Oct 31 2006

More Than Just Point and Shoot

Advances in photo tech tools allow students to give free rein to their creative instincts.

Wylie Wong

PHOTOGRAPHY TEACHER CHERYL YEATTS of Morehead High School in Eden, N.C., has embraced digital cameras. She enjoys the creativity of digital photography; her students use computers to manipulate photos and create artwork, such as photo montages.

Even so, Yeatts is not yet ready to toss out those older single-lens reflex 35mm cameras. She spends part of the semester teaching her high school students the history and fundamentals of photography: learning to focus a camera, calculating and setting the shutter speeds, and developing their own film in a darkroom.

Like other photography teachers, Yeatts once devoted the greater part of her class time to teaching students traditional photographic techniques. However, digital cameras, digital imaging software, printers and scanners have completely changed the art form and the way it’s taught. Today, some instructors teach both traditional and digital photography, while others have chosen to go all digital.

But all of them agree that digital photography is here to stay, which means that schools have to invest in new technologies. In the past, schools had to pay for cameras, darkroom equipment, film and chemicals. Today, schools need funding for digital photo equipment and supplies, and teachers need to be trained to use it.

Recent advances in photographic technology mean that classes are no longer just about taking photographs. They are also about manipulating photos with digital imaging software. Students can crop images, tweak the lighting and change colors. They also can use their photos to create artwork, such as designs for T-shirts, CD and magazine covers, and greeting cards.

“Digital photography is more like painting and creating things from scratch,” explains Richard Rau, a photography teacher at Hackensack High School in Hackensack, N.J.

Starting With the Basics

Rau splits his yearlong photography class in half, focusing on traditional photography in the first semester and digital techniques in the second. The principles that are necessary to take good photographs using film apply equally in the digital world, Rau points out.

Students can learn these principles through digital photography, he adds. But if students first learn concepts—such as how different exposures can alter an image—“things make more sense,” Rau says.

In the first semester of Rau’s class, students learn to manually operate a 35mm camera, from focusing the lens to setting the aperture, which controls the amount of light that enters the camera. They also learn how those details can affect depth of field, which determines how much of a photo—from foreground to background—is in focus.

Teaching both traditional and digital techniques doesn’t necessarily mean you need two cameras, however. Even some simple point-and-shoot digital cameras that fit in many schools’ tight budgets have manual controls for setting shutter speed and aperture. That capability lets students turn off the auto-focus and take pictures the traditional way.

“Every six months, the digital camera gets more versatile,” notes Colette Stemple, a photography teacher at Miami’s Coral Reef Senior High School. “You can get a $300 digital camera, and you can pretty much do traditional photography [with it].”

The Benefits of Digital

A benefit of digital photography is that students can quickly download their pictures to computers and immediately see what they did right or wrong. If the photos don’t come out perfect, students can use digital imaging software to polish them, says Stemple, who teaches her class using both 35mm and digital cameras.

“We can enhance the image until it’s the way we saw it or the way it should have been,” she explains.

Stemple’s students choose their projects based on their hobbies and interests. Some students take family photos, which may be in bad shape, scan them into digital format and use Adobe Photoshop to restore them. “It’s like taking a garment that’s threadbare and handing back [one] that looks new,” she says. “It’s beautiful to watch.”

In affluent communities, parents can afford to buy digital cameras for their children. However, in many areas, schools must make do with a handful of cameras and computers.

Over four years at North Carolina’s Morehead High School, Yeatts has amassed five 35mm cameras, three inexpensive point-and-shoot digital cameras and two high-end 6-megapixel digital cameras that let students use manual settings. She also has four computers loaded with Photoshop, three high-resolution printers for printing photos, two scanners that can scan negatives as well as photographs and one darkroom enlarger that lets students make large prints.

That isn’t enough equipment to go around, Yeatts says, but her students make do. They are assigned days to use the darkroom and classroom computers. On other days, the students work on in-class assignments, such as critiquing photos in magazines.

Teaching both traditional and digital techniques adds more dimension to photography classes, teachers say. And students say they enjoy both.

Johanna Calle, a 2004 Hackensack High School graduate who was a student in Rau’s photography class last year, says she loved developing her own black-and-white photographs, but also liked using Photoshop to tweak photos. “It’s an amazing class,” Calle says. “It draws the artistic side out of you and makes you think outside the box.”

Wylie Wong is a veteran technology reporter and the co-author of Giants: Where Have You Gone? about the San Francisco Giants players of the past.

Getting Started With Digital

Digital photography can become an expensive class to teach: The equipment alone can cost thousands of dollars. But an enterprising instructor can do it on a shoestring, says Cheryl Yeatts, a photography teacher at Morehead High School in Eden, N.C.

When Yeatts began teaching photography four years ago, her principal built a darkroom and bought one digital camera, one scanner and one computer loaded with Adobe Photoshop. Since then, Yeatts has increased the digital photographic equipment in her classroom through fundraisers and through her own donations and those of other teachers.

“Don’t wait to afford the best of the best,” she advises. “You have to be willing to start small and add to your program slowly.”

Absolutely, agrees Richard Rau, a photography teacher at Hackensack High School in Hackensack, N.J. High-end digital cameras with interchangeable lenses are great, but simple, 2-megapixel point-and-shoot cameras also work.

“With two megapixels, you can still do decent photography,” Rau says.

Yeatts’ annual budget for printer ink, photo paper and darkroom chemicals is between $250 and $300. If paper and chemicals run out, students sometimes donate money to pay for more, she says.

To learn digital photography skills, teachers suggest taking digital photography and digital imaging classes—either online or at community colleges. Other good resources for learning on your own include digital photography books and online training materials and tutorials.