Photo Assignments For Students

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.

Image via Pixoto

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.

Mood Swings.

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.

Photo by Kevin Reilly

Lesson #2: Adding “Mood” to Make a Memorable Photograph

Once again, you’ll need some sample images to fill in your “Backstory”, but this time I wouldn’t use the works from a single photographer. Instead, look to your own collection of photos, or browse through Flickr or 500px to find photographs that convey a “mood.” Don’t just look for the dark, sad photos. Moody photos can be happy as well. What exactly are you looking for? Photos that convey a mood often leave a lot to the imagination. The “missing” information in a shallow depth of field photograph is a good example. So are the soft streaks of color in a long exposure. An over-exposed photograph can convey a feeling that’s completely the opposite of a dark and gloomy one.

There are certain objects that instantly convey a mood; a solitary bench, a puppy, barred windows, a fast car, a dirt road, a single tree…the list goes on and on. Some of the most common “mood” photographs are of sunsets, sunrises and well, just about anything that is shot in the magic hours that around those sunsets and sunrises. Of course, a photograph of a golden retriever riding in a wagon in the middle of a hot, summer afternoon is going to have a mood all of its own too.

Have your students number a sheet of paper, with the numbers corresponding to the photos you’re going to display. After you display your first photograph, tell your class to write down the first emotion, feeling or mood they feel when they see it on the line numbered 1. Continue down the list, but go faster and faster as you progress through the slideshow.

At the end of the show, ask your students as a class what they wrote down for each photograph. The answers should be the same or similar for every photo. If not, take a moment to discuss the various answers and see if the photograph either failed to convey a mood, or perhaps conveyed a number of moods.

Photo by Kevin Reilly

This is also a great opportunity to introduce some of that nasty-tasting photography science into your discussion. Your students might “feel” the mood in a shallow depth of field photograph, but they are probably unfamiliar with the concept behind its creation. You can be the “Magician behind the Curtain” as you explain how the photograph was made. This goes for those great long-exposure shots as well.

Your students will have a great time with the assignment that goes along with this lesson. Have them create two photographs that display a mood. The first photograph will be of an object that conveys a mood by itself. The second will convey mood through the type of light used to shoot the photograph. And finally, for extra credit, students can create a photographic mood through a technique, such as shallow depth of field or slow exposure.

Art or Science? Can you tell the Difference?

We started this article off with the idea that, for many of us, art is far easier to teach than science. But there is no getting around the fact that a lot of photography is made up of math and geometry and even physics. And if you’re a fan of night photography, you can toss in a little astronomy as well. So, is photography a science after all? Some people think so. They say if a device, such as a camera, comes between you and the finished product, it isn’t really “you” who is producing the art. It’s the camera that’s doing the heavy lifting. I couldn’t disagree more.

For me, I follow the other path which simply says “Art is created by Intent”. If I can preconceive an image in my mind, and then produce that image, or at least a very close resemblance of it, then I feel my work is just as much art as a painting or a sculpture or anything else that only identified as art.

So, if you go along with my concept that “Art is created by Intent”, you’re probably already guessing what my next assignment will include.

Lesson #3: Part 1 – Art or Science

This lesson will go pretty fast. List all of the terms you can think of that involve photography on your chalkboard. Just jot down words like “Composition” and “f/stop” and ‘Focus”. You can go to this list, A Glossary of Digital Photography Terms, if you find yourself running short. Go through the list with your students and see if they can identify which word applies to the science of photography and which applies to the art of photography.

We’re all hit over the head with the technology behind photography. Words like Megapixels and Focus Points roll off our tongues so often any newcomer to photography would be forgiven if he thought the whole endeavor was strictly an exercise in gathering the best technology. But it isn’t. Photography is an art and I’d like to see more students using words that conveyed that fact. And the more we talk about composition and emotion and mood, the more people will realize that fact.

Photo by Kevin Reilly

Lesson #3: Part 2 — Building a Photograph with Intent

Anybody who has ever had an English class, and I assume that’s just about everybody, knows how to diagram a sentence to identify its parts. Or, if you’re like me, you at least remember the concept even if the details are fuzzy. It’s been a long time since the 7th grade. The object of this lesson is to identify the various “parts” of a photograph and then use those parts to “build” a new one. The trick is this; the parts your students identify will be from an image that is already produced, sitting right in front of them. The image they are going to “build” will come straight from their imagination.

To prepare, print a total of four images on the front and back of a piece of paper. Black and white images are fine for this lesson. Now have the students identify all of the parts of each photograph. The parts will include: the subject, the background, the type of light, the mood, and the technique. This isn’t a test, so it’s fine to help students identify all of the parts. They may need some help with the technique if you haven’t covered that in your previous lessons.

Now the fun part. Instruct your students to create four images using the same parts as they identified in the printed photographs. In other words, if the first image contained 1) an object, 2) in low light 3) conveying a happy mood and 4) shot with shallow depth of field, that’s the shot your students would be tasked with producing. When they’re finished, your teen photographers will know how to “produce” a photograph in their head before they go outside with a camera. And with that “intent” they’ll become artists before they know it.

I hope you find these ideas useful in your classroom, for your homeschooled teens or just as fun exercises for you and your family.

Photo by Kevin Reilly

8 Posing Guides to Inspire Your Portraiture
Web site
Digital Photography School

A Glossary of Digital Photography Terms
Web Site
B&H Photo

72 Beautiful Photographs to Express the Moods of Human Life
Web Site
Creative Design Magazine

Poll: Selfies Now Make Up 30% of All Photos Taken by Young People
Web Site
Relevant magazine

About the Author

Kevin Reilly

Kevin Reilly specializes in black and white photography. His goal is to create images that offer every bit of the detail, clarity and depth your eyes would see if you were placed directly into the scene. Currently, Kevin is the author of a blog devoted to travel photography and the RV lifestyle.

This article provides you with 10 photography self-assignments that you can use to get your own creative juices flowing. They’re designed to help you grow in skill as a well-rounded photographer while helping you build your portfolio at the same time. Many of these projects are best executed over a period of time, rather than in a single session.

1. The Park Bench

Take your camera and a tripod to a park, and find a busy park bench. Set yourself up some distance away with a long lens aimed at the bench and pre-focused. Settle in, and for the next few hours take images at fixed time intervals, say every ten minutes. This is really an exercise in timelapse photography. I think the resulting images would make a fun photo essay. The setting stays the same, but the subjects change at random.

2. Evolution of Construction

Find a nearby construction site, and take a picture every day. If you choose the same vantage point each time, you’ll end up with a series of images that show the building in progressive stages of completion.

3. Through the Seasons

This exercise is similar to number two, but it’s best done in a less urban environment and over a longer period of time. Find a landscape that you can shoot in spring, summer, autumn, and winter. This works especially well if you live in a place that receives snow in winter and where the leaves on the trees turn color in the autumn.

4. Self Portrait

The concept of this is simple: take a picture of yourself every day. It helps to use a tripod and shutter release, rather than limiting yourself by trying to shoot with the camera at arm’s length. You are the most patient subject you could ever work with, so use this to your advantage. Get creative, overact, dress up, and use props. You decide how you want to show yourself to the world! If you do an internet search on this topic, you’ll find related Flickr and Twitter groups, where you can share your images.

5. A Day in the Life of…

This is a great project to document a particular occupation. For example, you could take photographs of a nurse at work to show all the various aspects of his or her job. It may take you more than one day of shooting to capture a representative set of images.

6. Get to Know Your Neighborhood

So often, we don’t take a good look at our own neighborhood. Make it a point to walk around, and shoot ten images of the area where you live. Do this once a month, or even once a week if you really get inspired.

7. Color Challenge

This is a fun challenge for an urban environment. Take you camera downtown, and give yourself a few hours to take pictures. Choose a color (or for added challenge, have a friend pick the color for you), and shoot only objects of that color. By the end of the session, you’ll be surprised how that color jumps out at you! When you’re finished, take your best images and assemble them into a collage or mosaic in Photoshop.

8. A Collection of “Somethings”

Whenever you’re out, carry your camera, and be on the lookout for whatever “something” you choose. It could be feet, garbage cans, vegetables that look like faces, bicycles—you name it! Get creative, and pick a theme that you don’t usually see in pictures.

9. Pet’s Eye View

Pretend that you are your pet. How would you see the world if you were a dog? A hamster? Shoot a series of images from the perspective of your pet’s eye level.

10. After Dark

We don’t always think to take our cameras out at night. Try shooting after dark. If you’re in the country, you can shoot moonlight or star trails. In the city, you can shoot vehicles’ tail-light trails or downtown buildings. Wherever you are, you can try light-painting by using a long exposure and moving a flashlight over parts of the scene.

Hope these ideas inspire you to get out there and start shooting!

About the Author
Julie Waterhouse writes for Ultimate Photo Tips, which provides friendly education and encouragement for photo enthusiasts around the world. It’s presented in a way that’s clear, organized, and easy to understand (, whether you’re looking for the answer to a specific question or just want to explore and learn.

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