Heater, Mother of Lance

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.

  • Kimberly

    2013/04/09 at 7:57 am

    Awesome tips and picks! I also tell my kids that the subject does not always have to be in the middle. I talk about “breathing” space in an image. I have an art degree, so I tend to get talking about natural eye movement in images. And their natural eye movement typical rolls into the back of their heads.

  • Robin Dearing

    2013/04/09 at 8:05 am

    I hope Leta is pleased with her photos. They are lovely. It’s so fun to see kids express themselves artistically. Good job to you both!

  • fp

    2013/04/09 at 8:14 am

    Nice shots Leta! I like the concepts you’ve discussed with her – I’d say other important ones are:

    – don’t just stand up and take everything at eye level : try taking the
    same thing from lying on the ground (easier for a nine year old!), or
    standing on a chair.

    Background: Keep an eye on those branches and lamposts growing out of people’s heads

    After effects and filters: Go easy on them!

  • Marguerite StGermain

    2013/04/09 at 8:21 am

    Leta’s photos are great!

  • HNJackson

    2013/04/09 at 8:23 am

    I love seeing things through a child’s lens, no matter how they’re taken. It’s especially cool to see her photos of Arches on her very first trip there. It’s like getting to experience it as a 9 year old all over again! Way to go, Leta! 🙂

  • Doug

    2013/04/09 at 8:25 am

    She did do a great job for her first DSLR shoot. The technical side of photography will come (or not, since I also battle with correct settings from time to time), but developing her eye is important, and landscape shots are a good place to start. I’ll look forward to more, and seeing her progress.

  • Melissa Bishop

    2013/04/09 at 8:28 am

    Your photos are fantastic, Leta. I started taking pictures when I was about your age and it is something I have always loved doing. Your mom asked for tips we could pass along to you, here is mine. Leta, when taking photos remember; lighting is way more important than fancy equipment. Play around with reflected light when taking indoor photos. Don’t invest in gear. Invest in practicing your skills and developing your own style. Bring your camera with you as much as you can. You just never know what will catch your eye. I’m looking forward to seeing more of your work.

  • Jennifer Cafferty

    2013/04/09 at 8:40 am

    Your advice was perfect. It is so fun to see what interests our children enough to take a picture. We got my son (5.5 yrs old) his own V-Tech camera two Christmases ago. It was so funny to go through the memory card each week to see what caught his interest. A lot of shots of his teeth or up his nose, but other shots of the pets, me cooking dinner, etc. I love that he has an interest in the creative aspect of life. Hopefully Leta’s interest continues to grow!

  • Deborah K

    2013/04/09 at 8:40 am

    atta girl, leta! before you know it you’ll be framing all of life through your inner lens so you can share your measure of light with the world.

  • JohnLeJeune

    2013/04/09 at 8:43 am

    Remind her to check the four edges of the frame to make sure she is in/excluding what she wants and be purposeful in what she is selecting to frame. She is already doing that very well. It is so easy to forget to do it though.

  • Scully

    2013/04/09 at 8:47 am

    “Photo by Leta Armstrong” this just breaks my heart with happiness.

  • Megan Gordon

    2013/04/09 at 8:55 am

    Well done, Leta! You are well on your way.

    When I shoot, I am all about the light. You can take pictures of any old thing and if the light is right, it will be beautiful. Watch the light, especially early in the morning or late in the afternoon/early evening. The color and quality of the light transforms everything.

    Also, don’t be afraid to try something different. Tilt the camera at an angle. Lay down on the ground and shoot up. Or shoot from above. Find what’s interesting about what you are taking a picture of and make that the subject of the photo.

    If you like, you can take a look at some of my photos; they’re a bit different than your mom’s: http://onethousandwordsormore.com/photographs-2/
    Most of all, have fun!

  • Peg White

    2013/04/09 at 8:56 am

    Some of my favorite photos came from handing my grandchildren my digital camera and telling them to have fun taking photos of whatever interested them. Their perspective is so different as are their viewpoints and innocent perceptions of life. I try to make it a regular thing so I can observe how their views and interests are changing and maturing. Besides…it’s fun!

  • LashleyR

    2013/04/09 at 9:03 am

    Perfectly convicting (I wonder if Mormons use that word…); I needed to hear that. Thanks for posting.

  • LashleyR

    2013/04/09 at 9:05 am

    These remind me a lot of photos I took as a youngster. All huge landscapes and trying to capture big-ness in the world. I was going to suggest encouraging her to look at details (since that’s what I tend to like nowadays), but maybe that’s just part of the perspective of a kid in a big world.

  • Sara

    2013/04/09 at 9:09 am

    What a wonderful hobby to let her adopt! I had a book when I was about that age from our 4-H group (Yep, I did photography in 4-H while my friends were hand sewing dresses and taking care of stinky animals. Commitment.) Anyway, it really focused on finding only one subject in a photo. And it introduced me to the rule of thirds. I think I learned more from that book than I realize. Then my brother drew moustaches and glasses through the whole thing, when I was supposed to return it to my 4-H leader. Butthead.

  • Lisa Bailey

    2013/04/09 at 9:57 am

    I love this! I love that is says “Photo by Leta Armstrong” I remember seeing pictures of her as just a baby and here she is taking our breath away with her art. Thank you for sharing these.

  • Kimberly Wydeen

    2013/04/09 at 10:06 am

    A number of years ago I dated a professional photographer who gave me some fantastic tips. The best one was selecting one object that can be easily moved (I used an apple) and take 100 different photos with the object. This exercise forces you out of your comfort zone in terms of depth, angle, composition, etc. It took me about 6 weeks to get 100 and really helped me expand my horizons. 100 might be a little high for Leta, but 50 or 25 might be more age appropriate.

  • Julie

    2013/04/09 at 10:13 am

    Great job, Leta!

  • HeatherArmstrong

    2013/04/09 at 10:29 am

    I LOVE this suggestion. I think I’ll try with Leta.

  • jonez

    2013/04/09 at 10:31 am

    Awesome! I love giving kids the tools and seeing what they do.

    The German in me compels me to point out it’s an iPod Touch. Don’t hate me.

  • Laura

    2013/04/09 at 10:35 am

    Great pics, Leta! Rock on girlfriend!!

  • Svaha

    2013/04/09 at 10:36 am

    Sit with her and have her show you picture styles on Instagram that she likes, then show her on your camera how to take them.

    It’s a good way to visualize what you want to take, learn how the camera does that, and then making a bajillion mistakes until she figures out how to create the shot she wants. She’ll ease into learning about ISO, shutter speed, DOF, aperture, framing, etc. as she tries to use them.

    Maybe make a mother-daughter project out of it – pick one style a month, teach her about it, let her bang around on her own for a bit, then take an afternoon and take ‘real’ pictures together.

  • Kalima

    2013/04/09 at 10:37 am

    As a former professional photographer, I would say -Leta, you did a beautiful job!!!! you will only get better as you obviously have a good eye for composition. My one piece of advice to budding photo artists is” Less is more, find what interests you the most in the frame and make it dominate- cut away all the extra distracting crap”

  • nakedjen

    2013/04/09 at 10:45 am

    I want to introduce Leta to LilSalty. They’re the same age and I recently gave him my old Canon because he kept taking my phone and camera and insisting he was a *better* photographer than me. He may be. He likes to do studies in colours. We go on *safaris* after school and he asks me to give him a colour and he shoots everything he can in just that colour. It’s fun for me and fun for him (it may be fun for you and Leta, too). Especially when you go to a place like NPS (have you been there??) and the colour is something obscure like tangerine! I gave him basics about photography similar to the ones you gave Leta and he just keeps getting better. I love that you’re sharing all of this with her. Isn’t it just the best?

  • Laurie

    2013/04/09 at 10:46 am

    My favs are to get up close…and to take LOTS of pics. I’ve recently gone back to film and have become so stingy with the shutter. And with that, if you still have a film camera, let her take some pics with it, too. It’s fun in the same way that getting real, actual mail delivered to a mailbox, is fun (bills notwithstanding). Especially if there is a gem in the lot. It can be really inspiring.

  • Nicole

    2013/04/09 at 10:51 am

    Wow, I’m tearing up just reading “Photo by Leta Armstrong..”

  • twocharacters

    2013/04/09 at 11:02 am

    Great shots,Leta! Can’t wait to see what you do in the future.

  • ɯoɔ˙ɹǝƃƃolquǝʞoʇ

    2013/04/09 at 11:03 am

    Please tell Leta “well done” from Miss lee.

  • P.J. Beck

    2013/04/09 at 11:06 am

    What a great photo start Leta! Keep taking photos, and then take some more! You’ll have to take a lot of them to find the one that you REALLY like!

  • Marianne Wille

    2013/04/09 at 11:06 am

    Heather, you’re a great teacher. I learned a few things from your post today. Bravo, Leta Armstrong!

  • Claudia

    2013/04/09 at 11:27 am

    My advice to my children is to think before you shoot. Anyone can click the shutter. If you take the time to compose the photograph (position yourself, your subject, the mood…) before you click it you will achieve a more satisfying result. (Satisfying, even if the picture is crap.)
    Great job, Leta! Thank you for sharing you art with us.

  • dmiddendorff

    2013/04/09 at 11:28 am

    outstanding job Leta!!!! The one thing that I learned in classes and carry with me still, is always look up. there’s some great shots up there!!!

  • Leslie

    2013/04/09 at 11:31 am

    Lurker here, but a long time fan. I got actual tears or pride looking at Leta’s pictures. And I also thank you for the quick photography tutorial (in terms a 34-year-old me can understand) because I have been wanting to start getting into photography but I’ve been a little scared.

  • Leslie

    2013/04/09 at 11:32 am

    *of* pride. Sheesh 🙂

  • Kathleen

    2013/04/09 at 11:41 am

    Leta you did an awesome job with your pictures! Your photos are so gorgeous that you make me want to visit those places you took picture of and that is the power of a good picture…it moves people in one way or another.

  • Ronald Tibbs 

    2013/04/09 at 11:47 am

    Very nice, Leta! I hope you enjoyed the experience and are now thinking of a subject you would next like to photograph. I think your Mom has done a good job of starting you on the basics and it seems she has the right strategy mapped out for future lessons.

    I like to take macro shots and they taught me a few things about how my body and my actions can affect an image. For example, how I stand can give me better balance and offer a more stable platform from which to shoot. Sometimes bracing the camera against a solid object or using a tripod when available will help create a sharper, more detailed image. I also have to remember when I’m ready to capture the image, I don’t want to mash my finger down on the shutter release. This will cause the camera to move or vibrate ever so slightly (or dramatically) and you will lose some of the finer details in the image. Press the shutter release slowly and hold your finger at the bottom for a second (follow through) and release it slowly as well. After a while this will become habit and will help keep you stay relaxed while shooting so your muscles will not fatigue as quickly. Tired muscles shake and shaking is no good for cameras.

    You should ask your mom to talk to you about how you should breathe while shooting. It’s another topic that will come in handy for shots with lots of detail. I think you’re off to an amazing start and if you fall in love with photography I have no doubt the world will see your images and enjoy them. Good luck and enjoy the journey! I look forward to seeing what comes next!

    Regards, Ronald

  • Cristy

    2013/04/09 at 11:56 am

    Great job, Leta!!

    Along the same lines as Kimberly mentioned on taking multiple shots of the same object to play with angles, etc I was going to suggest playing with the exposure. I like to do this especially with sunrises and sunsets. It is so dramatic if you under expose something like that. You can get a much more intense color.

  • PermaPlate

    2013/04/09 at 12:03 pm

    Wow. Great job!! The second one is breathtaking and had me looking at it for quite awhile.

  • Sherri

    2013/04/09 at 12:50 pm

    Awesome photos! It’s wonderful that this is something you can share with one another

  • ~♥michellecpa♥~

    2013/04/09 at 1:47 pm

    I have no constructive assistance to provide as I don’t usually know what the heck I’m doing when it comes to photography, but I do know what I like, and I love Leta’s photos. She has a tremendous eye, and I hope we get to see more of her photographs in the future.

  • Noni Jakway Priester

    2013/04/09 at 2:04 pm

    How about giving her a “Song of the Week” and have her interpret it through photographs? It helps me when I feel like I’m not seeing things clearly or if I’m in a funk (and I give the same assignment to my almost 9 year old–he loves it!). Have fun and good work, Leta!

  • Katherine Rutledge

    2013/04/09 at 2:24 pm

    I always talk about the word “photograph” meaning “drawing with light” (rough translation). I think it sorta sums it all up right there.

  • tksinclair

    2013/04/09 at 3:17 pm

    Leta; you have the heart and soul (and now we see the “eye”) of a true artist….These are beautiful photos that make me feel so good when I look at them. I can almost smell the air and feel the sun on my arms just by looking at your photos….thank you for taking me with you!

    My dad was a hobby photographer when I was your age. In fact in those days you took photos on film and my dad developed his own in a darkroom in our house. My dad died a few years ago and I got sad when I started thinking that he never took me in that dark room…and how much I would have loved sharing his passion for photography with him. I think about how much he could have taught me…and all the time we could have spent together….it made me sad because I felt I’d lost that time with him…but now, when I read this I feel happy that you are doing what I did not.

  • Meetzorp

    2013/04/09 at 3:29 pm

    When I was Leta’s age, I got my very first camera, a Kodak Instamatic that took the little film cartridges and could also use these flash-sticks for lower-light photography. It was my Christmas present that year, and my most prized possession for many years. When other kids were spending their pocket money on candy and Garbage Pail cards, I was hoarding up for film and flash. Most of my photos were pretty bad, but I enjoy now having a few hard-copy memories from my childhood. There are pictures of Barbie outfits I’d cobbled together, beloved and long-departed family pets, and distant cousins I only saw once or twice a year.

    I think nine-years-old is just the right time to start playing with a camera of some sort. Old enough to be responsible with the equipment and young enough to feel free to experiment.

  • JPZ

    2013/04/09 at 4:48 pm

    Beautiful photos, Leta! The advice I would give her is to let her heart take the lead and to sometimes not follow the guidelines. In the age of digital photography, she has a unique opportunity to experiment, take the picture from many different angles, in different light, fool around with the shutter speed and ISO. See what comes out of it…much like what Kimberly Wydeen said. The wonderful thing about being an artist is that everyone expects you to do wacky things and think differently!

  • Meg H

    2013/04/09 at 5:18 pm

    I’d suggest having Leta help with photographs of the dogs : it’ll give her an idea of working with compliant (Chuck) and, umm, less-than-helpful subjects (Coco), the way that fur can change color with the light (outside, especially), and, most importantly, who doesn’t love pictures of adorable dogs?

  • jantaran

    2013/04/09 at 5:33 pm

    Hola sheet but you are a fantastic parent!

  • Leslie Sherwood James

    2013/04/09 at 8:31 pm

    “Move in closer to your subject” is almost always useful.

  • Danalan

    2013/04/09 at 11:55 pm

    Here’s a couple things she should know – Tell her about the ‘golden hours’; the hour after sunrise and the hour before sunset have amazing light due to atmospheric refraction. Also, for crisp pictures with low light (slower auto shutter speeds) you need something to help steady the camera. I’m a big fan of the simple looped string trick – take a string a couple feet longer than you are tall, step on one end, loop the other end around the camera and pull taut. Some people get fancy with this, using a wingnut or eyelet bolt to attach the string to the camera, and a large washer to help the string fall to the ground before stepping on it.

Heather B. Armstrong

Hi. I’m Heather B. Armstrong, and this used to be called mommy blogging. But then they started calling it Influencer Marketing: hashtag ad, hashtag sponsored, hashtag you know you want me to slap your product on my kid and exploit her for millions and millions of dollars. That’s how this shit works. Now? Well… sit back, buckle up, and enjoy the ride.

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