time for them to learn about various camera tricks and the compositional rules that will help them create art. Of course, there is a lot to know about composition and some of the effects that you can create with a camera, but I'll just cover the basics here. This will help you give children a solid foundation on which they can build their art.
This is one of the first compositional rules that young photographers will learn about. Simply put, the Rule of Thirds teaches you to divide the image’s frame into both horizontal and vertical thirds. Then, place important parts of the image, like the horizon line and a tree, on the imaginary “third” lines.
The best way to teach this to a child is to demonstrate with images. Using photo editing software or even prints that you can make marks on, mark out the horizontal and vertical thirds so that the child can see exactly what you mean. If possible, use images that have been taken according to this rule so that you can illustrate your point, which is that images following the Rule of Thirds are typically more interesting and more dynamic than images that are perfectly centered or not composed by any compositional rules.
Once the child understands this rule, have them practice by going out and taking images according to the Rule of Thirds. Remember that composition is a never-ending learning process, so from here out, the best thing that you can do is sit down with the children that you are teaching and critique their compositions. Explain what makes each image work (or not work) and explain the things that they can do to fix their images.
For this next part of the learning phase, a firm grasp on things like shutter speed and aperture are essential. Eventually, every child will ask you how to do special effects, so I'll give you an overview of some of the simpler effects that they'll want to know about — depth of field, motion blur, and manipulation of perspective.
Depth of field is one of those essential effects that every photographer, including beginners, should know. In a nutshell, the wider an aperture is, the narrower the depth of field (or the area that is in focus) becomes. Narrow depths of field can accomplish many things, such as isolating a subject or creating pretty background blurs that complement the foreground.
The easiest way to teach children how to make use of narrow depths of field is to simply try it. Make a series of images with progressively wider apertures to illustrate how the area of focus gets narrower each time. As you take the photos, make sure to reinforce the earlier lessons about balancing exposure — the child will need to increase the shutter speed as the aperture widens to make that the images aren't overexposed. Once the child knows how to make images with narrow depths of field, leave the rest up to them. With enough experimentation, they'll certainly figure out creative ways to use a narrow depth of field!
Another technique that children will be interested in is motion blur. By tracking a fast moving subject with the camera, you can blur the background, which gives the impression that the subject is, in fact, moving at high speeds. You'll need to show them how to follow their subjects with the camera, and you’ll also need to teach them how shutter speeds affect motion blur. That is, make sure they know that the faster the shutter speed is, the less blur they'll have. With a fast enough shutter speed, they'll actually be able to freeze the subject, which is another useful trick that children will want to know about.
Finally, there are perspective tricks of all kinds. If you know how to manipulate perspective, then you can make the moon seem much larger than it actually is, you can make faraway things seem nearby, or you can make any number of creative images.
One great way to illustrate perspective tricks is to create an image in which it looks like someone is standing on another person’s hand. For this illustration, you'll need two people. Have one person hold their hand out, palm facing upwards. Have the other person stand in the background, then have the child maneuver until the image appears as if the person in the background is standing on the foreground person’s hand. Then, snap the image, and make prints so that your child always has a reminder of just how powerful perspective can be.
When you have a chance, you may also want to suggest other shots that make use of unique perspectives. For instance, inside your own home, you can take pictures of individual rooms while standing in the center of the room. Then, when you review the prints, make sure to point out how much smaller the rooms feel in the images than in real life. Then, retake those photos by backing up within the room as far as you can, zooming out as much as you can, and getting closer to the ground, just to demonstrate how a change in perspective can make an image of the same subject feel entirely different.
There’s one key thing that you'll want to remember about each of the lessons that I've given today: These techniques are a constant learning process. You'll not be able to teach composition and camera tricks in one day, or even one lifetime. Regardless, make sure that you and the children keep building on your skills!