Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Teacher Creativity Skill: Shoot and Edit Photos

The Way it Was

Remember when getting good photos as an amateur was difficult? You'd buy a camera, load the film, shoot the pictures (probably over the course of weeks or months), then take the film to be developed, wait a few days (or more), then return to pick them up, hoping that a few of them turned out. Some did, some didn't. Very few of us took pictures often enough to get better at the process, and the delayed feedback of weeks to months often meant that we couldn't even remember what we were trying to capture in the first place. I was once told that the difference between an amateur and professional photographer was about 300 pictures, suggesting that professional photographers got their great results by simply trying the same shot lots of different ways. I, like most, couldn't afford to be professional.

The Way it Is

Thanks to the ubiquity of good quality digital cameras (most of our phones qualify these days), the line between amateur and professional photographer is blurring. Now I can shoot the same photo over and over with slight variations at no cost to me. Not only that, but I can now control the post-production of the photo with countless editing tools that allow me to tweak or dramatically change a photo so that it looks exactly the way I want. Just look at the popularity of Instagram, and you'll see my point.

What does this mean to me as an educator? Tons! First off, I don't need to spend hours trying to find the right photo to enhance my projects through a Google Image search. This was never a good practice to begin with. While I might find a photo that I like, chances are that I don't have permission to use that image. Also, that image was likely created to serve a purpose different from my own, leaving me with images that are too large (and eat up too much memory) or too small (and pixelate when I try to make them bigger). Now I can shoot and edit my own image, leaving me with an image that fits my purpose exactly and that is legal for me to use.

To be fair, there are still times when an image search will be a more efficient use of my time, but thanks to the generosity of other amateur photographers, I can at least now search for images with Creative Commons licensing via websites like

Another reason that I should learn more about shooting and editing photos is that I always have the tools I need to document the learning that is going on in my classroom on the fly. I can shoot a picture, edit it, and share it in dozens of ways in seconds. I can post new pictures to my class blog daily with little effort, and I can enhance my teaching portfolio over time with compelling evidence of success.

Also, with a little more effort, I can edit photos so that they include text, arrows, and highlighted elements to be used to demonstrate concepts. I can even make my photos interactive using ThingLink, so that they become rich learning objects.

Most importantly, I can teach my students to do the same, so that they are never limited by the photos they can search for on the Internet. I can expect that my students are using images to demonstrate understanding, to enhance communication, and to express their own world views.

What Do I Need to Know

To do all of this well, of course, I need to know a few things about photography to help me on my way. Here are a few simple rules to keep in mind when shooting photos (some of this comes directly from another post of mine):

1. Remember the Rule of Thirds

Photographers refer to the "rule of thirds" to describe the points in an image that are the most vital and where one should place the action or subject of the shot. Imagine the grid to the right superimposed over an image. The red intersections of the lines are the points at which the important parts of the image should reside. You can see this in action when you look at professional photos in a magazine or when you watch television or movies.

Here is an example:

2. Think About Light

This is an easy mistake to make, but also an easy problem to avoid. Where the light sources are coming from will affect the quality of the shot. The most important thing for amateurs to avoid is backlighting a shot. A backlit shot is one in which the primary light in the shot is behind the subject of the shot. This creates a situation in which the subject is in shadow and cannot be seen clearly. The way to avoid this is to make sure that you have more light on the subject from behind the camera, and to avoid shooting directly toward a powerful light source like a window, the sun, or a bank of bright lights. If you need to shoot into a light source, one option is to use your flash even in the daytime to make sure your subject isn't in shadow. To be fair, back lighting can be used to create positive effects as well. Here is a photo I took this year:

You can also choose not to use a flash in dark spaces or at night so that you don't nullify the effects of lights that would be drowned out by the flash. Just make sure that you hold the camera very still and that your subject holds very still. Here is an example that a friend of mine took:

3. Think About the Background/Foreground

It's easy to get so focused on the subject of the picture, that you forget about what is going on in the background and foreground. This is important to consider. In a photo, if there is action in the background, it can distract the audience from what is happening in the foreground. Also, a better shot can often be created by just taking the time to think about what the "whole picture" includes. Are there items in the shot that could be avoided or removed? Is there a better background nearby that could enhance the shot. Think about what appears (or doesn't appear) in the background of a political ad.

Or think about the photo creepers that appear in the background of your vacation photos. It's better to think ahead to create a great shot, than to try to fix the distraction in editing later.

I have a great photo of my daughter playing in the ocean, but in the background behind her is another person whom I don't know and whom I wish wasn't there. I can Photoshop that person out, but it would have been better to have been conscious of the other person from the beginning.

4. Hold Still!

Nothing ruins a photo  faster than unnecessary camera movement. The best thing to do when you want to have a really professional result is to use a tripod or monopod to stabilize the camera. Even when taking "on the fly" shots, you want to stabilize your shot by using a stationary object to lean against or by using your body to hold the camera as still as possible.

5. Get the Shot You Want

There is a reason you see directors calling "cut" and then having the clicker slam down for a "Take 2." The first shot wasn't what the director wanted. By shooting until you get a perfect photo, you end up with the product you want. Remember the difference between an amateur photographer and a professional photographer is about 300 photos. I recommend that you start with an idea of what you want, take the time to get everything set up correctly, and then shoot the photo over again until you have what you imagined in the first place or something even better.

In addition to taking the time to direct your shot, make sure that you choose your focus. Many digital cameras will auto focus, but that often means that you are leaving it up to the camera to decide what the subject of the photo is. Learn how to reset your focus. With cameras, it often only requires a half-click of the shutter button. With smart phone cameras, you can often just tap the area you want in focus before you shoot the image:

6. If You Don't Get the Shot You Want, Fix it in an Editor

Most cameras today come with simple editing software that will enable you to make a world of difference with your photos. From cropping the photo, to adjusting the light, to adding filters for a special effect, most editors are versatile enough to make an average photo look great. There are also a plethora of great web 2.0 photo editors that are free and easy to learn. If you get good at those, consider purchasing a high-end photo editing package like Adobe Photoshop. You may find a new avocation to be passionate about.

7. Be Courageous and Experimental

I'm convinced that one of the things that keeps us from taking great photos is a self-conscious concern that we will do it wrong. Now that shooting photos is cheap and easy, there really is no cost that should be holding us back from trying to get a great photo. If we try and fail, it's no big deal. We can try another day. At least if we experiment, we will learn lessons that will inform our attempts in the future. If you find yourself hesitating to learn how to shoot and edit photos, begin by setting yourself a daily photo challenge. Over time, you won't think twice about doing something crazy like my very talented photographer friend, Leslie Fisher, shown here risking a very expensive camera to try to get the photo below:

8. Change Your Perspective

Along with that, take the time to switch up your perspective. There are lots of ways to do this. For example, shoot from a lower perspective or from up high. Shoot from up close or from farther away. Shoot in landscape, in portrait, or at an angle. Yes, many of these effects can be reproduced in editing, but some cannot be. You can't zoom out once you've shot something zoomed in, for example. There are many reasons to change your perspective. On a basic level, getting on the same eye-level of a subject can often make a picture feel more personal (so parents, crouch down to take that shot of your toddler!).

At the same time, by changing your perspective, you are less likely to get the shot that everyone else gets. Sometimes, it's as simple as turning around or looking at your subject from a non-traditional angle. Your picture will stand out because you took the time to look for a new point of view.

9. Learn What You Need as You Need It

A lot of folks shy away from things like photography because they believe that the amount of learning needed to be good at a craft is just too monumental to tackle. It's true that really amazing photographers know a whole lot that you don't know about photography, but they also know a whole lot that you don't need to know in order to take the pictures you want. Thanks to the Internet, a simple YouTube search for tutorials will typically provide ample instruction for any learner wanting to, say, place a person's head on another person's body. Until you need to do that, just know that you can learn it when you need it. That said, here are few resources to get you started:

Learn Photography: A Comprehensive Beginner’s Guide
Cambridge in Colour Photo Editing Tutorials
Digital Photography School
ePhotozine Techniques Page
Geoff Lawrence Photography Tips and Tutorials
PhotoShop Basic Tutorials
62 Photo Editing Tutorials
Web Tools for Teachers: Photo Editing

10. Think of Yourself as a Photographer

Basically, I mean develop the habits of mind that photographers have. For one thing, they always have a camera with them so they can capture the magic when it happens. Second, they actively look at the world for opportunities to capture the sights and stories that reflect a moment, a mood, or a subject. They are engaged with their environment so that they can take advantage of visual opportunities that may not happen again. Third, they take lots of photos everyday, and fourth, they think about the photos that they take. They learn how to repeat what they like and avoid what they don't like. They also learn to apply techniques they learn to new situations.  Fifth, they know that photos are never finished. They can be edited and re-edited to serve new purposes and tell new stories. Finally, photographers challenge themselves to grow in their creativity and skill. They know there will always be something new that they can learn to make the next photo better.

Your Task

So here's the point. There is no reason in the world why you and your students shouldn't be taking and editing photos as part of your day to day work. Students will need these skills in order to be effective communicators in life, and giving them the opportunity to express themselves through images ought to be just as natural as giving them the opportunity to express themselves in writing. The same is true for teachers. The ability to be comfortable working with images will only empower us to raise the quality of our own work to new levels. I hope you will give this a shot, and feel free to share the results with me!

photo credit: unleashingmephotography via photopin cc

photo credit: jgarber via photopin cc

photo credit: borman818 via photopin cc

photo credit: Yuxuan.fishy.Wang via photopin cc


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  3. Impressive article, I like it. Besides, I'm using photo editing software, and forget about the Photoshop when edit new photos for my blog. Try to and I'm sure you'll like it, but its only for MAC.

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