10 Tips to Take Better Pictures in the Classroom (From the Winter 2022 issue of Montessori Life magazine)
This article was featured in our 2022 Winter edition of Montessori Life magazine and has been modified from its original version for web page use. Read the full issue online (AMS members only).
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With the high-quality cameras available today on smartphones, there is almost always somebody taking photographs in your school. Candid photos of students can be used in myriad ways—for marketing, sending to parents, recording student work, and in presentations at conferences and in workshops. And beyond that, classroom photos are beautiful and inspirational to look at!
There are two aspects to photography: one is the eye that sees and composes the photo, and the other is the technical part of the camera. Due to the advanced technology in today’s cameras, it’s possible to take fantastic pictures without ever knowing anything about technical photographic concepts like depth of field or shutter speed. What you do need to learn is how to “compose your photograph.” In this article, I will go over 10 tips to improve your shots. They’re easy to implement and will help you take better pictures instantly.
Get close to your main subject.
Your photograph will be better if it is about one main thing. Having your subject fill most of the frame helps your viewer understand your photo and provides details that are often more interesting than an overall view.
Photo 1A contains classroom components that do not belong to the cubing chain work. By moving closer (1B), we get a better photograph describing this activity and the child’s work.
Turn off your flash.
Use available light when possible. Indoors, the mood created by natural light is lost with a flash. Whenever possible, position yourself so you capture the light coming from a door or window. If the flash comes on as part of your camera’s default setting, turn it off. (When you are in the camera mode on most phones, you’ll see the flash on/off option on the top of your screen. It’s usually a circle with a lightning bolt and can be toggled on or off.)
Look at photo 2A. Flash has made the background dark and the mood of the photograph is lost. Turning off the flash (2B) results in a better image.
Note: While taking pictures outside and in bright sunlight, nasty shadows can ruin your pictures. The shadows are usually on the faces of your subjects, especially if they are wearing hats with visors or brims. When you see the dark shadows on the faces of your subjects, turn on the “fill flash” feature. This will lighten the shadows without affecting other parts of the picture very much. High noon is the perfect time to use a fill flash.
Place your main subject off-center (“The Rule of Thirds”).
Imagine drawing the lines used for a game of tic-tac-toe, or the # symbol, on your camera’s viewfinder. Place your main subject where those lines intersect, rather than at dead center, and your composition will be more interesting. (This is only a guideline; photographs with the subject in the center are not necessarily bad.)
Look for clean and uncluttered backgrounds.
Try to keep other children, clutter, and random activities out of the background of your photos. Move your body around your subject, looking at what is behind them on your viewfinder before taking the picture.
In photography, less is often more. Before taking the picture, ask yourself what you first noticed in a scene that made you want to capture it. Then try to isolate whatever you saw without including too much in the scene. Otherwise, the viewer will get confused and will start wondering what you wanted to show and why you bothered taking the photo in the first place.
The background in photo 4A is cluttered with furniture, a classroom library, and another child working. Photo 4B is the same scene, but moving to another vantage point resulted in a better photo.
Look for good light.
The word photography comes from the Greek and means, literally, “light writing.” Since you are painting with light, it is important to understand light and appreciate its beauty. Whenever possible, use natural light (from a window, for example) to take dramatic, beautifully lit photographs.
If you are taking pictures outside, cloudy or overcast days are best for photographing children; the light is soft and flattering, and your subject will not be squinting in the harsh sunlight. By the same token, beautiful portraits can be made late in the afternoon, with the sun low in the sky and your subject facing into the warm sunlight. In outdoor photography, scenes are often best when the sun is near the horizon, in early morning or late afternoon.
Shoot from your subject’s eye level.
Most photographs are taken from the photographer’s eye level when standing. This is not usually the best angle for portraits of children, who are often shorter than adults. Simply changing the shooting angle can improve a photograph and make it much more interesting. To get on a child’s eye level, consider kneeling, squatting, or even getting down on your belly.
In photo 6A, the photographer is “towering” over the child. Photo 6B was taken with the photographer bending down to the child’s height.
Play the angles.
Although shooting at a child’s eye level can be successful, you can also try a different point of view. Look at your subject through different angles as you’re composing your shot. Climb on a step stool for a bird’s eye view, or get down low for a “bug’s-eye view.” Using the bug’s-eye-view is a creative way to emphasize the Montessori materials (7B). With the bird’s-eye view (7A), you can capture a child’s emotion and awe as they work.
Anticipate the moment.
When you are taking pictures of children in motion or participating in physical activity, try to anticipate the action you wish to capture, and position yourself to capture it. For example, if children are running, stand where they are running to. Always be ready to shoot: try to capture children mid-jump or with their hair flying in the air. This kind of photo creates much more of a sense of movement and excitement than one with a child whose feet are on the ground.
Find the straight lines.
When composing your photographs, find some straight lines in your scene; shoot so these lines are parallel or perpendicular to the sides of your viewfinder. Parallel lines create a sense of order, whereas angled lines are unsettling to the eye—to the viewer, it can feel like things are “sliding out” of the picture.
In photo 9A, the shelves are slightly tilted (see the yellow line). In photo 9B, the lines of the shelves are parallel with the top and bottom of the image (see the two yellow lines).
Again, this composition rule is just a suggestion; you can break the rule if you're looking to create a sense of movement in your image.
Take pictures of just the materials and activities in the classroom.
While pictures with children can illustrate what daily life is like in your classroom or outdoor area, sometimes taking a photo of an activity left by a child makes a great impression. Images without people in them have a universal quality; they can apply to anyone, anywhere.
Some logistical tips for shooting: When taking pictures that you’ll want to share with others (or submit to print in a publication like Montessori Life), it’s a good idea to use the highest resolution possible. Check your camera (or phone manual) to ensure your setting is on a relatively high resolution. For example, to print an 8-by- 10-inch photo, you’ll need at least 1,920 pixels x 2,400 pixels, which is a resolution of 300 pixels/inch.
With today’s digital and mobile phone cameras, it’s easy to take dozens of pictures at once. However, I suggest you delete unwanted images on the fly; after a shooting session, quickly review what you’ve taken, and keep only the best ones. Immediately deleting images you don’t want on your camera minimizes the task of deleting later and saves storage capacity and memory. When in doubt, save an image until you can view it in a larger format, such as on your computer monitor.
FRIDA AZARI (she/her) is a Montessori teacher (Elementary II) at Hayward Twin Oaks Montessori School (Hayward, CA), a teacher educator at Montessori Teacher Education Center–San Francisco Bay Area, and a freelance photographer. In addition to helping adults with photography, she has taught these tips to Elementary students and would be happy to share a Google Slides presentation she uses with Montessori Life readers. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.