Better photos by better yearbook photographers

Written by Lisa Birkley

As with most aspects of a middle school student’s world, communication must be immediate and visual. Their world moves fast, and the printed word slows them down.

After 22 years in yearbooking, I decided it was time to let go of copy just a bit to open up more room for pictures. I still insist on meaty captions, but our audience wants more pictures and less writing.  So, if my students were going to use more pictures, then they needed to learn to take good ones!

My photography unit starts in September and takes about a month. I use our three Canon EOS Rebels that have performed well for about five years now despite the beating they take.

First, I focus on what makes a camera work, going over all the parts, buttons and settings. Since this is middle school, I recommend they stay with the auto focus. Every once in a while I have a student who has some experience and talent for more; however, I deal with that on student-by-student basis. I also encourage students to use their own cameras if they have one to offset the amount of camera-sharing we do.

We cover the basics of photography, from the rule of thirds to how to get a picture that tells a story. I stress that all our pictures are candid shots. I tell my students to just take the posed shot to satisfy the kids who insist on it, but then hang around for what happens. That is the shot we really want.

We spend a day talking about light. The difference between a great shot and an average shot is usually the lighting. We take bad shots on purpose just to see what it looks like. We also talk about being still and how to make their body into a tripod by standing very still with both hands on the camera and arms pulled in close to their body.

I have the students attend all the events we need to cover and tell them to take as many pictures as they can. For example, our school has a Kick-Off Party at the beginning of the year. About all of our 600 students attend, decked out in our school colors. Staff members switch off using our three cameras. We get a great deal of pictures.

I show the students how to load the pictures onto the computers. Then we have a showing, projecting on a Smart board. The students tell me what is right and wrong with the pictures. We delete the bad ones and save the good ones.

Then we take our big trip to the Cincinnati Zoo. Each group of three or four students gets a camera and a scavenger hunt worksheet with 20 different types of pictures to take. Once home, each group downloads their pictures, selects their top 10 and creates a mock yearbook spread.

I make sure students keep learning throughout the year as opportunities come up. I am always amazed how quickly the students pick up the basics of photography and keep growing throughout the year.

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Lisa Birkley

Lisa Birkley advised 14 high school yearbooks before becoming the journalism teacher and yearbook adviser at Highlands Middle School in Fort Thomas, Ky., because “I wanted to go back to those crazy, confused and chaotic children with whom I started my teaching career.” She was the first high school teacher to receive the Distinguished Teaching in Journalism Award from the Society of Professional Journalists in 2005.