Teaching My Kids Photography: Smartphones to DSLR, Lesson II

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After our introductory lesson to creating narrative and telling personal stories with smartphone cameras, I asked my kids to advance their skill set by telling visual stories using a more advanced, more versatile camera. In this case, they’re using my Sony Alpha a6500 mirrorless camera with the lightweight Sony E 16mm f/2.8 lens. As with Lesson I, the only criterion is that the images have to be taken indoors, because we are still sheltering in place and learning from home.

Sony a6500 Mirrorless Camera with 18-135mm Lens
Sony a6500 Mirrorless Camera with 18-135mm Lens

The reasons behind using this compact mirrorless camera prior to working with a DSLR are straightforward. It offers live view and flip-out touchscreen LCD capability, which is an easier transition from their familiar smartphone. There is a viewfinder, which for them “makes it real photography,” and I hope they use it but, primarily, they are using the LCD at waist level or arm’s length to compose. Manual exposure control can be incorporated, and seeing the settings in real time on the LCD will also help the transition to a DSLR and a better understanding of exposure control. Of course, it is also small and has a silent mode, which enables them to just pick it up when the moment strikes and, in one case, create a discreet story in a relatively small New York apartment.

So how did my two kids do on their second assignment? 

My younger child decided that he wanted to illustrate some of the changes he is seeing in our lifestyle, during the shutdown.

Project Statement: Since the shutdown, we have been eating all of our meals at home—no restaurants, school cafeteria food, or take-out. That means more preparation and A LOT more cleanup. I wanted to document the details of that process, even the compost, and this camera makes it easier because of its size.

Self-Critique I: I started these photos in P mode on the camera, which I understand now is like an automatic mode, so the camera sets the aperture and shutter speed. I was taking pictures in day and night, so when it was darker, the shutter-speed setting was too slow, and it created a blur. I had to learn to set the aperture and shutter speed myself, which helped.

Self-Critique II: I used autofocus to make these pictures and many times I was too close, so the images were blurry. And being farther away did not allow the type of detailed images I wanted.

One question after shooting: Why is this called a mirrorless camera?

Answer: Mirrors have been used in camera technology since the 1800s, but it was in the 1960s that the SLR (single lens reflex) camera became the technology of choice and this type of camera (including the digital SLR) uses a mirror to reflect the image into the viewfinder. When we push the shutter button, the mirror flips up and out of the way of the light entering the camera.

In recent years, improved digital sensors have made it easier to develop cameras that use the sensor to provide a digital image in the viewfinder, eliminating the need for a mirror built into the camera body. These cameras are generally referred to as “mirrorless.” 

The path of light in an SLR camera.
The path of light in an SLR camera

Teacher’s Comment: I like telling the story of your “new normal” through everyday details. Also, that you didn’t shy away from the gross part. However, I think that you should have used a wide-angle lens to the best of its capacity and that these up-close images are better served with a macro lens. Let’s try that when you start with a DSLR?

I also am happy that you began to experiment using manual control of aperture and shutter speed. Perhaps you could have used faster shutter speeds to reduce the blur you’re seeing in your images. Try to use more manual settings on the DSLR also.

Nikon AF-S VR Micro-NIKKOR 105mm f/2.8G IF-ED Lens
Nikon AF-S VR Micro-NIKKOR 105mm f/2.8G IF-ED Lens

My older child decided to turn the camera on her younger brother and document his typical day.

Project Statement: I am spending almost 24 hours a day in the same house as my brother and, even if I don’t want to, I am getting to know his routines. So, I thought I would show what he does on an average day; mostly it involves one (or two) screens. But I hope it also shows the different moods and good and bad moments he goes through while stuck at home so much.

Self-Critique: I had a hard time focusing with this camera or when I used the LCD to check focus, I thought I was focusing on my brother but was actually focused on something in the corner of the frame.

One question after shooting: Why does the photo of him cooking have so many spots and why did the batteries die so quickly on this camera?

Answer: That’s two questions! But the reason for the spots on that image is because the ISO setting was very high. I looked at the metadata (digital information about the image) and it was set at ISO 51200, which is extremely high. When shooting in low light, it’s good to utilize higher ISO for more sensitivity to the available light, but if you go too high, you will create this “grainy” look.

Batteries tend to lose their charge quicker with some mirrorless cameras because there are a lot of electronics in use, specifically a digital viewfinder and an LCD screen. Turning off one or the other will conserve batteries.

Sony NP-FW50 Li-Ion Battery Pack

Teacher’s Comment: I like that you covered most of his activities, from piano to cooking and the much time spent on devices, but despite being with him 24/7, I think you could have found “deeper” moments, like the shot of him with the black t-shirt, perhaps when upset or laughing.

About the focus, it can be difficult with a wide-angle lens to know what is exactly in focus, but within the menu of the camera you can set focus points so the camera focuses on the part of the frame you want.

For Lesson III, let’s try to tell a very specific story with fewer but stronger images.

In the next segment of this three-part article, I will post images and comments from Lesson III, using a DSLR camera. Hopefully, their story choices will evolve with the gear they are using.

Let us know your thoughts on teaching photography, and browse some of the many books B&H offers on the basics of photography.​

2 Comments

I'm very impressed by how thoughtful your kids are in doing their "not homework".  I wonder if I had the same assignment would I be able to do as well as they have done?

IMO, having noise in one's image isn't as bad as some would have you believe.  When I was in college--eons ago--I actually was looking for a particular effect--reticulation--and I processed the film that I shot at 12000 ISO+ (pretty high in those days) in very warm developer and plunged it into ice cold stop bath...to **no discernable effect** that I could see.  Needless to say I was disappointed, though I still used the relatively grainy image I got and it looked great. 

One thing that could have been done in the image of you son shot at 102,000+ would have been to convert it to monochrome.  The noise may have been made less objectionable by doing that.....

Lastly, it would be nice if the beginning article contained the link to the 2nd article and the 2nd article contained the link to the 3rd article.  That would have made navigating a lot easier. 

Thanks Henry...yes, I sometimes have "saved" images by going monochrome and a grainy effect can be wonderful, I agree, especially in black and white.  I believe that the first installment was linked at the beginning of this article, lesson 2, and we will be sure to link 1 and 2 when 3 is published.  Thanks again for the feedback and for that darkroom process tip... if we ever do a fourth installment, I'll bring the kids into the darkroom... they would love it, I think.

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