PHOTOGRAPHER PROJECT: Teaching Teens under Holiday Lights by Lynda Richardson

Students pose for me before we start shooting in the garden.

Students pose for me before we start shooting in the garden.

Teaching teenagers is both challenging and incredibly fulfilling. Challenging because you are competing against their unformed brains, their increased awareness, and the distraction of the opposite sex as well as today’s “must have” electronic devices. If teens aren’t fully engaged in what you are teaching, you can forget about it. I had worked with only adults for the past 30-plus years, so when I started working with teenagers four years ago, I had a lot to learn about teaching. (More on the fulfilling part later.)

One of my favorite workshops to give is photographing the winter holiday lights display at Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden in Richmond, Virginia. What seems like millions of lights are hung over the entire garden, and each year carries a different theme. What I love about this workshop is that you can throw caution to the wind and just have fun working with color and long exposures to create wild and exciting images that are always a surprise. There is a lot of laughing and sharing, and teenagers and adults alike enjoy the heck out of it.

Student Fabian Estrada came up with this portrait of yours truly shot in a tunnel of lights in the garden. He had another student light-painted behind me with a cellphone.

Student Fabian Estrada came up with this portrait of yours truly shot in a tunnel of lights in the garden. He had another student light-painted behind me with a cellphone.

Without any previous instruction, I bring the students into the entrance of the beautifully-lit garden and ask them what manual camera settings they think we should use. I get guesses like ISO 1600 at 5 seconds at f/5.6 or ISO 3200 at 1 second at f/4.0. Then, I surprise them with, “Nope, we’re going to use ISO 100 and f/16 to start and play with the shutter speed starting at 4 seconds.” Eyebrows raise, and then they turn down to their cameras to prepare the settings. I begin with a demonstration. “Here is what I want you to do.” I hold up my camera, look through the viewfinder and point it to a gorgeous display of blues and oranges. As I release the shutter I make circles and zigzags with my camera still pointing at the subject. The shutter closes, and when I show the students the results, I get: “Wow!” “That is sooo cool!” “Oh! I want to try!” And off they go laughing and swirling and zigzagging their cameras around.

As we move through the garden I discuss color combinations, noting complementary colors, primary colors and so forth. Again, I gather the students around for another demonstration, showing them what happens when you zoom a camera lens during an exposure. I show the results to more oohs and ahhhs, more laughter, shooting and sharing. It is so much fun!

As we enjoy the different light displays, I talk more about exposure and how lengthening the shutter time gives more time for additional creative options. If you add more time to an exposure, making sure that you only adjust the aperture and not ISO (for this exercise), you can create other interesting images. For example, find something that you want to remain fairly still. Open the shutter and hold it for a count of, say, 5 seconds, and then twirl or zoom. Is that cool or what?

Moving deeper into the garden, we all grab a cup of hot chocolate and sit down to review our images. Students are totally engaged, sharing their images and thinking about what they want to try next. After the break, I bring another aspect to the table. “OK, now I want everyone to do a portrait of another student using this same technique, but this time we’re going to add pop-up or SB flashes to the mix. First, find a great colorful light display and pose your subject in front of it. Next, get your flash properly adjusted for your subject. Shoot. And as the flash goes off, start swirling or zooming or whatever you feel like doing.”

Students take a well-earned break sipping hot chocolate on that cold winter night.

Students take a well-earned break sipping hot chocolate on that cold winter night.

Now things really go crazy with students running around shooting each other in different locations. Smiling, I watch the frenzied chaos of excitement, creativity and camaraderie. It is awesome.

As the garden closes, we wander back to the entrance. Students are tired but laughing and still shooting and showing each other their images. “Ms. Richardson, check this out.” “Oh wow, Ms. Richardson….look at this portrait I got of Fabian.” “I can’t wait to show this to my mom.”

The great thing about this experience is that not only is it super fun, but it engages the kids totally. It promotes the sharing of images, ideas and techniques, and it creates an experience that will last a lifetime. And therein is where I find fulfillment as a teacher.

A freelance photographer for more than 30 years, Lynda Richardson has specialized in wildlife and environmental issues working for Smithsonian and the National Wildlife Federation, covering Africa, Central and South America and the United States. After a run-in with cancer, Lynda accepted a full-time teaching position at the Chesterfield Career and Technical Center in Chesterfield, Virginia, as an instructor in Commercial Photography and Digital Arts. She still shoots an occasional assignment, but those teenagers keep her pretty busy. Lynda’s ultimate goal in teaching teenagers is to give them another form of expression that will allow them to enjoy the world around them without worrying about the difficult challenges of being a teenager.