Playful, elegant, and not above the judicious use of the word “shit."

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.

light
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.

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

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

color
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.

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And finally, the one I continue to struggle with:

symmetry
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.

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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):

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Photo by Leta Armstrong

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Photo by Leta Armstrong

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Photo by Leta Armstrong

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Photo by Leta Armstrong

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

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Photo by Leta Armstrong

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

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

  • Cobblestone

    Awesome. Not only the photos – but the whole bringing up a child angle, too 🙂
    (and this from someone who has tried to play all the right music for the kids, yet ended up being berated by the now 19 year old for a) not knowing The Runaways; b) not having enough Elvis Presley in the household… 😉 )

  • Shea Goff

    Just tell Leta the internet said, “Beautiful.”

  • Kelly B

    That last photo really nails the rule of thirds as well. She’s a natural.

    My tips gleaned from my uncle (who used to work in a camera shop and was my chief baby photographer when I was little) and my minor in photography.

    * Get on the level of your subject. Try taking those dog and toddler pictures from their level. She probably has an idea about this from watching you. Or, as fp says, it’s all about viewpoint. Sometimes looming above the subject or cowering below it gives you a cooler image.

    * Shadows are cool. You can start by trying angles where you will also be taking the picture of the shadow of the object OR even by taking shadow self portraits. My tumblr avatar is a shadow self-portrait on the sand of the beach at Crystal Cove State Park from my Orange County area vacation a few years back.

    * Do you like that photo better if you crop it? Play with the same image with different crops so that your subject lies on different points of the frame. You can also play with cutting it down to an extreme closeup. This works better if you have good light on the subject and high DPI with a digital camera original.

    As she gets older — if she’s still into it — see if there is an art studio that teaches preteens or teenagers old school black and white photography and printing. (Usually there isn’t a good workshop for kids on this subject, probably because of the chems). A now really cheep film slr student model camera, a few rolls of bw film, a light meter app (or old school handheld light meter), and the supply fee for chems and paper will give one a great education on old school photography and light. Also grain and what those pesky iso and f-stop things mean. Heck, you may even do it as a Mother/Daughter thing if you are still on speaking terms then.

  • Lauren

    These are fantastic!! As a 31-year-old amateur photographer I think you did a great job explaining the basics to her. It actually helped me some as well. You’re a great Mom, Heather!

  • Amelina

    As an Apple employee, I feel obligated to point out It’s an iPod touch, there is no thing as an iTouch. I realize no one cares.
    The pictures are great though!

  • Amber Marlow, theAmberShow

    It looks like she’s got the rule of thirds down pat inherently! This post makes me so excited for her.

  • HeatherArmstrong

    My bad! This explains why she never asks me to troubleshoot anything.

  • Did we grow up in the same house? My mom also played ABBA and the Bee Gees non-stop. With a bit of Beach Boys and John Denver thrown in for kicks.

    Leta’s photos are absolutely beautiful.

  • Kristi

    Thank you! You just taught me some things about photography before I get my new fancy camera for my birthday. I am determined to take good pictures and not just ones with my phone. Also-your post about finding the dog-I read it last night and the Universe must be trying to tell me the same thing it’s telling you because this http://poopinginpeace.blogspot.com/2013/04/an-evening-with-beethoven.html happened to me last week.

  • Sara

    Heather, when I discovered your website many years ago, reading what you wrote about the camera you were using, and examining your photos and your style really influenced me to lay down money for good DSLR and some good lenses. My photography has come a long way since then and I’m now being asked some of the same questions by my niece. You’ve done a great job of taking what can be a complicated process and boiling it down to something that really allows for one’s own creativity and interpretation. Leta can learn the mechanics later if and when she’s ready, but it looks like she already has a great eye!

  • Sharon

    I am SO going to try this!

  • Karen

    So wonderful that she is smart and artistic. Brava Leta!

  • I believe Leta takes her good eye from you and her dad. As her pictures were really good for a 9 yo. My husband is 39 yo and no even with an iPhone can take a good picture.