From one amateur to another aspiring amateur

Several months ago Leta was given an old iPhone that was stripped of its cell service and turned into an iTouch on which she could play games. Yeah, I know. WE didn’t have an iTouch when we were nine years old and we turned out just fine. And WE also had to manually rewind cassette tapes or call the DJ at our favorite radio station in order to hear our favorite song. Just think about that for a second. What a load of crap. Thank god our children don’t have to live through that. Less time on the phone to FM 100 and more time to focus on math! BEHOLD MY DENIAL.

A few months ago I noticed that she was taking photos with the phone and then editing them with basic software apps we had downloaded for her. She’s naturally drawn to this mode of expression just like she’s drawn to the music I play in the car, a combination of new things I find with some classical rock thrown in for exposure. Before you label me an insufferable hipster, you should know that my parents played nothing but ABBA and The Bee Gees while I was growing up. I did not even know Led Zeppelin existed until I got to college, and I’m sorry, Mom and Dad. Do you know how embarrassing that is? The History of Rock and Roll talk is just as important as the These Drugs Will Kill You talk and that one talk about the part of my body the ultrasound technician refers to as The Cheeseburger.

Leta’s pictures are mostly what you’d expect from a nine-year-old aiming a phone at the wall. And that’s totally fine. What’s important is that she’s interested in this medium, in capturing moments. Before we headed to Moab for her birthday I asked her if she’d be interested in playing with my big camera while we were there. She shrugged her shoulders, like, I guess so? And then she thought a little bit more about it.

“Will you put them on your website?” she asked after a few minutes, showing almost as much enthusiasm for my website as she does when I post videos of people falling off of things they shouldn’t have been standing on in the first place.

AHA! THE MOMMYBLOG COMPROMISING AN INNOCENT CHILDHOOD. I am serving this up to you people on a platter and it is going to be delicious.

“Only if you want me to,” I answered.

“I do!” she said. “I really do! And you’ll say that I took the photos?”

“Of course,” I assured her. I’ll tell all of you here that her photos were taken by She Whose Childhood Has Been Compromised By Mommyblogging Oh Look Over There An Entire Country Doesn’t Have Clean Drinking Water Or Access to Prenatal Care And Thus Your Outrage Is Totally Precious.

“And will you show me what to do?”

That question got me thinking about how I take photos, what I’ve learned by watching other people take photos, and how I could talk to her about the process. I mean, if I can’t keep ISO and aperture and shutter speed straight, how on earth would I discuss that with her? How does an amateur photographer talk to a nine-year-old about photography?

I could have said, you know what? It doesn’t matter. Just shoot. And that’s mostly true. What is good in art and photography and music is totally subjective. A photo of a blank wall if taken by someone deemed a protégé will sell for thousands of dollars. And some will say, “Look at how he exposed the wall for what it is. Look at how he captured its essence.” I’m sure those people are lovely human beings but I’m not inviting them to my birthday party.

And others will say, “Here’s a poopy diaper filled with a half-digested bowl of oatmeal that’s more artistic.”

Both are right even though I happen to agree with the poopy diaper.

So before we headed down south I talked to her about three basic things I keep in mind when I’m taking a photo, and then I showed her some examples from my Instagram feed. Why Instagram? One, it was a really easy way to show her a whole bunch of shots in a short amount of time (nine-year-old attention span made worse by the iTouch), and two, I’m learning more about the art of photography there than anywhere else just by being exposed to others’ interpretations of buildings and landscapes and portraits. I have a long way to go, but my whole feed is a slideshow of growth in the areas I wanted to talk to her about.

This is the most important thing we discussed. Light makes or breaks a photo. Look at the direction of the light. Is there too much of it? Too little of it? You almost always want to shoot when the light is behind you. Is that a pretty tree? Position yourself so that the sunlight is at your back and then photograph that tree. Let your subject absorb the light. However, do NOT go into the light. Particularly if your name is Carol Anne.




Sometimes shooting into the light produces the results you want. Like striking silhouettes:



Next up is the one I thought she’d find the easiest:

Look for shadows and hues that add dimension to your photo. As we looked through North Window I told her to admire the difference between the color of the sky and the jagged terrain beneath it, the blue and the brown and the orange. Those colors and the range among them all erupt into a spectacular moment. I told her to think of colors as moments, and as abstract as that concept is she will eventually come to understand it and compare me to someone who would wax poetic about a picture of a blank wall. And not invite me to her birthday party.




And finally, the one I continue to struggle with:

I explained to her that this one is a lot harder to learn that the others. One night when she is older we will dress in our pajamas, grab a bowl of popcorn and turn on The Shining so that I can show her the master of symmetry at his best. We’ll hold each other during the scary parts but then OOH! and AHH! and pause it during the exquisite cinematography where some crazy apparition is about to appear in the EXACT center of the screen. 

My daughter will know The Beatles and The Rolling Stones and Martin Scorsese and Stanley Kubrick as well as she knows how to cover her mouth when she coughs.

I told her to think of reflections, of mirror images. What is on the left resembles what is on the right. What is on the top complements what is on the bottom. I told her to think of things standing straight up and down or lying horizontal across a ruler and to let the guides in the viewfinder line up her shot.




I’ll eventually talk to her about the rule of thirds and show her the many examples of it in photography and art, but I thought these three things got her off to a good start. Especially since she’d fire off a few shots with the Canon, abruptly stop and slouch forward underneath the weight of it. Yes, the lens is bigger than her forearm, but I think you’ll agree she did an incredible job considering this was her first try (all of these were taken straight from the memory card an enhanced in no way at all):


Photo by Leta Armstrong


Photo by Leta Armstrong


Photo by Leta Armstrong


Photo by Leta Armstrong

And in this shot, my favorite of the whole day, she nails pretty much everything we talked about:


Photo by Leta Armstrong

Do you have any tips when it comes to talking to kids about photography?


This post is brought to you by The New Santa Fe from Hyundai.