"The camera is a powerful tool," says free-lance photographer Winifred Meiser, "an active instrument offering children a chance to develop self-confidence, visual awareness and communication skills."
Meiser is executive director of Through Children's Eyes, a Van Nuys-based nonprofit corporation that teaches photography to gifted and talented schoolchildren.
According to her, when a child operates a camera, he or she learns to make many kinds of decisions: selecting a photo site, posing the subject, composing the shot. Being in charge can enhance the child's sense of control and bolster self-esteem, she said.
Another benefit is improvement in visual awareness.
And, Meiser added, photography is a non-competitive activity in which the whole family can share. "A camera is a great meeting ground for people of diverse interests and ages," she said.
When you introduce children to photography, don't try to instantly turn them into experts. An unhurried approach can prevent intimidation.
With no film in the camera, and before even mentioning shutter speed, open the back and show how to manipulate the aperture ring.
"Then they can see what's happening," Meiser said. "It's just a box that does mechanical things."
You can use the example of how we squint when we go out in the sun and how we open our eyes wide in the dark. Then let them turn the aperture ring and look at the numbers.
When discussing ISO (formerly ASA) numbers, keep the explanation simple. Meiser uses the analogy of a 100-watt bulb providing more light than a 50-watt bulb: The higher the ISO, the greater light-attracting property the film has.
Children often need help eliminating undesired elements from their photo compositions when they frame the shot through the viewfinder. Meiser says: "I have them take a picture--and then I put my finger over the tiny person in the photo, and I ask them what else is in their picture. I ask them what they were thinking about when they took the shot."
A semiautomatic camera works well for most children because it lets them know when they've got the camera adjustments right. An entirely manual camera can be difficult and/or even disheartening for youngsters.
Color film is recommended for beginners because many find color more exciting than black and white. Besides, in most cases color film is cheaper to develop these days.
At first, it's best to work in natural light rather than dealing with the complications of flash (unless it's automatic in the camera).
The best subjects for beginning shutterbugs are in their own neighborhood, school and home. Urge your children to use the camera to view things from unusual angles--close-up, from above, through tree branches. Look for textures and patterns--in the walls of your house, in fences, in pavement.
Suggest they look at a particular spot--the side of a building, a plant, a statue--at different times of the day to observe what the changing light does. They can also write their observations.
After taking pictures spontaneously for a while, a child may wish to embark on a project requiring some planning. Some possibilities:
--Create a photo diary by toting a camera around for several days, taking pictures of family members. The child can try to catch everyone doing something characteristic or perhaps something out of the ordinary.
--Take a camera along on trips to record events and scenery.
--Take a series of photos and then make up a story to match; or try it the other way--write a story and then take pictures that would illustrate it.
--Compile a family tree accompanied by photos of relatives and perhaps brief written histories that result from interviews with aunts, uncles, grandparents and others.
--Start a photo-pen pal relationship.
--Draw or otherwise create backgrounds for stuffed animals or other toys and then take photographs of the scene.
--Search out and take photos of symmetrical images after studying the meaning of the word symmetry.
--Focus on the family pet. Dogs, cats, birds, hamsters and other animals make good subjects.
--Try tricks with light, such as taking shots of shadows or silhouettes, or fool around with double exposures.
--Make or buy a photo calendar. Click! Inc. publishes a Family Photo Calendar and an Adventures With Mr. Bonehat Photo Calendar that have a space to slip in a photo each month. The calendars costs about $10 each with postage and handling. The address of Click! Inc. is 1313 5th St. S.E., Minneapolis, Minn. 55414.
--Make a book of changes--a record of how houses, businesses, nature and people change with time. Include before-and-after shots of a neighborhood mini-mall being built, the neighbor's baby at various stages of growth, a garden just planted and later blooming.
When it's time to develop, choose a lab that lets you reject the pictures you don't want. Some companies even allow you to return pictures up to a week later (as long as you keep the receipt) and will redo photos on request.
To give your child a sense of pride and achievement, make enlargements of the best photos and hang them in a prominent place in the home.
A number of helpful books are available, including the simple introductory "Taking Pictures" (Avon Camelot) by Nina Leen and the more advanced "Trick Photography: Crazy Things You Can Do With Cameras" by Robert Fischer (Evans Publishing). Explore your local library's adult and child sections for more ideas.
Read community calendar listings for photographic events and take your child to exhibits, museums and photography centers. This may motivate the youngster to experiment.
Many young shutterbugs find that photography teaches them to use their eyes in a new way. When a boy in one of Meiser's classes was asked why he liked a picture taken through a bicycle rack, he responded: "Because even though it's only a bicycle rack, if you look at it from this angle, it's really like, art."