With the advent of smart phones and dozens of other multi-tasking gadgets manufactured with tiny onboard digital cameras, taking a photograph these days is about the easiest thing in the world.
The trouble is that most snapshots produced with such devices are really bad.
That's because a bank of default auto-settings − focus, exposure, field-of-view and so forth − is no substitute for the human brain and genuine knowledge about how to set up a real camera and compose a memorable shot, what professionals call "making a picture."
Such principles are exactly what seventh-graders at St. Gregory's School have been learning about this spring, using a couple of mid-grade digital cameras and some imaging software to create a collection of really remarkable photos.
In leading the 11 students through the photographic process St. Gregory's technology teacher Cheryl Cornell took on one of the more difficult and fulfilling challenges faced by any instructor − translating skills and machines and theory − and a little math − into art and beauty and creativity.
During the two-week photography unit, Cornell helped her middle school-age students explore such concepts as white balance, macro close-ups, juxtaposition, f-stops and shutter speed.
It's an annual exercise for Cornell designed in part to give next year's eighth-graders the skills they'll need to produce the St. Gregory's yearbook. But this year's crop of students displayed such enthusiasm and promise, that she expanded the photo lesson into a juried contest in which the youngsters were asked to submit their best work in eight different image categories ranging from the artistic to the downright technical.
One of the more challenging assignments was to record an image whose composition represented a Fibonacci Spiral, a design, that is, based on the Fibonacci series of numbers, which begins with one plus one and continues by adding the two numbers that come before each result − one plus one is two, two plus one is three, three plus two is five, and so forth.
OK, so the Fibonacci series isn't so much about photography per se, but it is a pretty cool thing to know.
Given the overall quality of the dozens of images taken by students for the competition, Cornell decided she needed an expert to serve as judge. That was an easy call, since her son, Maryville High School alumnus Galen Gibson-Cornell, is a University of Wisconsin graduate student in fine arts and soon-to-be Fulbright Scholar set to begin studying in Budapest, Hungary, later this summer.
After carefully evaluating all the submissions, Gibson-Cornell selected Peter Kempf's moving backlit photograph of a boy reading a large Bible in front of a stained glass window as best-in-show. Runner-up ribbons went to Madison Holtman's artistic macro close-up of some otherwise unidentifiable electronics and Dustin Conover's whimsical juxtaposed photo of classmate Sabrina Olson, shown arching her hands over her head so that she appears to be holding up a large tree.
Page 2 of 2 - The trouble with contests is that not everybody can win, but Cornell said she came away impressed with the work submitted by all 11 students. The only downside, she said, were the limits placed on the class by a lack of good equipment − a couple of fairly inexpensive digital cameras with fixed lenses, one of which quit working midway through the unit.
Since St. Gregory's survives on parent-paid tuition and donations, the fate of the photo unit next year likely depends on generosity. So, if anyone has a couple of nice Canon EOS Rebel T3i's laying around, let Cornell know. When it comes to the kinds of great photos her kids learn to take, a cell phone just isn't going to cut it.