3 Lesson Plans for High School Photography Classes

Have you ever tried teaching a teenager science, math or technology? If you have, you know it can be a lesson in frustration. Let’s face it. Science, math and even technology are pretty dry subjects, and it’s hard to find ways for students to learn about them, without having to read thick textbooks, memorize equations and perform the same experiments over and over again. Right now we spend so much time teaching the science of exposure, focus and, yes, even composition, we forget the reason we picked up photography in the first place was to create art.

Being a huge proponent of the “Learn by Doing” school of thought, I’ve come up with three captivating lessons you can use to teach a teenager, or even a whole classroom of teenagers, the ART of photography. And if a bit of science comes along for the ride, it won’t be any worse than the vegetables you sneak into their lasagna.

Selfies – if you can’t beat ‘em, teach ‘em!

Some studies have estimated that a third of the photographs young adults, ages 18 to 24 take is of themselves. It seems like a huge number, but I believe it. I’ve watched hundreds of teenagers get off their school buses at the incredible Tunnel View in Yosemite Valley, only to take a quick shot of themselves and hop right back on their bus. I’ve seen the same effect take place across the Country, from the Lincoln Memorial to the Golden Gate Bridge.

It would be easy to write off all teenagers as a generation of selfish narcissists, but I know that isn’t the case. I believe teenagers take and share pictures of themselves because they’ve been empowered to do so. That’s why smart phones have two lenses, one on the front and one on the back. And it’s one of the big reasons why social networking sites like Facebook even exist. So, until the next big thing comes along, or enough “old people” pick up the fad, selfies are here to stay.

But, love them or hate them, because selfies are so popular they can be a wonderful teaching opportunity. Because at the heart of each poorly lit, poorly composed and haphazardly focused selfie, lays the heart of a wonderful portrait.

Before we begin, it’s important to remember that many of us have issues about the way we look. This is especially true for a lot of teenagers. It’s possible the reason so many teenagers post “ugly” selfies, with scrunched up faces, stuck out tongues and other odd contortions is so they won’t be judged by how they “really” look. I can relate. It wasn’t until I learned about lighting, posing, cropping and retouching that I was comfortable enough to post my own Facebook photos. So be aware and try to be sensitive to the feelings of your students. I don’t think it’s necessary for every student to produce an actual selfie. Shooting a portrait of another student, a family member, friend or even the teacher should also be allowed.

Image via Pixoto
Image via Pixoto

Lesson #1: Taking a Great Selfie

The first part of any lesson is what I like to call “The Backstory”. Pick one of your favorite portrait photographers to share with the class. Mine would be Gregory Heisler, but you might prefer Diane Arbus, Eve Arnold, Edouard Boubat, Dorothea Lange or maybe Annie Leibovitz. It really doesn’t matter who you chose, as long as their photographs offer interesting lighting, great emotion and hopefully some creative compositions. Compare the works of your favorite artist to some random selfies. But make sure the selfies aren’t from the class and that they’re anonymous. The point is to contrast and compare the work of portrait artists to the quick and dirty selfies, showing how light, contrast, backgrounds and emotion can make one image memorable, while the other is simply forgettable.

The object of your “Backstory” is to instill the desire among your students to create their own innovative and memorable self-portraits. So make sure to ask your students what it is in each of the professional photos that makes them unique and powerful. On the opposite side of the coin, be sure to ask them what it is about the selfies they find lacking.

It would be extremely difficult to teach every concept of photography in every lesson. And I doubt if most teenagers, or adults for that matter, can retain all of that information all at one time. So, for this lesson, let’s concentrate on backgrounds, the direction of the lighting and posing.

Using some of the sample photographs from your favorite portrait artist, have your students take a look and describe the backgrounds they see in each shot. Ask them these questions as they inspect the images. Are the backgrounds sharp and in focus, or soft and blurry? Are the backgrounds darker than the subject, lighter or a combination that is both darker and lighter in certain areas? Do the backgrounds take away from the subject? In other words, are their eyes drawn to the background instead of the subject? Is there a lot of the background showing, or does the subject take up the majority of the photograph? The object is to get them thinking about every part of the photograph, from corner to corner, and not just the portrait itself.

As you already know, because it’s such a huge subject, you can talk light until the cows come home – which is when the light is gone, by the way – so we’re going to narrow our discussion to just the “direction” of light and the difference between harsh light and a softer light. And you can easily demonstrate both with a simple hand-held spotlight and an inexpensive diffuser. Pick a volunteer and have them sit on a stool in the middle of the class. Have the class join you as you walk around the volunteer, keeping the light aimed at the student, but raising and lowering the light as you go. Take another rotation with your diffuser in front of the light. You can break the class into smaller groups if you need to as the demo goes very quickly.

Have the students point out both the location and the strength of the shadows as you circle the student and compare how the light “feels” from one location to another and with and without the diffuser. It’s important to convey that there is no “Right” answer with lighting a portrait. Light is simply a tool the photographer uses to convey a feeling or emotion. You might ask your students which kind of light looked the most “dramatic”, and which kind of light seemed the most “flattering”.

Our faces tell our stories, but that doesn’t mean all of our chapters are flawless. Our skin can be blemished, our noses crooked and our chins doubled, and the selfie/portrait photographer has the choice of highlighting each of these features, or downplaying them. And while lighting can play a part in this, posing is easier to control and much more effective. A great resource for portrait posing is 8 Posing Guides to Inspire Your Portraiture

And now to the assignment, and it’s a simple one. Simply ask your students to come back to class with two portraits, either of themselves or someone else on a flash drive. The two portraits must have different backgrounds, different lighting and unique poses, and the students must be ready to explain the choices they made and why they made them.

Mood Swings.

I can’t stress this enough. Photographs that convey a mood are going to be more memorable than those that don’t. It seems like a simple concept, but even though I think about it almost every day, and I try my hardest to make it happen, not every photograph I produce conveys a mood. I guess it’s just not that easy. But that’s all the more reason to help teens start to look for the expressions, the objects and the kinds of light that help convey a mood.

Photo by Kevin Reilly
Photo by Kevin Reilly

Lesson #2: Adding “Mood” to Make a Memorable Photograph

Once again, you’ll need some sample images to fill in your “Backstory”, but this time I wouldn’t use the works from a single photographer. Instead, look to your own collection of photos, or browse through Flickr or 500px to find photographs that convey a “mood.” Don’t just look for the dark, sad photos. Moody photos can be happy as well. What exactly are you looking for? Photos that convey a mood often leave a lot to the imagination. The “missing” information in a shallow depth of field photograph is a good example. So are the soft streaks of color in a long exposure. An over-exposed photograph can convey a feeling that’s completely the opposite of a dark and gloomy one.

There are certain objects that instantly convey a mood; a solitary bench, a puppy, barred windows, a fast car, a dirt road, a single tree…the list goes on and on. Some of the most common “mood” photographs are of sunsets, sunrises and well, just about anything that is shot in the magic hours that around those sunsets and sunrises. Of course, a photograph of a golden retriever riding in a wagon in the middle of a hot, summer afternoon is going to have a mood all of its own too.

Have your students number a sheet of paper, with the numbers corresponding to the photos you’re going to display. After you display your first photograph, tell your class to write down the first emotion, feeling or mood they feel when they see it on the line numbered 1. Continue down the list, but go faster and faster as you progress through the slideshow.

At the end of the show, ask your students as a class what they wrote down for each photograph. The answers should be the same or similar for every photo. If not, take a moment to discuss the various answers and see if the photograph either failed to convey a mood, or perhaps conveyed a number of moods.

Photo by Kevin Reilly
Photo by Kevin Reilly

This is also a great opportunity to introduce some of that nasty-tasting photography science into your discussion. Your students might “feel” the mood in a shallow depth of field photograph, but they are probably unfamiliar with the concept behind its creation. You can be the “Magician behind the Curtain” as you explain how the photograph was made. This goes for those great long-exposure shots as well.

Your students will have a great time with the assignment that goes along with this lesson. Have them create two photographs that display a mood. The first photograph will be of an object that conveys a mood by itself. The second will convey mood through the type of light used to shoot the photograph. And finally, for extra credit, students can create a photographic mood through a technique, such as shallow depth of field or slow exposure.

Art or Science? Can you tell the Difference?

We started this article off with the idea that, for many of us, art is far easier to teach than science. But there is no getting around the fact that a lot of photography is made up of math and geometry and even physics. And if you’re a fan of night photography, you can toss in a little astronomy as well. So, is photography a science after all? Some people think so. They say if a device, such as a camera, comes between you and the finished product, it isn’t really “you” who is producing the art. It’s the camera that’s doing the heavy lifting. I couldn’t disagree more.

For me, I follow the other path which simply says “Art is created by Intent”. If I can preconceive an image in my mind, and then produce that image, or at least a very close resemblance of it, then I feel my work is just as much art as a painting or a sculpture or anything else that only identified as art.

So, if you go along with my concept that “Art is created by Intent”, you’re probably already guessing what my next assignment will include.

Lesson #3: Part 1 – Art or Science

This lesson will go pretty fast. List all of the terms you can think of that involve photography on your chalkboard. Just jot down words like “Composition” and “f/stop” and ‘Focus”. You can go to this list, A Glossary of Digital Photography Terms, if you find yourself running short. Go through the list with your students and see if they can identify which word applies to the science of photography and which applies to the art of photography.

We’re all hit over the head with the technology behind photography. Words like Megapixels and Focus Points roll off our tongues so often any newcomer to photography would be forgiven if he thought the whole endeavor was strictly an exercise in gathering the best technology. But it isn’t. Photography is an art and I’d like to see more students using words that conveyed that fact. And the more we talk about composition and emotion and mood, the more people will realize that fact.

Photo by Kevin Reilly
Photo by Kevin Reilly

Lesson #3: Part 2 — Building a Photograph with Intent

Anybody who has ever had an English class, and I assume that’s just about everybody, knows how to diagram a sentence to identify its parts. Or, if you’re like me, you at least remember the concept even if the details are fuzzy. It’s been a long time since the 7th grade. The object of this lesson is to identify the various “parts” of a photograph and then use those parts to “build” a new one. The trick is this; the parts your students identify will be from an image that is already produced, sitting right in front of them. The image they are going to “build” will come straight from their imagination.

To prepare, print a total of four images on the front and back of a piece of paper. Black and white images are fine for this lesson. Now have the students identify all of the parts of each photograph. The parts will include: the subject, the background, the type of light, the mood, and the technique. This isn’t a test, so it’s fine to help students identify all of the parts. They may need some help with the technique if you haven’t covered that in your previous lessons.

Now the fun part. Instruct your students to create four images using the same parts as they identified in the printed photographs. In other words, if the first image contained 1) an object, 2) in low light 3) conveying a happy mood and 4) shot with shallow depth of field, that’s the shot your students would be tasked with producing. When they’re finished, your teen photographers will know how to “produce” a photograph in their head before they go outside with a camera. And with that “intent” they’ll become artists before they know it.

I hope you find these ideas useful in your classroom, for your homeschooled teens or just as fun exercises for you and your family.

Photo by Kevin Reilly
Photo by Kevin Reilly

8 Posing Guides to Inspire Your Portraiture
Web site
Digital Photography School

A Glossary of Digital Photography Terms
Web Site
B&H Photo

72 Beautiful Photographs to Express the Moods of Human Life
Web Site
Creative Design Magazine

Poll: Selfies Now Make Up 30% of All Photos Taken by Young People
Web Site
Relevant magazine

20 thoughts on “3 Lesson Plans for High School Photography Classes”

  1. Thank you! This is very helpful and not the usual stuffy basic photo assignments. it is quite refreshing!

  2. Thank you so much for this. Truly interesting and informative, and intelligently presented. I am going to use it for my homeschoolers AND my high school photography class. I’m very grateful! I hope you will post more lesson plans!

  3. I am a retired high school Art and Photography teacher. When I retired, it was just when film and darkrooms were
    being removed from high schools. I set up a plan for the person who took my job to buy and research equipment
    needed for a digital photography class. She basically ignored what I suggested. She did not require digital cameras
    or propose a color printer for the class. The only cameras the students used were their phones!! They sent their images to Walgreens to print, with the largest photo being 4×6. This class lasted perhaps 3 years. She was laid-off and released last year!!

    The photography class is on the “books” for 2016-17 school year. The school district will not supply digital cameras for the students! My fear is who ever might teach the class, they would repeat the same mistakes the other teacher made.

    My “dream” would be to go to major photography stores and “beg” for cameras for the students to use. As well as color printers and/or computers with photoshop software at a minimum. I have written grants for equipment and supplies for my
    classes while I was a full-time teacher when money was tight.

    I realize this might be an impossible dream, but I very seldom give up on “dreams”! I have some connections to photo stores in the Twin Cities as well as a major technology engineer with Apple Computers. If I’m given the go ahead from my school district to start this class the way it should be set-up, I would be eternally great full for any suggestions you might have for

    Thank you very much for your time ,
    Bill Norton
    Menomonie, Wi.

    1. How cool ou seem like a really neat person!! I’m finishing my last year of school. I truly love the arts!! I love photography and art so much!! Although I’m fifty years old ,I’m young and the youth love me and I love them!!Anyways your words were inspiring to me!!

      Have a great day, Donna Ebarb

    2. William, there is money for gear in CTE – Career and Technical Education. I’m a photographer who just started teaching a photography class via CTE certification, which allows pros with industry experience to get into classrooms. Certification requires completion of about 10 classes, but you can start teaching with a conditional or probationary cert as long as you are progressing towards completion. I started a brand new photo class with a budget of $4500.

  4. Great lessons, and I plan to share with my students. I also admire Gregory Heisler, do you perhaps have a powerpoint presentation of his work that you showed your students for the selfie assignment, and could you share here or send to me?

  5. Thank you! I’m a new photography teacher and this is the best and most inspiring set of instructions I’ve come across. My students will love it.

  6. Thank you so much for this article. I am in the midst of my first photography class with teens. I thought it would be simple and fun and very easy and I was a bit shocked to realize how hard it can be to get good interaction from 12-15 year olds! Thank you for the tips and the activity ideas. You’ve made my night of prep work a bit less stressful by giving me some really great ideas for tomorrow morning! Thanks again.

  7. Your information was right on point. I am new to teaching and have started to put together my lesson plan for the fall school year. I have instructed students in a club atmosphere for the past 3 years and find that letting them become comfortable with what they are sharing is just as important as what they are learning. These project ideas are awesome and will do just that. Thank you for sharing your insight and knowledge with us. That is very nice of you and greatly appreciated.

  8. Thank you for this. As the new school year begins, I am inspired by your “learn by doing” approach. You have outlined some great project ideas to get me started. I am sure my students will be grateful! Thank you for sharing your expertise.

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