Smart-Camera Photography: Enrich Students’ Creative Writing Skills

“How did you get your kids to do that?”

It’s a question I often get from colleagues when they see a picture a student took in my digital photography class – a class I dub iPhoneography, as much for the ubiquitous accessory that many of my middleschoolers wield like an appendage as for the hipster play on words, although the name belies the fact that any smart phone will do. That, and an eye for observing the sometimes aesthetic but always interesting minutiae of the day-to-day, or what Picasso called, “the dust of everyday life.” Sound pretentious? Sure, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t doable for 12- and 13-year-olds.

Jumstagram, anyone? Image via Flickr by Eryne

Jumstagram, anyone? Image via by Eryne

Why Photography Matters

As any writing teacher knows, the trick to getting our students to craft powerful sentences rests on their ability to slow down a scene, stretch it out like saltwater taffy, and zoom in to the itty bitty deets (five senses’ worth), all the while describing the event or character in a palpable, emotionally resonant way. In their writing, we want kids to show us their tears, not tell us they’re sad, yet we know all too well that we can over-rely on the saying add more details – the battle cry of writing teachers everywhere – without having the engaging, concrete “hows” to impart.

Teachers know flatlined writing when they see it, even if the steps needed for resuscitatation aren’t always exciting. Thus, it was a great discovery to me as an avid amateur photographer to see just how much the learning of photography dovetails with the mining of details that all good writers need; indeed, it’s a logical marriage of skills that leaves the user strong both in the art of taking pictures and in the art of crafting memorable words.

Here’s why: By teaching kids what counts as an interesting photograph – or rather, how to take an interesting photograph – we can’t help but impart the skill of noticing details – which inevitably spills into other areas of life, writing included. In essence, by teaching kids photography, we teach them how to notice and note Picasso’s dust of everyday life.

The not-so-secret happy byproduct of taking good photographs is that you get to grow your powers of observing and inferring, of storytelling, and of communicating itself. It’s not accidental: Interesting photos come from interesting people, and we want our students to be interesting people, don’t we? The photographs we take tell the world how we look at it, which in turn tells the world who we are. A student who is fluent in storytelling with his smartphone camera is one who can be fluent with his pen. An interesting photo or an interesting sentence? Make no mistake; they both rest on the ability to observe details.

So what does photography look like in the writing class?

Image via Instagram by @theshortestfuse, taken with a smartphone outside the Nuijie Mosque in Beijng, China. Close-up portraits are the perfect fodder for caption writing and character study.

Image via Instagram by @theshortestfuse, taken with a smartphone outside the Nuijie Mosque in Beijng, China. Close-up portraits are the perfect fodder for caption writing and character study.

The Marriage of iPhotography and Writing

1. iPhotography: First, the basics. Sure, you can draw photographs from any number of excellent photo blogs and feeds to do any of these lessons, but the impact of teaching your students to scan their surroundings for an interesting image to snap has value far beyond the writing component alone. Remember: In photography as in writing as in life, you are grooming your students to live in the present and to notice and note – to see that single solitary wrinkle on the PE teacher’s forehead, to hear the rustling of leaves that refuse to rest in the school playground, to feel the nubby pencils neglected in our wicker basket. Notice and note. Rinse and repeat. In essence, what you are doing when you teach photography is creating poets, so you must be brave. If you feel that your skills in this area are a little shaky, start by perusing websites such as Digital Photography School or join a community of smartphone photographers to get the lay of the land. YouTube is also a diverse resource for learning beginning photography skills. As for basic skills, I usually start with these:

  • Light: Arguably the most important lesson, light is a primary tool in creating good photos. I start by showing a series of dimly lit vs. well lit vs. creatively lit photos and have the class analyze what works. With a smart-camera phone, students can start outside and experiment with their source of illumination (is it from behind or the side?) simply by turning around in a circle and observing the cast of light. The beauty of digital photography is that you get to see immediately what works and what doesn’t.
  • Composition: Probably the most popular lesson is the rule of thirds, a rough guideline that tells you where to place your main object in a frame. It’s amazing to see middleschoolers thoughtfully composing before snapping, as well as learning to crop (another lesson in itself) to achieve the desired look. While I’m not a die-hard rules follower in photography, I do see the merit of having kids learn the foundation of the field before breaking its rules.

2. Image Grammar: The idea behind Image Grammar, the concept and book fostered and written by veteran teacher Harry Noden, is that you can make any writing come alive simply by tapping into a tried-and-true repertoire of grammatical structures, or what he calls “brushstrokes.” Noden insists that “writers, like artists, paint images” and offers this quote by the novelist Robert Newton Peck as support:

Readers want a picture—something to see, not just a paragraph to read.   A picture made out of words. That’s what makes a pro out of an amateur. An amateur writer tells a story. A pro shows the story, creates a picture to look at instead of just words to read. A good author writes with a camera, not with a pen.

Noden’s five brushstrokes focus on explicit sentence components, some (add adjectives out of order) being easier than others (add a noun preceding a participial phrase), all requiring students to become fluent in grammatical structures in order to successfully manipulate text. In fact, thanks to Image Grammar and photography play, my students actually see a need to learn grammar, evident by a question I recently received from a sixth grader, Why is the word “captivating” an adjective here instead of a participle? Surely a question that would make any English teacher swoon!

So in the classroom, students share a photo they’ve taken, and the class scours it for details, stopping to apply a brushstroke or two in the crafting of captions. My favorite brushstroke, one that has singlehandedly elevated the quality of my students’ writing more than any other, is the use of the participial phrase (an -ing-verb-led phrase at the beginning or end of a complete sentence). So faced with a photo of an old lady walking down the street, a student might add the participial-phrase brushstroke this way: Jamming her cold gloveless hands into the tattered coat pockets, the old lady walks down the street, her breath fanning her face a few centimeters ahead. OK, I cheated; the last phrase is actually a different brushstroke, one called an absolute. Intrigued? You should be! The use of photographs is an effective tool in enlivening the teaching of grammar, and as a result, the teaching of writing.

3. Photojournalism: Need to teach the Common Core skill of determining the main idea or central theme? Have your students analyze news photos and decipher the message behind each, then create a photo of their own with a message for their classmates to infer, which you can parlay into an exercise in creative captioning. My favorite website to use is Maptia, which is less a news source and more a collection of user-submitted travel photos accompanied with vivid writing. Maptia offers a wealth of mentor texts and photos, giving you endless mini-lessons in both photography and writing.

4. Vocabulary Building: Based on the word-of-the-day photo challenges that are an Instagram ubiquity, I sneak in a vocabulary lesson this way: OK, kids, today’s word is mistake; let’s look in the dictionary to see its denotation, then depict your own interpretation of the word in a photograph! I let my students be figurative (a photo of an eraser!) or literal (a photo of a math problem with an error!) in their interpretation, and the highlight of the lesson is the share at the end when everyone regroups to present why their photo fits the word. Word-a-day challenges are a great activity for our English language learners, as it is accessible and engaging. Start with simple words and work your way up to more ambiguous ones (as in those with multiple meanings)!

A sample journal page from a student named Gabby. Used with permission

A sample journal page from a student named Gabby. Used with permission

5. Journaling: I’m a big fan of the writer’s notebook as championed by beloved writing gurus Ralph Fletcher and Aimee Buckner; after all, as mentioned previously, students need a place to diligently notice and note the details of life – and their responses to them – in order to have something to mine for future writing. And while there’s no shortage of ways to use the writer’s notebooks (from the daily jot to the depository of story drafts), the integration of photography elevates the student buy-in by merging the personal with the creative. Because now instead of asking your students to write the Friday summary of what took place at school, you can assign them fun challenges such as, capture your life from the past week in one single photo and explain in writing what happened, or storyboard the draft of your next narrative with a series of mock photos, or take a mock Instagram of a moment in your main character’s life and explain his thoughts and reaction. For the more reluctant writers in our classroom, asking him to photograph something he loves and build a short story around it might be all the scaffolding needed to get him on his way.

In Short

In the 21st century classroom, there is a wealth of creative technology tools to boost the teaching we are mandated to do. The camera is no less a tool for tapping into this learning. Beyond ridding the world of duck-lipped selfies from your preteen students by exposing them to the smartphone’s artistic side, photography lessons in the classroom have numerous educational applications. The camera, like the pen, plays on the need that all humans have – to share, to communicate, and to connect. The tool is almost irrelevant.

Interested in more iPhoneography tips? Check back soon for Weda’s follow-up post!

Weda Bory is an American educator who’s teaching overseas, first in Buenos Aires, Argentina, currently in Beijing, China, and soon to be in Hong Kong. You can follow her (mostly) street photography @theshortestfuse on Instagram.



  1. Louis p

    February 23, 2015 at 9:01 pm

    The article shows humor and smarts on a very practical level. I may try it with my kids!

  2. Emily Johnson

    February 26, 2015 at 9:01 am

    “A student who is fluent in storytelling with his smartphone camera is one who can be fluent with his pen.” – what an interesting observation! I love photography, but I never thought that it’s interconnected with my writing. Your article is like food for my mind. Thanks :)

  3. cctv for business

    February 27, 2015 at 5:34 am

    Lovely piece. Thanks for writing this work.

  4. Steve Sostak

    March 2, 2015 at 6:51 pm

    I’ve been lucky to collaborate with Weda on developing writing tools through images while in Beijing. I second the power of helping get kids to “paint pictures with their words” by getting them to think about the power of the image itself…and the phone is an efficient tool. I do find that it gets kids to think outside of themselves and get better at observing the world around them with greater insight and heart.

    Photos work like a scaffold to powerful sensory observations, inferring, word choice, and writing fluency. It works for descriptive writing, poetry, and so on. Image Grammar is also a powerful tool to tie it all together. Great article.

  5. Essays Expert

    April 24, 2015 at 3:07 am

    Smart and profound article, thanks for it!