Full Curriculum, Unit I: Through a Jewish Lens - Lesson 5: What Makes a Good Photograph?

Time: 50 minutes
Materials: Student photos
Worksheet F: What Makes a Good Photograph?
worksheet G: L-Shaped Template for Cropping Photographs
Blackboard or chart paper
Preparation: Students should each bring in one or two photographs that they think are visually interesting. These could be pictures they’ve taken during the course or other photographs that they or someone else has taken.

Before the lesson, make several photocopies of the L-shaped template for cropping photos (Worksheet G) and cut them out. You will need one set for every 3-4 students (as well as one copy of Worksheet F).

Overview: In this lesson, students examine the formal elements of a photograph as they consider what makes a good photo.
Big Idea: The strength of a photographic image is a function of its composition and content. Like a writer, a photographer must make many choices in deciding how to communicate a story, feeling, or idea.

In preparation for this lesson, you may want to review the photography terms and concepts outlined in The Jewish Lens Photo Teaching Guide, or assign it for student reading.  

A couple of additional helpful resources include:

  • Seeing Things:  A Kid’s Guide to Looking at Photographs, by Joel Meyerowitz (Aperture, 2016) – great for Middle School students
  • The Little Book of Contemplative Photography, by Howard Zehr (Good Books, 2005) – best suited for high school and up

 Introduction (5 minutes):

  1. Ask students:
    What do you think makes a good photograph?
  2. Jot down students’ answers on the board.

 Examine photographs (20 minutes):

  1. Divide students into small groups of three to four.
  2. Have students in each group share the photographs they brought in and choose one that the group agrees is most interesting visually.
  3. Distribute one copy of Worksheets F and G to each group.
  4. Ask each group to choose a scribe. The group will work together on the worksheet while the scribe writes down their answers.

 What Makes a Good Photograph? (15 minutes):

 Regroup as a class and discuss students’ responses to the questions on Worksheet F:

  • What is it about this picture that catches your eye or keeps you looking?
  • Where was the photographer in relation to the subject of this photo (far away, close, above, below, etc.)? How does this affect the impact of the picture?
  • What choices did the photographer make about what to leave out of the frame and what to keep in?
  • How could you crop the picture to make the composition even more interesting or powerful?
  • If you were to take the photograph (or take it again), what might you do differently?

Additional Questions for discussion:

  • Do you think this photograph was candid or posed? Why?
  • How does the composition draw you into the photograph? Where does your eye go when you look at the image? How does the photographer get your eye to move around the photograph?
  • Where is the subject in relation to the frame? Does this make for an interesting composition? Is there anything in the frame that distracts you from the focus on the image?

Encourage students to refer to specific details when discussing their photographs and their peers’ photographs.  As much as possible, try to draw participants’ attention to some of the formal elements in their work, such as placement of shape, line, and texture; camera angles; what is in and out of focus; framing (what is in the foreground, midground, and background); lighting and contrast. A photographer must consider all of these elements when trying to communicate something about his or her subject. 

Try to incorporate into the discussion some of the following terms related to the formal elements of photography (again, see The Jewish Lens Photo Teaching Guide for further details):

– Composition – How the different elements of the image are arranged in relation to each other; how the shapes, lines, colors, and other formal elements work together.
– Framing – How an image is situated within the rectangle of the camera’s eye; what the photographer has kept in and what he or she has left out.
– Point of view – The position of the camera relative to the subject—for example, whether the picture is taken from below, straight on, from the side, or from above.
– Scale – The size of the subject in relation to the image or to the other objects in it—for example, whether the subject is very small within the landscape or captured in a close-up portrait.
– Candid, posed, and staged – Whether or to what extent the subjects and settings have been intentionally arranged by the photographer. In a candid shot, for example, the subjects are not positioned at all by the photographer; in a staged photograph, they are arranged in a way that would never happen in real life.
– Contrast – The juxtaposition of light and dark, smooth and rough, different colors, etc.
– Perspective – The sense of depth or three-dimensionality in a photograph. A photographer can use lines, scale, point-of-view, and framing to enhance the perspective and create a greater sense of depth in a photograph.

Wrap-Up (10 minutes):

  1.  Discuss:
    • Based on what you’ve seen, what do you think makes a photo that is visually strong? Add to the list on the board of what makes a good photo.
    • What kinds of choices does a photographer have to make?
    • How are these choices similar to or different from the choices that an author has to make?

You can link some of the formal elements of photography discussed above to students’ literacy studies by noting that writers, as well as photographers, make choices about point of view, setting, symbolism, what kinds of details to include, etc., when creating compositions. Students can look for such formal elements in literature and also experiment with them in their own writing.

For Homework:

You might ask students to follow up this lesson by experimenting further with photographic composition. You can distribute Worksheet H and ask students to try one or more of the exercises listed.