Practice, critique, repeat

Written by Jim McCrossen

Help your student photographers improve with plenty of practice and informal and formal critiques

When it comes to photographers, it can be hard to know how to help them grow and how to keep them motivated. There is no panacea. Trust me, if there were, I’d have bottled it and sold it for some serious money. There are, however, several options available to an adviser who wants to start the year strong and keep the momentum going.

A Strong Start

Practice makes perfect, so the saying goes. So, let’s send the photographers out at the beginning of the school year – or even better, over the summer – to begin their practice toward perfection.

Send a group of photographers on an assignment such as a fundraising car wash. There’s lots of activity, tons of people plus water, suds, cars and smiles. It’s a regular smorgasbord of photo opportunities. Tell the photographers the time and place of the event and let the fun begin.

Tell the students the top photographs will be published, or one of the photos may be blown up and framed around the classroom, or maybe the photos could be framed and posted in the front office for all visitors to the school to see. You can figure out some prize that doesn’t cost much, if anything. Create a contest to get the best photos possible from the photogs. Get them together and let them choose the best photo or photos.

This also works on the first day of school. Every photographer must have his camera ready to take photos of freshmen on their first day. Find the kids who are frustrated because they can’t get their locker open or those lost in the hallways.

Get photos of the cheerleaders at their first pep assembly and the student government kids who are directing traffic and trying to help the freshmen find their classes. Again, make it into a contest for the best photo from the morning. Post the best photos online or ask the principal to include a photo or two in the school’s newsletter.

This type of everyone-is-shooting-the-same assignment puts pressure on the photographers to find unique angles or try something different with lighting or motion. The idea is to do something better than everyone else who taking pictures at the same event.

The more photographers are taking photos of the same thing, the more each photog must work to come back with something different. It also forces the photographer to really pay attention to the background to avoid having another photographer in the photo.

When the photographers get together to critique their work, they can’t find excuses for not having anything to photograph; they all had the same assignment. Someone’s going to have some good images. Again, have the photographers talk about their work. You can make more mental notes about who is going to need additional help getting a strong start and who has what it takes already.

Be Sure They’ve Got It

There is no better way to learn something than by teaching it. Have each photographer become an expert in some aspect of photography, such as how the focal length of a lens affects depth of field or how shutter speed affects motion.

Letting them teach the other photographers that particular item is a great way to spend some class time at the beginning of the year. This also gets the photographers working together as a team and creates unity within the group.

Have each student submit a few questions for a quiz after everyone finishes their lessons. If you don’t like testing the students formally, create a Kahoot with the questions they submitted or create some other fun way to test their knowledge.

Keep Them Going

Most parents can tell you that their own children ignore all their sagacious advice and then along comes a teacher who gives the student the exact same advice, but now it means something. It’s the same for a critique. We may tell the students that their highlights are blown out in the photo and they need to work on composition, but that feedback can fall on deaf ears until someone else says the same thing.

This is why critiques can be so valuable. It is an opportunity for students to receive feedback from someone other than their own adviser. Anytime a fresh set of eyes sees a photo, there is potential for something new being offered to the photographer, as well as reinforcing what the adviser has already said.

We do Foto Fridays each week paired with Food Fridays (it’s yearbook – we eat). This is a less formal critique of photographers’ work, but it gives the photographers feedback from their peers.

Each photographer must provide three to five photos of their choosing from that week, and I put them, without names attached, into a slideshow. I use the Preview application on the Mac because it’s fast and easy. I then project the photos, putting each photo up on the screen for 30 to 60 seconds or so and ask for feedback. I then give my two cents’ worth if a student hasn’t already mentioned what I would say. The students ooh and ahh over some photos, but they aren’t too shy about pointing out a compositional error or too much movement in the photo so it looks soft – or whatever it is they see.

This is one of my favorite activities to do with the photographers because they get feedback from their peers. They quickly see what makes a photograph good enough that it is getting fawned over and which photos cause the staff to want to go get another handful of chips from the other room. Because the work is anonymous, everyone is more free to comment, including the photographers who often will offer harsher criticism of their own work than anyone else in the class.

Where an informal critique offers verbal feedback and a formal critique usually has some kind of rubric and written comments, contests often do not. The student wins or the student loses, often with little to no indication as to why. When a student wins a contest for one of their photos, it can really boost confidence, but when he or she loses, it can suck any confidence right out of him/her if the adviser has not prepped the student properly.

Advisers must help students understand that a judge sees an entry with a preconceived bias. A judge knows what she likes and wants to see in an entry for a specific category. The student may have an amazing photo, but the judge wanted to see something different from a winning entry in that category. This can be hard for an adult to understand, let alone a 16-year-old. Cheer wins and console losses, but be sure to celebrate all who enter. It takes courage to put work out there for others to judge.

Use whatever feedback is available from the critique or contest to help photographers see what is strong in their work and what needs to be strengthened to encourage the artist to continue to work hard.

Most local and state scholastic press associations have contests and critiques – some monthly, some annually. The Journalism Education Association (JEA.org) has Write-Offs during national conventions that allows students to compete head-to-head with other photographers at the national level. The winning entries receive ratings and all entries receive a critique.

The National Scholastic Press Association (studentpress.org/NSPA) offers the Photo of the Year competition with various categories that again gives photographers a chance to compete at the national level and the winning entries are ranked.

Check with your local, state and national associations for all the contests and critiques they offer.

With just a minimum amount of work, there can be a huge payout with keeping your photographers going strong all year.

Jim McCrossen

Jim McCrossen is a former professional photojournalist in Southern California and has spent 25 years at Blue Valley Northwest High School in Overland Park, Kansas, where his students have won some of the top prizes in scholastic journalism, including NSPA Pacemakers, Best of Show and Photo/Story/Design of the Year, as well as numerous state awards. McCrossen received the Jackie Engel Award from the Kansas Scholastic Press Association in 2014 and a 2016 NSPA Pioneer Award. He is a frequent judge and speaker at state and national workshops and conventions.