5 Pieces of Solid Advice for Your Digital Photography Students

I launched a new digital arts curriculum this year, and digital photography was a big part of it. Everyone claims they know how to take good quality photos. It’s so easy nowadays with the advent of smartphones. Just point, click, slap on a filter, and you’ve got an amazing photo, right?

We art teachers know differently. We know there’s more to taking a stunning photo than just having an iPhone with swanky new apps. We’ve all given our phone to someone to snap and picture and been thoroughly disappointed… and not just in how we’re looking —

Andrew and Cassie

I’m talking bad compositions skills here people!

I want to share five phrases that you should repeat to your digital photography students – solid advice that they can internalize to use in your class and transfer to other areas of their lives.

digital photo advice

1. Technology isn’t a magic wand.

It seems like everyone, students included, gets caught up in the mindset that whatever is shiniest and newest is best. People think that a new shiny app or piece of technology will be the thing that will finally enable them to make breathtaking art. They’re wrong. A carpenter would never say, “Now that I have this new hammer, I’ll finally make that dream house.” We all know technology is just a tool to be used to realize students’ vision and help them communicate their creativity in a visual way. It’s nothing less and nothing more. That’s a mindset we need to teach all our students… and parents and colleagues and administrators.

2. Get Tighter!

Composition is the cornerstone of good image making. Students get suckered into enthralling photographs of interesting subject matter and they think therein lies the trick: a great subject equals great photos. I try to stress to them they can make amazing photos of everyday, boring materials if they use some of the conventional composition rules that were figured out long ago by folks far more intelligent than I am! However, I’m always wary of lecturing, so I present the composition information in the form of a padlet. Letting students search through the vast world of the Internet is an engaging way to help them pick up on the rules.


I can’t tell you how many times I stressed to my class to get tighter to their subject matter. “Get tighter” became our photo shoot battle cry.

3. Be aware of the entire frame.

I had so many otherwise great photos this past year ruined by a bystander’s leg or errant shadow. Along with composing their shots, students need to learn parallel skills. They need to learn to see all parts of the picture and make sure they “edit” out unwanted elements. Getting students to grasp the fact they can get that car out of their portrait by just angling their camera a bit to the left takes time. A number of students honestly don’t see those background distractions until another student or their teacher points them out in critique. This image is a great example of how editing in the background matters. It is simply two strings of Mardi Gras beads (from the NAEA NOLA Conference!) hung over a whiteboard. Simple. Clean. Arresting.

bead photo

4. Look at things in a different way.

Reports sight that anywhere between 80-90% of all photos being taken every year are done with smartphones. While I can’t emphatically prove or disprove these numbers, anecdotally, it doesn’t surprise me. I have a couple of nice digital cameras. Photography was an early love of mine. But I rarely dust off the old Canon Rebel now that I have a smartphone with me at all times.

We need to use the technology and tools students are going to use during their lifetimes in our classrooms. My school has a no cell phone policy, but I was able to work around that during my technology classes and used a BYOD policy. However, having a smartphone and an Instagram account doesn’t make you a photographer. Everyone thinks they have the “eye” and can be a photographer, but it’s not until students start looking at things in a different way that they are capable to start making arresting images. The photo below is a great example. My students couldn’t figure out how I made this. “Are those mountains?” they asked.  For the record, it’s simply a reflection in a puddle turned upside down.


 5. You can figure it out.

Finally, a skill that I know we’d like to see all of our students develop across the spectrum of their work and classes: Tenacity. Grit. Drive. When we start using Photoshop to make corrections and edits to our photographs, a number of students start to think they’ve suddenly gone helpless and need me near them for moral support. I always tell my students, “You’re not going to break the internet, so just try it. If it doesn’t work, command Z and edit undo that!” Unfortunately, our educational system drills into kids that there is a wrong way and right way to do things. Our job as art teachers is to show them that they can figure out their own way!

 What advice would you add to the list?

What phrases do you constantly say to your photography students?


Andrew McCormick


This article was written by former AOE writer Andrew McCormick, a STEAM, PBL, and tech integration specialist.


  • Teresa Cooper

    Hi Andrew,
    Love the article.
    I have been doing a photography unit with my 5th grade students for many years. It is a unit that everyone looks forward to. I applied for grant money two years in a row and recieved enough to purchase a class set of digital cameras and a printer. The PTA generously keeps me funded to purchase batteries, ink and 8 1/2×11″ photo paper.
    This was before everyone used phones to capture images. I teach students how to use the settings and have them take the cameras home for the weekend. They have signed a form that goes over care of their camera etc. They are very respectful of the cameras and take pride in making sure they return the cameras in working order.
    They are required to take 5 specific shots: 1. birds eye view 2. ants eye view 3. action 4. distance/perspective and 6. a selfie. I teach them how to take the differeent kinds of shots during class. They are allowed up to 25 photos to download when they bring the cameras back to school.
    Students download their photos into iPhoto in the computer lab and the drop them into KidsPix to manipulate their images. Students have a folder with their photos that I access through google drive.
    I am a Title 1 school with a high minority population. I don’t think these students would ever have the opportunity to do most of the things we do outside of school. So this is my chance to give them a 6 year foundation in art.

    • Andrew McCormick

      Great project! I really like how you structure if for your kids at that elementary level to give them that structure of composition.

    • Nina Silitch

      What cameras do you recommend for introduction to digital photography?

  • Sylvia Latham

    Another great post! Thanks

  • Cassie Stephens

    Great article, of course. Duh, you wrote it. However, I will say that I see absolutely NUTHIN wrong with that first photo. Nada. Zip. It’s perfection. AND it totes cracks me up. Next year! We’ll get a decent shot! Maybe!

    • Andrew McCormick

      Haha! Thanks Cassie. Next year! Chi-Town for sure.

  • Jessica Blumer

    I’m very curious about padlet. Has anybody had a lot of success with it? Are you districts/schools pretty supportive?

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  • Nina Silitch

    Do you recommend any online digital arts courses for educators? I am teaching a digital arts elective this year to 9th graders