8th Grade – Photography Unit, Lesson 1: Composition and Intro to Your Camera Settings

8th Grade – Photography Unit, Lesson 1: Composition and Intro to Your Camera Settings

Description of the Unit – Students will embark on a seven-lesson photography unit, getting to know the way a camera works and how to use their settings, as well as understanding the elements and principles of design to achieve specific shots. Additionally, students will be introduced to formative photographers, both past and present, as inspiration for the subject of each lesson.

My 8th grade photography students & I (teacher Anita Sagastegui), as they learn to navigate their camera settings
My 8th grade photography students & I, as they learn to navigate their camera settings

Activity statement – I’ve been an avid photographer since high school, and I credit photography for teaching me to See, with a capital ‘S’. To notice color, line, light and shape. To indulge in my own ideas of mood, harmony and sensuality. Photography invites me to be surprised by the everyday world, and to be playful and experimental. It is this which I would most like to share with my students.

Nowadays everyone and their mother is a photographer, but with camera phones and filters and photoshop, how many people actually know how to use a camera, or how a camera works? This unit will be all about that; for as I tell my students, the better you know how to manipulate your camera settings, the better your shot will be from the get-go, and the less you will have to rely on photoshop or cute filters to turn a bland image into something worth looking at.

In this first lesson I introduce students to all of the buttons and knobs on their cameras, ensuring that they know some of the basics without getting too deeply into the settings dial, as that is for later lessons. What is key for now is making sure students know:

  • where the battery resides, and checking for charge;
  • where the memory card is stored and checking how full it is;
  • how to use the viewfinder vs. the LCD screen;
  • how to focus manually and automatically
  • how to navigate the menu, and what everything there means

Once we’ve gotten these things down, we then explore composition, examining what makes a composition dynamic and interesting vs. mediocre.

We discuss the rule of thirds, considering how to place our focal point (subject) within its parameters, as well as the placement of secondary subjects, including negative space, and their relationship to the focal point.

This image demonstrates the rule of thirds; notice the placement of the subject. Rug vendor in Marrakech, Morocco, ©Anita Sagastegui
This image demonstrates the rule of thirds; notice the placement of the subject. Rug vendor in Marrakech, Morocco, ©Anita Sagastegui

We discuss the elements and principles of design within a composition, including line, shape, color, texture, movement, balance, symmetry, etc. How do we use these to draw attention to certain parts of our composition, guiding a viewer’s eye movement?

Do you notice how various elements and principles of design are used for artistic effect in this image? Bass Lake, ©Anita Sagastegui
Do you notice how various elements and principles of design are used for artistic effect in this image? Bass Lake, ©Anita Sagastegui

We also consider framing within a composition, and how it can be used to create the illusion of depth (with concrete foreground and background) while guiding us toward the subject.

This image demonstrates the use of framing, with a clear foreground and background used to emphasize our subjects. Redwood Coast - Jedediah Smith Redwoods, ©Anita Sagastegui
This image demonstrates the use of framing, with a clear foreground and background used to emphasize our subjects. Redwood Coast – Jedediah Smith Redwoods, ©Anita Sagastegui

Finally we look at perspective, and discuss shooting from a variety of vantage points to make an image come alive.

Creative use of point-of-view. Redwood Coast - Del Norte Coast, ©Anita Sagastegui
Creative use of point-of-view. Redwood Coast – Del Norte Coast, ©Anita Sagastegui

To reinforce the above concepts surrounding composition, as well as to begin learning about important photographers, we look at the work of two photographers: one from the past, Margaret Bourke White (1904-1971) and one contemporary, Fan Ho (1931-2016). Both of these renowned photographers were masters of composition, and the students get very inspired when they view these artists’ work.  

From the Fort Peck Dam series (1936) by Margaret Bourke White
From the Fort Peck Dam series (1936) by Margaret Bourke White
"Approaching Shadow" (1954) Hong Kong, by Fan Ho
“Approaching Shadow” (1954) Hong Kong, by Fan Ho

I am fortunate that my photography classes are about an hour and a half long, so usually I spend the first half of class critiquing student work (none for this first lesson, of course), and introducing the day’s lesson; the second half we go off-campus on a photo safari. For each lesson, I have students focus on the topic of the day during the photo excursion, so today students will focus on composition techniques. Their homework assignment is to turn in at least one shot (taken anywhere) with composition as their focus.

8th grade photography students on our photo excursion
8th grade photography students on our photo excursion

Goals –

Students should…

Understand:

  • The concept of rule-of-thirds
  • Framing
  • Perspective

Know:

  • Where the battery and memory card are stored in their camera
  • What the buttons and dials of their cameras do (in very basic terms, as we get deeper into these settings in later lessons)
  • Elements and principles of design, including: Line, shape, value (contrast), color (or black/white), texture, depth and space (form), movement (visual and literal), emphasis, balance and symmetry, harmony, repetition, rhythm, variety

Be able to:

  • Tell if the battery needs charging or the memory card is full
  • Navigate the camera’s menu
  • Compose images with an eye for focal point, framing, perspective
  • Compose images that capitalize on some of the elements and principles of design

Resources and materials –

  • A digital camera that can has a shutter speed, aperture and manual setting
  • A memory card with enough space for the day’s photo excursion
  • Fully charged battery
  • Examples of photos highlighting the day’s lesson (composition in this case)
  • One or two photographer’s works that emphasize the day’s lesson

Questions – While looking at specifically chosen images:

  • Where does your eye go first? What is drawing your eye to that? Do you think it is meant to be the subject (focal point) of the image? Why or why not?
  • Where do you notice your eye moves to within the image?
  • Why do you think it follows that direction?
  • What lines do you notice within the image?
  • Where is the subject resting along the plane of the image?
  • What’s in the foreground of the image? What’s in the background?
  • Do you notice any contrast?
  • Is color use for effect? Explain.
  • How is negative space used for effect?
  • Is this image balanced? Explain.
  • Do you notice asymmetry? Explain.
  • What is the point-of-view of the photographer for this image?

Evaluation –

  • Student discussion
  • Answers to essential questions
  • Student images focused on composition (to be critiqued the following week, as this is assigned as homework)

The following are student images with COMPOSITION as focus:

Photo focusing on composition by 8th grade student
8th Grade Photography 1 – Lesson 1 – Composition
Photo focusing on composition by 8th grade student
8th Grade Photography 1 – Lesson 1 – Composition
Photo focusing on composition by 8th grade student
8th Grade Photography 1 – Lesson 1 – Composition
Photo focusing on composition by 8th grade student
8th Grade Photography 1 – Lesson 1 – Composition
Photo focusing on composition by 8th grade student
8th Grade Photography 1 – Lesson 1 – Composition
Photo focusing on composition by 8th grade student
8th Grade Photography 1 – Lesson 1 – Composition

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