Notes from the VisCom Classroom: Taking Stock

Classes have ended here at the University of South Carolina, and it is a good time to take stock of the semester — to see what worked and what needs to be adjusted for the fall.

By far the most successful assignment, in both Photovisual Communications and Advanced Photovisual Communications, was the audio slideshow. In Photovisual Communications, which is for students with little or no formal photographic training, I start each semester with assignments designed to get students familiar with the features their cameras, mostly point-and-shoots. We also learn basic Photoshop skills. Then, it’s on to environmental portraits, a three-picture photo essay, and, finally, the audio slideshow. In Advanced Photovisual Communications, the students have access to digital SLR cameras, tripods, and auxiliary flashes. Most of these students know their way around a camera and are ready to tackle more complex assignments.

As an instructor, I was both surprised and pleased by how well my students in both courses overcame the obstacles presented by audio slideshows: planning and executing a shoot that involves dozens, if not hundreds, of photographs; assembling the slideshow (using iMovie) with a sense of sequencing, pacing, and transitions; and adding music, natural sound, interviews, and/or voiceovers. Many of the resulting two- to three-minute slideshows were marvelous; a few were outstanding.

Help from the Experts

In the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that I had some great teaching assistance this semester. First, the MediaStorm Web site is an inspirational tool, showing students what can be done when images and audio are creatively combined. Ed Kashi’s “Iraqi Kurdistan” is a particular favorite, and many of my students try their hand at Kashi’s style of rapid-fire shooting, which looks almost like video. Second, we had a visit at the beginning of April from Ken Kobre, professor of photojournalism at San Francisco State University. Kobre, author of Photojournalism: The Professionals’ Approach and inventor of the Light Scoop, spoke to my students about the importance of audio in both slideshows and videos. He showed examples of slideshows — some with good audio, some with bad — and demonstrated various different microphones and recording techniques.

Here’s the take-away message for me from all this: given something fun and creative to do, students will figure out the technical challenges — this is their reward for being so-called digital natives. They still need to be taught the broad concepts: developing a story arc, shooting sequences and details, editing for maximum impact, and using audio effectively. But, as someone who used to make slideshows with two projectors and a dissolve unit, I feel lucky to be able to teach at a time when wonders can be accomplished with the click of a mouse.

Product Project

Another assignment which produced good results, again to my surprise, was a product shoot in my Advanced Photovisual Communications course. I had actually decided not to include product photography in the course for several reasons. First, I am a people photographer and have only a passing knowledge of how to shoot inanimate objects. Second, we do not have a studio and, as I mentioned, the students have only small auxiliary strobes. But the students wanted to do a product assignment, and, in this case, majority ruled. So, I gave them some links to product-photography Web sites and the following advice: be careful with reflective surfaces and avoid white or extremely light backgrounds.

Well, students being students, nearly every one of them shot a reflective object on a white background. And you know what? They came up with some creative solutions. Most figured out that soft, diffuse lighting works best in this situation. A few constructed their own sweeps and soft-boxes. Some shot outside. One student even merged several photographs and text in Photoshop to create a realistic-looking advertisement. Again, this was a case of stepping back and letting the students take the lead — and the results gave us a chance to discuss the importance of lighting, which is a topic I try to hammer home each semester.


Now, what improvements can I make for the fall? The students themselves told me they need more training in basic photographic principles — good old f-stops and shutter speeds, lighting ratios, depth of field, etc. I think I’ve succumbed to the “set it on auto” syndrome, which is a surely a switch for someone who used to have my students shoot gray cards, take densitometry readings, and plot H & D curves! The fact is, the current crop of auto-everything digital SLRs are so good that you can hardly go wrong by using the auto setting. But what I heard from my students was instructive: they weren’t learning much from letting the camera do the thinking. They wanted to be in control and, if need be, learn from their mistakes.

My students also told me that they want more Photoshop training. In the Photovisual Communications course, I teach my students how to use the basic Photoshop tools and adjustments. Many of them learn more advanced techniques on their own. By the time they get to Advanced Photovisual Communications, I see them working comfortably in Photoshop, so I assume they know what they are doing. But as one student told me, “We only look like we know what we’re doing!” Again, the fact that they are digital natives has both positive and negative implications. In this case, they actually wanted more instruction in advanced Photoshop techniques — something I assumed (always a bad idea!) they already knew. Finally, students appreciated the hands-on demonstrations we had this semester — whether it was the lighting demo I did or the audio demo courtesy of Ken Kobre — and say they want more of them.

Balancing Act

I’ve found that teaching is a delicate balancing act: sometimes you provide as much information as possible, and sometimes you stand back and get out of the students’ way. Knowing when to do which is a challenge; you also need to take into account each individual student’s personality, needs, and interests. Teaching is definitely not a one-size-fits-all endeavor — you can’t just “set it on auto.”

[tags]photography instruction[/tags]

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