Beginning this month, VaHomeschoolers will regularly feature a favorite article from one of our past Voice magazines. From homeschool advice to curriculum reviews, field trip reports to creative ideas, Voice has something for every age and homeschooling style. This month, an article from our Sept/Oct 2011 issue will inspire you to go outside with your kids and your camera to capture the natural beauty of summer!
Give Nature Photography a Shot
Text & Photos by Amy Wilson, Woodbridge
I think it’s best to tell you right up front that I have absolutely no training or expertise in nature photography— none. I haven’t read a book about it, or studied handy tips on the Internet, or taken a class from a local nature center. I think these are all great ideas; I just haven’t done any of them. I don’t know why, but photography is one of those topics that tends to make my eyes glaze over (for the record, sports, the stock market, and partisan politics are some of the others). As soon as someone starts talking about f-stops, light meters, or depth of field, I find my gaze sliding right, left, or even to the ground— anywhere to give me something else to focus on (pun intended). This does not, by any stretch of the imagination, mean that I don’t enjoy photography. I love taking pictures, particularly of nature; I just don’t like to be “taught” about it.
I think my kids feel this way about any number of topics. For my daughter, it’s art, and for my son, it may well be math. They like to do these things, but they don’t want to be instructed in how to do them. I try to do my best to honor their feelings (it’s a lot easier with art than with math, as you might imagine). Being able to do so is one of the great advantages of homeschooling.
Sometimes enthusiasm and genuine interest can take us a lot further than teaching can. Enthusiasm keeps us working at something long enough to learn about it, even if that learning doesn’t follow the traditionally defined path for that subject. I’m writing his column about nature photography out of my passion for the subject, which I hope will serve to pique your interest to try it yourself and maybe even get your kids involved.
You might be someone who likes a methodical approach to a new topic. If, like me, you don’t want to be “taught” about photography, though you might like to try it, I encourage you to go right ahead. This column won’t teach you how to do nature photography. Instead, I hope it will show you why you might like to try it, and help you picture how it can fit into your homeschooling approach, no matter what age your kids are and no matter what homeschooling style your family uses.
Benefits of Nature Photography
Why is nature photography a topic of potential interest to homeschoolers? Even if you’re not a nature-y person like me, I think nature photography has some benefits in store for you and your kids. I think there is something special that happens when we put a camera between our viewing self and what we are viewing. The camera becomes a tool for seeing the world in a different way, and encourages us to notice things that we might not have noticed before. Trying to get an interesting shot pushes us to crouch down, look up, peer closely, and pay attention to things we would normally ignore. Photography gives us a way to view actively, to engage with our environment rather than simply passing through it.
Nature photography is a great way to combine left-brain and right-brain functions. It can encourage the analytical child to “let loose” a little bit and be creative, or it can give the right-brained child a comfortable bridge to some more left-brained activities. Thinking in terms of images, looking around to find “a good shot,” can disengage the analytical part of the brain a little bit, and bring the creative “right brain” into play. For those of us who are very analytical, this is an excellent brain exercise; if you or your kids are more “right brained,” this can be a welcome break from so many areas of learning that seem “biased” toward left-brained folk. Processing the images after you have captured them can be a left-brained sort of activity if you like (researching and identifying plants or animals you have photographed, writing about them, or creating a PowerPoint presentation to share them with others). Or it, too, can be a creative endeavor if you prefer to try scrapbooking (with paper or digitally), digital photo art, or painting or drawing images inspired by your photos.
Nature photography is also a great way to encourage the more reluctant child (or adult) to try out nature studies. Having a defined project to do outdoors may make the experience more enjoyable, and the distance that the camera can place between the viewer and the viewed may be more comfortable for the child who might prefer to stay far away from bugs or mushrooms. A digital camera and some photo-editing software may be enough enticement to get even the most dedicated computer geek away from the screen for a little while, and can provide something new to play around with when he or she sits back down at the screen again.
Finally, nature photography is a handy anchor for a variety of learning activities across the curriculum. You could delve into art by encouraging your child to choose a photo he or she has taken and create a drawing or painting. Expand on that by reading about John James Audubon and his work; Audubon worked from life, not from photos, but his goal was to create lifelike images—you and your kids could discuss whether photography is an improvement over paintings from life. You could touch on public policy and current events by watching a documentary about Ansel Adams; the National Park Service commissioned Adams to photograph America’s natural resource areas. Maybe this will spark a conversation about whether people are more likely to value and protect resources they know about and can see rather than those that are unknown, or whether it’s better to keep humans out of wilderness areas, leaving them pristine.
Dip into science by making a pinhole camera and trying it out. From the fanciest digital SLR to the simplest pinhole project, the modern camera and all of its forbears were developed from the principles of the camera obscura (Latin for “dark room”); try researching the history of the camera. The working parts of every camera have some analogs in the anatomy of the human eye: for example, our eyes have lenses that focus and our retinas are like “film” or “paper” on which images are projected. Learning about cameras is natural lead-in to learning about the human eye. If it’s time for your regular eye exam, consider it a field trip and take advantage of the opportunity for your kids to ask lots of questions of their eye doctor! Make a model of the human eye, dissect a cow’s eye ordered from a biological science supply company, or take apart an old discarded film camera to see the working parts inside. Learning about cameras and the human eye is also a natural link to experimenting with prisms, magnifying glasses and other lenses.
I said I wouldn’t teach you how to do nature photography with this column, but I do have three steps to get you started. Every good project has to have at least three easy steps. The first step is to get a camera. I can’t offer technical advice on what sort of camera is best for nature photography, but I can offer homeschooling-mom advice: whatever camera you already have (or can borrow) is the one to use. In fact, if you have an old, unused camera (film or digital), that may be the very best one, because you won’t worry quite as much about your kids dropping it in the drink when they’re trying to get that shot of a dragonfly on a reed in a pond. I did go out and get a new camera a few years ago. I chose a tiny little gadget, almost solely on the basis of its ability to fit in the back pocket of my jeans. For me, the most important thing was to get an affordable camera that I would actually take with me when I went places. I never mess with the settings; it’s always on “auto,” and it does a good job for me that way. What’s right for me may not be best for you, however. You might love all the options that you get with lots of lenses (heck, you might even be willing to read the manual that comes with your camera!), or you might have a strong allegiance to film rather than digital. Any camera that works for your family will be fine for doing nature photography.
I’m worried you might feel you’re not getting your money’s worth out of this column, but I will say this anyway: the second step is to start taking pictures. I’m really not trying to be facetious. Take the kids, take the camera, step out the door, have everyone take a good look around, and take some photos. It doesn’t matter what you take pictures of, especially not at first. Photograph what you love, what looks weird, what mystifies you, what is beautiful or disgusting. Take lots of pictures. Experiment with using the flash or turning it off; try getting up close to something small; take pictures at different times of day and in different kinds of light; try a landscape shot; if your camera has a zoom function, mess around with it. Don’t worry about being artsy or getting everything right; just take lots of pictures and see what you get. The experience of really looking at the outdoors and the freedom to try out your camera and get comfortable with it are the first goals. Your images don’t even need to be particularly good in order to get the benefits of nature photography.
Finally, don’t just leave those photos languishing in your camera. Download them to your computer or get them developed. Look them over, pick a few favorites, and share them. Encourage your kids to do something with them. They could start a nature photo album to document their outdoor adventures, or create a handwritten or digital nature journal or, perhaps with adult help, a blog. They could mail (or e-mail) them to Grandma with a note explaining what they saw this week. Send one to the local paper with a caption written by your child—it just might get published! Doing or creating something with the images will add significantly to the benefits that they get from nature photography.
I hope I’ve inspired you to try doing some nature photography with your kids. To accompany this column, I’ve got some suggestions to help you get started. So don’t wait—step outside and see what you find through the camera’s eye!
CREATIVE JUMP STARTERS
If the idea of “being creative” sounds intimidating to you or your kids, or if the directive to start taking photos is just too loosey-goosey, try some specific projects. You could design a project to fit in with your ongoing homeschool studies (for example, if your third-grader is studying photosynthesis, encourage him to photograph a variety of leaves and see if he can actually see the stomata; if your high-schooler is reading Shakespeare, have her find a list of flower-related quotes from the Bard and try to take photos to illustrate them), or you could try some of these ideas to get the creative juices flowing:
- Pick a category, such as caterpillars, leaves, flowers, tree bark, clouds, birds or rocks, and photograph a “collection.”
- Choose a specific area, such as a garden bed, a spot in the park, or even a particular shrub or log, and then take pictures of the entire space as well as close-ups of its features or the wildlife on or in it. Start with a wide view and get closer and closer.
- Try a treasure hunt. Create a list of natural items or features for your child to “find” with the camera. This activity could highlight signs of the changing seasons, or, with help from you and a nature guide, it could be a method of learning to identify plants in the park (for example, you could try to find five different plants to photograph and identify).
- Taxonomy can be fascinating—see if you and your kids can find and photograph examples of all five main vertebrate classes (fish, reptiles, amphibians, birds, and mammals), or see how many different kinds of arthropods you can find in the yard or outside the library. In the plant kingdom, try photographing angiosperms and gymnosperms and talk about the differences between them.
- Try your hand at time lapse photography. Choose a view outdoors and take a photo in the exact same position at the exact same time every day for a month. Try this when the seasons are changing for extra fun! Or you could try this indoors, by planting a bean seed in a pot on a windowsill; take photos several times a day for a couple of weeks. If you have a child who is good with computers, maybe he or she can make the photos into a video.
- Make your own nature guide to your yard. Photograph as many different plants and animals as you can, and use the resources at your disposal (the Internet, nature guide books, the library, volunteers at a nearby nature center, etc.) to identify them and learn about them. Put them together into an album (or just a notebook) and voilà, a custom nature guide! If you prefer, narrow the focus to one topic, such as insects or trees, for a more manageable project, or consider this an ongoing process of creation and continue adding to your guide.
- Get crafty! There are many Web sites that will allow you to upload your photos and create professional-quality greeting cards, calendars, and other products. I used Picaboo.com to create a calendar of my nature photos to give as Christmas gifts last year. Grandparents and other relatives will love a calendar of photos taken by you and your kids! If you’d like to impress dubious relatives and show them how well your children are learning, the kids can write up descriptions of the plants and animals pictured, based on their own research, to be included in the calendar. Many homeschooling families enjoy logging these days to share their activities with family and friends and other homeschoolers. If your family enjoys electronic communication, nature photos can be a great addition to a homeschooling blog, or a basis for a blog in their own right. The blog could become an online nature journal, in which you and your children document your hikes, seasonal sights in your neighborhood, and more.
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