Photo by: Peter Farkas

October 14, 2013 / Fall 2013 / Photography / Picture This

EDFAT and the horrible, no good, very bad academic pictures

Written by Tiffany Kopcak

Tim has an assignment: cover Mrs. Black’s English class doing a reader’s theater.  Tim is not excited. He drags his feet, finding excuses not to go. After much nudging and a threat or two, he finally leaves the room, only to return 10 minutes later. He has taken seven photos: two are out-of-focus, four are shots of the entire class with nary a face in sight, and one is of his friend cheesing for the camera. He doesn’t understand why his pictures aren’t good.

Seem familiar?

Academic photography is a unique challenge. Unlike sports photography, which seeks to capture an awesome moment, classroom photography is about creating the awesome moment through composition. A budding photographer needs to learn to slow down and see. But how?


By close-cropping a detail shot, the photographer very nearly gets into the head of the students. Boring background scenery is eliminated, keeping attention where it belongs: on the students. Photo by Audrina Surman

EDFAT is a way of seeing first introduced by the late Frank Loy. It stands for Establishing, Details, Framing, Angles and Time and teaches students to slow down, giving them a checklist to go through for any coverage assignment. It works particularly well in the classroom environment.

Not only does EDFAT generate variety, it allows for the photographer to ease into a setting, gain confidence and blend into the background for more natural results.

Introducing EDFAT in the classroom

EDFAT is the third photography assignment I do with my first-year students. The first is a lab that takes students through camera settings and the exposure triangle. The second is a scavenger hunt for elements of composition. Then EDFAT.

EDFAT makes a great assignment that generates all sorts of spare photos for the yearbook, like for dividers or candids in the portrait pages. I ask teachers to volunteer to host a budding journalist, then send students out. They must be in the room for 20 minutes minimum. They then turn in 10 photos that demonstrate use of EDFAT (basically two for each category). (If you haven’t introduced developing photos using levels or curves in Photoshop yet, now’s a good time to do it.)

I find my first-year students are usually terrified to enter a classroom alone. To help them get over their fear and stop making assumptions about classes, EDFAT is now the second part of a two-part observation assignment:

  • On Day 1, students go into their assigned classrooms for 20 minutes with pen and paper to collect observations for an observation article that they write upon their return to class. They also scope out possible photo opportunities.
  • On Day 2, they return to the class with camera 
in hand to complete the photo portion of the 
assignment. Having already gotten used to the room and the kids used to them, and knowing more of what to expect, students are more relaxed and more likely to follow the assignment. Bonus: they’ve practiced writing!

Awesome Academic Photos

EDFAT should be used on every photo assignment to ensure you get a variety of image options. But options and awesome are not the same thing. Options give you choices. Awesome is the only possible choice! So how do you get awesome? Communication and planning. You should never assign a spread called “math class.”  Honestly, who wants to work that one?  So here’s how to get awesome classroom pics:

1. Start with your ladder. What kind of Academic coverage do you plan on doing this year, and what kinds of pictures will you need? If you have a boring plan, how do you expect to get interesting pictures?

At camp last year, 10 of the editors sat in a circle and played “Best and Worst” with all of the academic departments. For each round, a department was assigned. Every editor had to come up with one specific memory from a class in that department that was good, and one that was bad. In doing so, we were able to push through assumptions and identify what really goes on in the classroom. Some of my favorite spreads from the 2013 yearbook came from that session: No Joke Projects, Weird Labs (those not done in a science class), Salsa Dancing in Spanish Class, “Robobabies,” and Acting in Class.

2. Start communicating. Assign all spreads early so your 
reporters can have beats. Have an editor send out weekly emails to the different departments and ask, “Any labs, games, presentations, puzzles, role-playing, guest speakers, fun warm-ups planned this week?” And ask the question as part of your weekly yearbook staff meetings.

This establishing shot works because it has a center of visual interest, context, follows the rule of thirds, includes repetition, and most importantly, tells a story. Photo by Jeremy Hayward

3. Assign the EDFAT assignment repeatedly, but make the photographers schedule the second and third visits themselves; they’re much more likely to choose a time when something interesting is happening. They’re growing confident and familiar with the photo equipment, and selection of subject matter should show results.

4.  Know your equipment.

  • There is nothing wrong with a point-and-shoot camera for academic coverage. If I’m taking photos of a classroom, I will use a point-and-shoot camera nearly every time. While you aren’t likely to get a dominant photo, the quality has increased over the years. I like them for their consistent quality and discretion. It’s a lot easier to sneak a casual photo of someone, or get a neat angle, if you don’t have to put your face directly behind the camera.
  • Just say NO to on-camera flash, which creates a shadow outline around the subject and washes them out. If you’re using a DSLR, invest in a speedlight and bounce it off the classroom ceiling if necessary. Be sure to ask the teacher’s permission. The flash WILL distract people.
  • Understand ISO. Depending on your school and the class’s activities, the rooms can be dark. If you have to go above ISO 600, get a flash. Otherwise the photos will be too grainy to be functional.
  • If the classroom has windows, go to the window side of the room and shoot into the class, not into the windows.

Not everyone is going to take great classroom photos the first time they shoot using EDFAT. It’s a lot to think about — ISO, F-stops, shutter speeds, flash, EDFAT — in addition to paying attention to what’s going on in the room. The most important lesson you can teach is to just keep getting out there. To remember the framework. To play, to experiment. Don’t be shy. Don’t give up. And move — always, always move.

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Tiffany Kopcak

Tiffany Kopcak, M.Ed., is the photojournalism teacher and adviser of the Apollo yearbook at Colonial Forge High School in Stafford, Va. Her staffs have earned CSPA Gold Medals and been included in NSPA’s Best of the High School Press, in addition to state recognition and individual awards in photography and design. Kopcak also teaches at the Walsworth East summer workshop.