At the start of each semester, I ask my photography students at the University of South Carolina to submit a short written statement describing their goals for the course. For their final project at the end of the semester, I ask my students to write down the most important photography concept they learned during our time together—and then illustrate that concept with a series of photographs.
I am always eager to see what my students write, particularly at the end of the semester. We cover so many topics—using the camera, Photoshop basics, composition and design, lighting, photographing people, storytelling with pictures, and creating an audio slide show. Which of these proved most rewarding for my students?
The Communicative Power of Photographs
Because I teach in the School of Journalism and Mass Communications, the course, called Photovisual Communications, is designed to emphasize the communicative power of photographs. Some of my students became interested in photography in high school by taking a class or working on their school newspaper. For many, however, this is their first formal photography course. So before they can fly, they need to learn how to walk.
We spend a lot of time going over the principles of photography—but I also work with my students one-on-one, as they browse through their take and choose which images to submit for each assignment. Finally, we come back to the principles of photography when we do our critiques. By this time, I hope, most of the students are comfortable enough with the concepts being illustrated by the assignment—different types of perspective or lighting, for example—that they can contribute something useful to the critique. I also hope they see a positive effect on the quality of their photographs.
What My Students Wrote
So, for this column, I’d like to share with you some of the things my students wrote. I’ll begin with a student who, at the beginning of the semester, said he was “horrible” at photography—his goal was “to learn a ton about what makes a great photo.” For his final project, this same student wrote about various things that captured his interest during the semester—lighting, Photoshop, and how to reveal the subject’s personality in a portrait. But he settled on camera position as the most important concept, especially when photographing people.
I am always trying to get my students to understand the difference between “taking” a snapshot and “making” a photograph. Snapshots are generally taken at eye level, producing the same perspective with which most of us view the world on a daily basis. By changing the camera position—worm’s-eye view, bird’s-eye view—a photographer can create visual interest by offering viewers a new perspective on a familiar scene.
My student also correctly pointed out that camera position can also help define the psychological relationship between viewer and subject—is the viewer looking down on a cowering subject, or is the subject towering powerfully over the viewer?
Another student, who had worked on her high-school newspaper, wrote that she loved photography for both its storytelling and artistic aspects. “I’d like to make pictures that not only tell a story, but also tell it in a tasteful and artistic way—while still being journalistic.”
By the end of the semester, this student expanded her focus to include all aspects of photographing people. But she also found a common thread in all people pictures—the importance of lighting. She learned the difference between hard and soft lighting and how to achieve each kind.
Soft lighting, she wrote, is well suited for glamour photography, giving the skin “a smooth, even tone.” Hard lighting, on the other hand, is appropriate for people “with distinct, interesting faces that are best shown with all of their characteristic creases.” With lighting skills under her belt, my student will be ready to photograph anyone from Kate Moss to Clint Eastwood.
Pictures for the Wall
A third student wrote initially about being nervous because she knew so little about photography. So she plunged right in, experimenting with her camera’s settings, changing camera position, and using different light sources. Her goal for the semester was to “walk away from this class with some pictures that I’d be proud to hang on my wall.”
For her final project, this student chose to illustrate some of the design elements of composition mentioned in our required text, “The Joy of Digital Photography,” by Jeff Wignall . Among these are balance, rule of thirds, sense of scale, depth illusion, framing, leading lines, and repetition. Clearly, this student—whatever career path she travels—has nothing to be nervous about when it comes to understanding the principles of good photography.
Now listen to another student discuss her goals for the course: “I am currently a visual communications major and very interested in photojournalism and how pictures make stories come alive.” One of our assignments during the semester is to create a photo essay using only three pictures. The students find this both challenging and rewarding. They need an establishing shot, an action shot, and a concluding shot. No pictures can be wasted—if you have two establishing shots, for example, your essay comes up short. This requires a high level of concept development, planning, and execution.
Here’s that same student at the end of the semester, describing why the photo essay was the most important concept she learned: “I never knew that three simple photographs could tell a story….This assignment was one of the most challenging I have had to shoot. It allowed me to step out of my comfort zone, along with convincing me to try new techniques. This assignment made me realize how important every photograph that we shoot is—because a photograph is powerful and can be used to tell a story.”
Summing It All Up
Finally, I’m going to have one of my students wrap things up by letting her describe her goals for the semester, written way back on Sept. 7, 2008:
I am looking forward to gaining important information about photography and how it is used today. I am very interested to see what job opportunities a photographer has in today’s world and to consider if this would be a profession I would like to look more closely at.
In this class, I want to learn how to use my digital camera, as well as how to use the more complex settings that mine may not have. I want to learn how to take a picture in different lighting, at different times of the day, and indoors or outdoors. I want to learn how to shoot pictures of people, places, and objects. I want to learn how to utilize computer programs such as Photoshop to edit and create photographs.
While my goal for this semester is to achieve a good grade in the course, I mostly hope to become more excited about photography and learn to make, instead of take, pictures.
I couldn’t have said it better myself.