One Step Closer to a Good Shot

Last year, Rainer Jenss traveled around the world with his wife and two sons, and blogged about his experience here on Intelligent Travel. This year, he’s back with a new column that focuses on traveling with kids.

I challenge you to name the brand of the golf clubs Arnold Palmer once used or tell me what kind of guitar Eric Clapton plays.  Does it really matter, you might wonder?  I ask because I’ve noticed that when people first see some of the striking photographs my sons have taken at just nine and 12 years old, they immediately inquire as to what type of camera they were taken with, as though this is the primary reason for the impressive results.

Although a quality camera certainly helps make the technical aspects of photography easier – thus improving the likelihood of a decent shot – it’s the person behind the lens who ultimately produces the image.  As National Geographic photographer Michael Melford once told me, “A great instrument does not play itself. You have to develop the skills and practice a lot in order to make beautiful music. Even the world’s most expensive violin will sound like crap if you don’t know how to play it.”

So that’s the first and most basic lesson I urge you to share with your kids: don’t worry about the camera so much – just tell them to put the setting on ‘Automatic’ and look for good pictures.  Having said that, here’s some advice for the parents: don’t discourage them from being too playful about pointing the lens in some unusual directions.  During the early stages of our year-long trip, I noticed Tyler frequently aiming his camera at anything but the main attraction of where we were. This often included the sun, at which point I finally demanded he stop goofing off.  But when I witnessed some of the results, I suspected he might be on to something.  It soon became apparent that although there were lots of “throw-aways,” some of his best shots were no accident (the beauty of digital is that wasted photos don’t cost you anything).  Better yet, he seemed to really enjoy looking at his subject matter from a different perspective, which is something that’s hard to teach.  Remember, composition doesn’t need to be realistic or make sense to be successful.

One of the basic principles you can teach your kids is “the rule of thirds.” It’s essentially dividing your frame into three horizontal and vertical thirds, or nine squares (some cameras even have a feature that will display this grid on your image display).  For the best composition, attempt to place subjects on the grid intersections.

But here’s a general rule that’s sure to produce better results.  The next time the kids are taking a picture of you in front of a famous landmark, make sure they take at least one giant step closer to you before they press the shutter.  Trust me on this.  Even if you think they’re close enough, make them get even closer for more impact!  You’ll see the difference it makes.

To be honest, this simple rule was taught to me by another brilliant Nat Geo photographer, Annie Griffiths Belt.  She also advised I give my boys the right mix of applause and challenges.  Never say anything critical, but help them to grow by offering ideas and asking for theirs.  Once a child discovers the joy of shooting, like mine have, encourage them to slow down and be thoughtful about what they shoot.

You’ll notice that kids often shoot so fast with digital cameras, they miss the basics of composition, light and moment.  If your son or daughter always shoots horizontals, suggest a verticle.  If they have 10 frames of something from the same position, encourage them to try something different with the same subject.  It’s great to give them assignments:  Today let’s look for cool light.  This morning let’s find patterns.

Of course there’s so much more I could recommend.  For some great, easy-to-understand tricks of the trade, I’d suggest picking up 1000 Hints & Tips for Better Digital Photos & Videos 1000 Hints & Tips for Better Digital Photos & Videos (Fall River Books).  Otherwise, just go out and have fun . . . you just might be surprised what you and your child can create!

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Photos: Tyler Jenss

You can follow Rainer on Twitter @JenssTravel.

More photo tips from our experts here. This winter and spring, you can sign up for a one-day travel photography seminar with National Geographic photographers Michael Melford, Jim Richardson, Bob Krist and Catherine Karnow in a variety of cities.

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