Thursday, October 19, 2006

Primary education photo lesson plan

Last time, we discussed some basic understandings teachers of children should address before starting a photo class.

This post should establish some standard operating procedures for the class as well as a logical "Intro to Photo" lesson plan for at least one semester.

Digital photography is encouraged
Digital photography (dry lab) eliminates the time limitations of many exposure problems as well as processing and printing. The learning curve is immediate because students can see failures on the LCD screen and continue working until they solve the problem. Although pre-press techniques (cropping, color correction, etc.) should be introduced, image procurement, delivery and volume can be much higher with digital photography.

For photo-chemical courses (wet lab), processing and printing absorb the majority of the student's time and/or delay students' learning time. Students can't know the film couldn't handle low light until they get an envelope of black images a few days later or find blank negatives after 30 minutes of loading, processing (and probably chemically burning) the film by hand.

Both film and digital processes teach students valuable lessons. While digital photography (particularly "chimping") allows students to bypass particular basic photography lessons, it allows them to immediately express their vision with satisfactory results. They'll repeat mistakes, but they're only wasting their own time.

Film forces students to learn techniques or continue to fail. This approach teaches correct exposure approaches better, but can be extremely disappointing and discouraging for less-motivated students.

Reasonable work load
For an introductory digital photo course, I don't think it's unreasonable for any student to produce, edit and digitally deliver six images per assignment. If wet lab techniques are also taught, one to three prints per assignment is reasonable.

Wet lab time restrictions make students want to edit their own images. It can take beginners about 30 minutes to make one proper resin-coated print. Few students want to spend three hours in the lab when they could be shooting. So, they'll pick an image or two, crank them out and they're done.

Digital delivery makes students do the opposite. They want to deliver everything. However, six images of a duck in a swimming pool tells as much of the story as 20 images.

Teachers don't need to wade through a sea of similar images to find the best ones. This is the student's job. The students must select only the best images to learn to differentiate between "best" and "average."

Minimum shots
It's wise to assign a minimum number of shots. A common roll of film is 36 exposures. It would be fair to require a minimum of one full 36-exposure roll of film. Likewise, it's fair to require 50 digital images.

This minimum pushes the students to shoot more than one photo of a subject. It encourages them to explore shape, composition, juxtaposition, light angle and so forth. When combined with a subject minimum (four subjects should work), students acquire enough variety to select a decent set of images.

By setting both a shooting minimum (number of frames shot) and a delivery range (minimum and maximum), the students are forced to edit their own work and critique themselves first.

The students should push themselves and each other through constructive critique to make better images.

In the beginning, teacher critiques should concentrate on the basics: exposure, focus and timing. If young students' images fall somewhere within an acceptable range on these basics, they did well.

If something goes drastically wrong with these core issues, it's best to discuss the equipment problem with the entire class so everyone can learn.

Otherwise, it's best to avoid "talking down" images for beginners. Instead, find the best image examples and explain what works in the images.

It's important to involve the students in the critique. They need to be able to analyze the images and assess what is successful and what fails. It may require polling the class by student, but open format critique is the standard practice.

It's common to want to defend one's work. So, it's important to let students know they must be silent while their work is critiqued. This makes them listen to the good and bad about their work without escalating and compounding pre-existing personality conflicts.

After the critique of their work, they get to defend their work and also get the final word about their work. If a critique is unjust to them, they can correct the record before the critique moves to the next set of images.

Award slips
One way to involve shy students in the critique is to have them award slips of paper by category. If using a cork board, students pin up the images. Then, they initial their category award slips and pin them next to the images they feel deserve the awards, but they can't vote on their own images.

Images without awards are removed from the board. The remainder of the class is spent discussing the reasons why students bestowed the awards. They aren't defending their own work, but defending the work of their classmates. This results in a much more positive experience since most folks are sensitive about their images at first.

Good starting award categories are:
Best photo
Best timing
Best framing
Most humorous
Most serious
Most artful (or creative)
Rarest (most difficult to acquire)

Universal image problems
Throughout any basic photography course, universal problems will arise. There are common ground issues as well as camera shake and many other beginner-level problems. These must be addressed as they appear in students' images.

I've written posts for most universal problems. They're included in the "All PJ-related posts" section of this blog. Although most of the posts are designed for working pros, there should be useful information for teachers in the list.

Grading guidelines
Since the eventual goal of this instruction is photojournalism, deadlines are the single most important factor in grading. This should be strongly emphasized. Images must be delivered in the proper format by the proper time to get a satisfactory grade.

Aside from deadlines, I believe it's most important for students to try hard. Therefore grading should be about objective factors rather than subjective results. Students will be rewarded or punished for subjective issues during critique. That's enough punishment or praise.

The following factors could determine a course grade from an objective standpoint:
30 pts - Deadline met
20 pts - Minimum number of images shot
20 pts - Minimum number of images turned in
10 pts - Assignment shot as directed
10 pts - Images properly exposed (excluding special assignments)
10 pts - Critique participation

Ultra-basic photo
Most photo classes make assignments which involve some level of failure. It's not a failure on the part of the student, but a failure of the equipment. Thus, the student learns the limitations of the equipment. The really smart students quickly find ways around these problems.

These assignments concentrate on one mechanical limitation while provoking student problem solving and discussion. The subject matter is left to students' imaginations.

For introductory photo courses, it's best to introduce the photographic limitations as well as techniques to handle the limitation. Often, instructors select successful images from professionals to illustrate the concepts and give a presentation about how to create successful images for the assignment. Then, they allow the students a week to work on the problem.

Some common beginning assignments include:
Shapes - have students collect one image of each major geometric shape.
Motion - teaches panning, blur (virtual volume) and stop action.
Light and shadow - this often throws details off both ends of the dynamic range.
High key / Low key - all white / all black. The camera will over and under expose. If there is some way to compensate for this on the camera, teach students the correction techniques first to avoid mass failure. Otherwise, this is simply a mass failure assignment to let them all know photography is trickier than it looks.
Same place at different times of day - this teaches about quality of light.
Same subject wide and long - this teaches about lens compression and relative position.
Close up - for point-and-shoot cameras this teaches where the focus will fail.
Light direction - left & right side light, front and back light to teach depth with light.
Types of light - have students shoot sunlight, cloudy, open shade, tungsten, fluorescent, halogen, sodium vapor to learn how the camera records different light colors.
2D - 3D - flat subjects that appear 3-dimensional. The principle is to show how tonal shading changes the textural appearance of flat objects. A good example is a wet or polished slab of marble. It is a really difficult assignment to convey to students.
Basic portrait - this is slightly more than mug shot. Both hands of the subject must be visible in the frame.
Scene - this is another hard one. This is a prep assignment for environmental portraiture. Students find a place where a portrait could be made. Once completed, have the kids print the image and move different-sized coins or ovals through the scene to see where they could put people's heads to achieve clean backgrounds without having tangents.
Environmental portrait - this combines the two previous assignments.
Self portrait - if camera allows it.

What's next?
I encourage teachers to dedicate significant time to each lesson so the knowledge can seep into students' brains. Consider these assignments as the alphabet of photography. Once the students learn how to handle these, then they can move on to understanding visual verbs and storytelling.

Enough for now,


MangoBelle said...

Thanks! Some really interesting assignments!

Mark M. Hancock said...

Good luck! :-)