Most parents lament how much time their kids spend absorbed by their smartphones or a video game, rather than being engaged with the world in front of them. But what if those tech skills were combined with time spent in the great outdoors?
Nature photography is an ideal way to bridge the seemingly great divide between the plugged-in world of gadgets and the real world of weather, grand landscapes and living, breathing creatures. Nature photography provides kids with some invaluable health benefits, too.
For years, researchers have rolled out study after study showing how beneficial time spent in nature is for childhood development. As Richard Louv points out in his book "Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder," time spent in nature helps with improved concentration, assists with the treatment of ADHD, depression and other mental illness, and improves mood, coordination and agility.
Beyond this, nature photography can give kids a sense of purpose. They learn how their images can actually educate the public and protect the places and species they learn to love.
Sound like a perfect past time? It is. Here are five ways you can encourage kids to try their hand at nature photography ...
'Meet Your Neighbours'
Get to know who is living in your backyard or neighborhood park. Meet Your Neighbours is a global initiative that connects people to the wildlife in their yards. As the project's website states, "These creatures and plants are vital to people: they represent the first, and for some, the only contact with wild nature we have. Yet too often they are overlooked, undervalued."
Through photography and a fresh curiosity, an appreciation is garnered for these wild things, and in that, they are given value once again. The MYN style shows the specimen against a bright white background, so that the focus is entirely on the creature.
Exploring the website is fun in and of itself, but kids can try their hand at photographing the plants and animals in their neighborhood using the MYN style. The website encourages participation, noting, "This is conservation photography at the grass roots level, asking people to care about their own natural heritage, where they live and showing them how extraordinary it is in a novel way."
Sometimes the key to feeling connected to the earth lies in literally getting closer to the ground. And kids love having permission to get right up next to something interesting and examining it. Wide-angle macro photography allows them to do both.
Wide-angle macro lenses are essentially what is on your smart phone or point-and-shoot camera. It shows a wide swath of the scene you're looking at, and yet can focus very close to a subject. On digital single-lens reflex cameras, wide-angel macro lenses include 10-22mm zoom lenses and 15mm fisheye lenses. These lenses provide not only the excuse to get real close to small critters, but the challenge of creating a story within your frame. This pushes kids to know about their subject and its lifecycle, habitat or behaviors, and how to handle the creature. A better photo is created by better understanding. No teacher, parent or child can complain about that.
An excellent resource for using wide-angle macro for nature photography is an ebook by Clay Bolt and Paul Harcourt Davies, "Wide-Angle Macro: The Essential Guide." The book walks you through both equipment and technique, and parents and children alike will find it fun to talk about how to put the tips to use in their backyard.
Getting kids and teens curious about nature through photography can be as simple as handing them a smartphone with the iNaturalist app open.
iNaturalist is a free app that allows users to log observations of plant or animal species using images snapped on a camera phone. The observation and corresponding image is uploaded to the app where the community of fellow iNaturalists can help identify the species, add the species to a guide about local flora and fauna, or even use the observation for scientific surveys. (It's worth noting here that this app is intended only for people age 13 and older.)
Kids can take photos that clearly show a species and its identifying traits, something that encourages them to learn both about photography and about the species. A bonus is the final image is more than just a pretty shot. It is also a social tool connecting kids to a larger community of citizen ecologists. Kids can photograph species for iNaturalist on their own or as part of a school project.
Nature photography workshop
Nature photography has been proven to bolster kids’ interests in ecology, science and conservation. Recently, two nonprofits have launched initiatives that encourage kids to get outside with their cameras, explore nature and build up their skills in both art and science.
Professional wildlife photographer Suzi Eszterhas has noticed that a little encouragement and a trip into the field goes a long way for building confidence in girls with a budding interest in nature and conservation photography “It's nice to be in nature, but we need something to ‘do’ in nature,” says Eszterhas, “and photography gives kids a reason to be out there.”
Eszterhas launched Girls Who Click, a nonprofit that provides free one-day workshops led by professional photographers to teen girls ages 13-18. During the day, girls learn what it is like to be a professional photographer, what it means to use images toward conservation efforts, and of course enjoy lessons in composition, lighting, animal behavior and other elements of nature photography.
“Nature photography is an ideal fusion of the love of nature and art, and allows the girls to bring something home to share with the world. Instead of casually noticing something in nature, photography helps girls to truly see nature in a new way," she says.
Meanwhile, professional wildlife photographer Daniel Dietrich founded Conservation Kids, which takes the idea of a nature photography workshop one step further by focusing on the activism behind the photography.
With a mission to inspire kids to protect the environment through photography, this nonprofit helps groups of kids come up with their very own conservation project and teaches them the photography skills needed to capture images to promote their cause. The images the kids create are sold online, with the proceeds going directly to their conservation project.
“By providing them professional equipment for their time with us, we hope the images they take will further their interest in environmental stewardship,” says Dietrich. “By having the kids create the conservation project, we are giving them the personal responsibility for its success. They own it start to finish.”
If you'd like to encourage your child to get involved in nature and photography in a more serious way, workshops are a possibility.
Species photo scavenger hunt
If participation in a workshop isn't possible, you can get kids excited about getting outside with their cameras by taking a cue from Pokémon Go and making a game of it. Devise a species scavenger hunt using both flora and fauna.
This activity is a little bit of Meet Your Neighbours and iNaturalist rolled into one, as kids search for particular species from the list, learn how to identify it, and then photograph it. It can be a portrait of just the species, or the species within its environment.
You can create the list of species to photograph by using field guides or common species lists from the local parks department. Make sure the list is something that has both easy and more difficult species to spot, and which requires kids to explore different types of habitats; marshland, forests, beaches and so on.
To make it extra interesting, you can come up with a prize structure for completing certain sets of photos from the scavenger hunt list, such as five mammals or 10 insects. Or even create teams among friends or classmates to stoke a competitive drive.