A snappy photo primer for kids

So how do you go about facilitating a short and dynamic exercise in photography with kids five to twelve years old, in under 15’ and without any other resource than your own and only camera?


Basic photography in Cheran workshop. Photo:  Fernando Lara.
Basic photography workshop in Cheran. Photo: Fernando Lara.


This is what I was faced with, the night before trying it with over forty of them, at La Bufon S.O.S.ial Peace Camp in Cheran. It worked out fine and kids enjoyed it. What they wanted most was to take the picture themselves and, of course watch it immediately.


The ubiquity of cell phones with a camera makes them be eager to press on a button or hold a device. Yet this fact also makes them startle as they search for a screen to look for the scene that will be shooting. It’s fun to watch their faces realising they have to peek through a good-old-fashioned viewer, which is what my faithful Nikon D100 can do. Personally I’d rather be immersed in the composition as opposed to the TV effect I get with displays; a sort of fly-by-wire feeling that also makes me prone to distraction.


So this is what I used:

  • A black folder with white recycled paper sheets,
  • My own (short-sightedness) reading glasses,
  • A light wide-angle camera lens, with UV filter and hood, attached,
  • Nikon D100.


At the La Bufon’s Peace Camps, children constantly gather in circles. So I set up a circle with them seating on the floor, to keep the camera in a single place and have it quickly shared hand to hand among them. This also helped us handle groups of up to fifteen kids, while the other two groups could be steered into a parallel activity by the rest of the camp guides.


Since this was an introductory exercise I kept it simple. That was actually the hard part. My goal was to leave basic concepts such as light and its absence, what a lens does for a camera and what cameras do with light. I got exercise takeaways such as how to have them best handle a heavy camera and making them naturally grab the camera body with their hands, when receiving it from a peer in the circle. Speaking about adjusting exposure (too much light, too little) or describing the basics of composition would each have to wait for another time since I only had 15’.


But, I still needed an extra teaching aid. One that would take care of my only camera in this road trip with La Bufon. I could not think of a gentle but direct way to explain this to tremendously active kids jumping around trying to get their go at the camera. It was actually Sami – a sweet Argentinian woman guide in the team – that laid it down crystal clear to me: Why don’t you let them know how much this camera is special for you and entrust them to take care of it for you?  So, I did. Suddenly my camera got baptised under the name Lucy, for my ten year old daughter I love so dearly. The lens was Lucy’s arm. The camera, her body. So I told the children in a minute all about the adventures Lucy and myself had been through. They got it and actually appreciated it very much. Lucy was not just a camera anymore.


The exercise went very well. I spoke in under 3 minutes about light. Without touching on any definitions or subjects that would do away with their available attention span, I had them raise their hands if they had tripped at night while going to the bathroom in the dark of their rooms, because they did not see a chair or an object. Of course we all raised it. So that’s darkness, the absence of light, like a night without moonlight (I showed the black folder to them raising it and turned it to show a white page of paper to contrast); objects are there, yet we cannot see them. So light is what allows us to see them; it draws the objects for us. It is light bouncing on them that we actually see, and this is what a camera captures on film or digitally, through the lens.


Keeping it simple
Keeping it simple


This lead us to a camera being comprised of two parts having a body (that holds a registering element, like memory) and a lens.

A lens? Yes. It was the time for my shortsightedness glasses to enter the scene. I asked the children to try them on along the circle and comment whether they could see sharp with them or blurry. Most of them did blurry, few did sharp. So glasses are lenses and they are used to focus the light properly into the camera body so the picture being registered can be in focus (sharp) depending on how far or close the object was from the camera. They got it. I fitted the camera with a wide angle zoom lens, set to an equivalent of about 35 to 40mm (wider than a regular 50mm objective lens, without altering kids faces that kept near the lens at all times).


Día 3 incluye fotos de los niños por ellos mismos.
Using reading glasses to understand “focus”
Día 3 incluye fotos de los niños por ellos mismos.


What followed was to pass Lucy on. I demonstrated the process by aiding the first children to my side. Grab Lucy by her hand (put your hand around Lucy’s lens) and let your friend hold Lucy by its body. Hands will automatically be in the right position As I said so I noticed I had to accelerate the camera into their hands, exaggerating the movement to make them hold it suddenly without my releasing it until they had it. Their hands were in perfect position then. Remember Lucy is heavy! Let’s help Lucy not falling by placing the camera strap over your friends head as we hand Lucy to her or him, just in case.


With the hands grasping the camera body, their fingers could well reach the shutter button (right hand index) and the play button (left hand thumb). With the camera set to autofocus and matrix light metering, it was just a matter of showing the child how to depress the shutter button half way, allow the camera lens to rotate (focus) and simply take the photo of … his or her friend that had had the camera before in the circle. Then pressing “play” to watch it. Watching produced a sigh and a happy face in many, a pleasant experience of achievement that reinforced their learning. Kids photographed liked it as well and lean over to see themselves.

As the camera passed from child to child, I just followed it and accompanied the other children hand-off process, this time centred in pointing them out on shutter release and play buttons operation.


Keeping the exercise rhythm fast is important to avoid too much distractions watching the photo. The groups were about 15 children and it was quite manageable. No other camera was needed and attention span kept high, with the expectation to hold it, adding to it.

Día 3 incluye fotos de los niños por ellos mismos.

We completed the exercise and all got to make a photo. Some kids photographed their peers in a small group that formed spontaneously. These photos were very nice. Kids photographing kids produce relaxed, very natural looks on the latter.

Día 3 incluye fotos de los niños por ellos mismos.


I summed the concepts up (darkness, light, registering body, focusing lens, shutter- make photo, play to watch) to make sure they remembered what they had learned and thanked them for their Compassion (allowing others to speak and be heard, waiting for their turn at the camera), their Courage (in having wanted to try the exercise out and interact with other children publicly) and their Creativity (as in their own way of addressing and making a photo of their peer or peers behind).


As this exercise was done within a Children’s Peace Theatre framework, utilising and reinforcing the Three C’s as values (compassion, courage and creativity) was a given. It also showed me the importance of having short exercises in photography having a simple set of values – more than rules – than can serve as an accepted behaviour model for the group to function as one and that can be acted upon once understood. Dedicating a few minutes to these at the beginning of the exercise is worthwhile and can be used together with ice-breaker group integrating exercises in  photo-only, or any short workshop for the matter.



Creative Commons License
“A snappy photo primer for kids” by Juan Ayza M. text is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Photos shown are not being licensed and were made by the children attending the workshop.
Based on a work at http://wp.me/p3B5so-t5.
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at juan.ayza@gmail.com.


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