The Family That Shoots Together… Street Photography With Kids

[James here – this is the first post from new contributor Dustin Vaughn-Luma. I hope you’ll all look forward to what he brings.]

As a young man, I occasionally engaged with photography. I wouldn’t describe it as an obsession or a passion, just a general interest. In the mid-1980s, point & shoot and instant cameras were plentiful, and I can’t recall a time growing up where we didn’t have at least one lying around the house. I took pictures of the dog, the plants, the dog’s poop, my parents, and whatever else was in my line of fire. My parents weren’t photographers, nor was anyone else that I knew. It was just something that occasionally occupied my time. Naturally, my “general interest” ebbed and flowed over the years, but it wasn’t until the launch of Instagram in 2010 that my passion for photography began to develop; but that’s a story for another time. This post is about a family affair, and hopefully one day, tradition.

My wife and I are both freelance photographers. We’ve worked with clients such as Carnival Cruise Lines, Harry’s, Brooklyn Bicycle Company, Topo Athletic, and HTC. It isn’t our primary line of work by any means (paid work is occasional at best), but it’s something that we love, take great pride in, and enjoy passing down to our children. It affords us unique opportunities to travel and has been the catalyst for some wonderful relationships that we’ll forever cherish. Of course, some of our paid work requires one of us to be away at any given moment, and that’s fine, but we try to get out as a family at least once every couple of weeks; not only to teach the boys how to shoot in different environments, but to simply ensure that we are doing something fun as a group on the regular. Because the family that shoots together, stays together.

Shoot Film

I think it’s important to note that when we do head out as a family, we almost exclusively shoot with film, and here’s why. Aside from things like “it just looks better”, “it has soul”, “you can’t get that look with digital”, and other cliché terms you hear from lots of film shooters, I personally believe that shooting film has taught all of us two very important lessons – patience and the ability to read light. It’s almost like when you learn to drive a car, right? If you learn on a manual transmission, you can drive anything. Same idea.

My kids are naturally impatient creatures; however, they aim to please, and will pay attention as long as they’re entertained. By starting them on manual film cameras, I found that they really enjoyed the simple pleasure of matching the needle to the exposure bracket, and without a lot of dials, buttons, and overly-crowded viewfinders to confuse them, they were able to quickly understand how aperture, shutter speed, and ASA / ISO relate to one another. After a few months, even my seven-year-old was able to guess the light in most environments to within a couple stops. Once they began to understand how the camera worked, I taught them the Sunny 16 rule and had them try shooting a camera without an internal meter. Of course, when they were unsure about their guesses they asked for my phone so they could check it against my light meter app. This unexpectedly became a fun game in itself. “Hey guys! Who wants to play guess the light?” So much better than video games. No, seriously.

As for teaching patience, shooting film means that instant gratification is right out the window (aside from that sweet click of the shutter). But it’s not all slow going. We shoot a lot of black-and-white because we can develop it at home, which speeds things up a bit and cuts cost. The additional element of anticipation and surprise that I see on their faces when they finally see the photos they made just a few days prior is something I love to see and something to which all film shooters can relate.

They love the whole process. In fact, both of my boys will ask if there is anything they can do around the house to earn money for film (yes, you pick up the dog shit and you earn yourself a roll of HP5 – simple). Ultimately, photography has and always will be a process. With film, it’s just a more extensive process, and it’s one that they really seem to enjoy, start to finish. In fact, we recently picked up an enlarger, so 2017 will be full of more educational darkroom fun too.

Choose the Right Camera

I mentioned that I started my kids on manual film cameras, and the benefits of this decision can’t be emphasized enough. There are a ton of really good options out there, but I ended up teaching them both on the Olympus OM-1n for a few reasons. It’s a simple camera. The controls are on the lens barrel and lens mount, so they were able to take to it quickly. It’s smaller than most SLRs which means it’s great for smaller hands. They’re ridiculously inexpensive; I found both of mine with lenses for under $150 in perfect working order. The viewfinder is huge, and with a fast lens like the Zuiko 50mm 1.8 or even 1.4, it’s nice and bright. The meter is really easy to understand. It’s an SLR, not a rangefinder, which eliminates accidentally leaving the lens cap on. It happens a lot – trust me.

Of course, there are plenty of other outstanding options out there like the Pentax K1000 and Nikon FM/FM2, all of which are built like tanks and can really take a beating by even the most careless of hyperactive mini-humans. The bottom line is that whichever brand or model you choose you can get a child a really nice 35mm film camera that’ll most likely end up lasting them their entire lives (if serviced occasionally) for less than $100. I mean hell, my wife and I have a Nikon FE (made in 1979) that has been all around the world and through the harshest environments (Mohave Desert, our kitchen table, etc.), and has never been serviced (and it’s electronic!). Thing still purrs like a kitten.

Environment

We live in very close proximity to downtown San Jose, and often times we’ll need to be in that area for one reason or another. We try to coordinate these errands into half day events (my kids top out at around four hours of walking and maybe two rolls each) where we do what we need to do and then walk around the city a bit. San Jose is one of the safest cities in the world (so I’ve read), and not once have I felt threatened or unsafe shooting in the city center. The kids really seem to like it because everything is so different from what they’re used to seeing in our neighborhood. I think it’s important that they experience what life is like in not only other areas of their home town, but other areas of the world. Teaching children photography, specifically street photography, is a great way for them to identify with their culture as well as themselves. Additionally, it’s a great way to teach them how to approach complicated lighting environments, as most scenes often move from bright light to shadow quickly due to the buildings and dense architecture.

In addition to street, we’ll often have them tag along on portrait shoots for a couple of reasons. One, child labor – total win. And two, it teaches them a different side of photography; the business side. I want them to be exposed to as much of it as possible. See what I did there?

Games, Not Lectures

It’s no secret that young children can get off task quickly, and we don’t want to inadvertently turn them off of the hobby because we overloaded them with rules and photography jargon. Instead, when my wife and I take them out, we do away with the lectures about composition and other more technical details and simply make it into the game that I mentioned earlier (Guess the Light). You’d be surprised how quickly a child can understand the inverse relationship of aperture to shutter speed if you allow them to just go out and play with a camera for a bit. Of course, they may not understand how it all works in detail, but they can understand “if you turn this dial this way, the photo gets brighter”, and vice versa. In fact, the only thing my little one truly cares about is beating his brother, so naturally he has a vested interest in learning how to read the light. You dig? By approaching it this way, I’ve found that they are not only encouraged to go out and shoot with us more, but they also encourage each other; which I’ll selfishly chalk up as a parenting win.

Common Sense

My wife and I are constantly aware of our surroundings when we go out on the street, and we teach our kids to be aware as well. When we walk the street, we let them go first, and we flank them. Pretty simple. Both of them carry their own camera bags (most of the time), and it prevents someone coming up from behind and snatching it from them while we’re ahead. We tend to stick to a few blocks that we know are safest, and ultimately we just let them shoot whatever they find interesting. Simple as that.


I hope this inspires you in some way to take advantage of the time you have with your family, and be sure to make great memories from those opportunities. Like all family outings (camera related or not), it’s truly about togetherness, fun, and for a short period of time, a life unplugged. Being with my family is the most important thing in the world to me, and if my wife and I are able to pass a spot of knowledge on to our kids in the process, that’s even better. I remind myself that the photos they take are a representation of the world through their eyes, and I’m looking forward to chronicling these times for years to come. I hope all of you are fortunate enough to do the same.

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17 Comments

  • Reply
    Stu Williams
    January 19, 2017 at 8:56 am

    Brilliant, love this.

    • Reply
      DVL
      January 19, 2017 at 12:54 pm

      Cheers, mate.

  • Reply
    Merlin Marquardt
    January 19, 2017 at 12:14 pm

    Very nice. Would be interested to know what light meter app you use on your phone.

  • Reply
    Brent Pearse (@brentpearse)
    January 19, 2017 at 1:38 pm

    Amazing, I’m also a San Jose native and Bell grad, cheers. I plan to share this with my wife for when our daughter (kids? 🙂 are older.

    • Reply
      Dustin
      January 19, 2017 at 2:05 pm

      Go Bells!! Appreciate the kind words, dude. All the best, and happy shooting!

  • Reply
    Jonathan
    January 19, 2017 at 9:47 pm

    My four year old is amassing quite a good collection of photos of me and photos of me+wife. On film, of course. I intend to continue her “education” and I hope it can become a father-daughter outing opportunity for us. Thanks for the good article.

    • Reply
      DVL
      January 22, 2017 at 11:43 am

      That’s awesome! Glad you enjoyed the post.

  • Reply
    the6millionpman
    January 20, 2017 at 1:29 pm

    What a really interesting article and quite different to what is usually on here (not that what is usually on here is bad at all of course).

    • Reply
      Dustin
      January 24, 2017 at 7:36 pm

      Really glad you enjoyed it. Cheers!

  • Reply
    Huss
    January 20, 2017 at 8:38 pm

    Coolest mom and dad ever! Lucky kids, lucky parents.

    • Reply
      Dustin
      January 24, 2017 at 7:35 pm

      Ha! Do what you love and include your kids – about as cool as it gets 🙂

      Thanks for the kind words.

      Cheers!

  • Reply
    Jeremy H. Greenberg (@jhghongkong)
    January 22, 2017 at 3:19 am

    I really enjoyed reading this piece. I teach film photography in an International school in Hong Kong and the “Guess the light game” is a simple but good idea.

    • Reply
      Dustin
      January 24, 2017 at 7:33 pm

      Glad you enjoyed it, Jeremy. Thanks for reading.

      It’s amazing how much fun kids have when anything is turned into a game. If you end up trying it out with your students, we’d love to hear how it goes.

      Cheers!

  • Reply
    Jwilliams
    January 29, 2017 at 8:32 pm

    Great article

  • Reply
    Ariel
    February 4, 2017 at 6:55 am

    Awesome!

    What does your family do with the developed negatives? Do you scan them or make prints? How do you do that and make it fun?

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