Mentoring beginning youth photographer

I have been asked by a school district to mentor an artistic 5 th grader who very much wants to be a wildlife photographer. They found me through a professional acquaintance from my work days who really exaggerated my abilities apparently. At any rate I have agreed to do this. She does have a Nikon with manual controls and a 100-300 zoom. Is there anyone in the group who has done this and can point me to some reference material on teaching someone this young? I have no idea what basics she knows yet so I thought the first meeting would be partially to find out where she is etc. Any help re reference material would be greatly appreciated. A fifth grader just isn’t going to understand things in the same way as an adult would so I’m trying to figure out how to navigate.

Just here to say…what a lucky kid to have a school that can do the legwork to hook them up with you, and for you to agree!

The key, in my humble opinion, is to figure out where the student is now. We talk about comprehensible input and productive struggle quite a bit in my building. When you do get into the instruction part I would pick one or two things to focus on and our that with some examples as well as non examples. Sometimes non examples can make more of an impact than examples.

Also, it’s a 5th grader…keep it fun!

Kudos to you, would love to hear how this goes!


Does she have a pet? If so, I’d start with that. Does she have a yard? Go for any available bird. Is there a local zoo? After this, you’ll find out what really grabs her interest. As for instructional materials, she may be able to access the internet as well as you can, lol. My favourite online resource is Secrets of Digital Bird Photography by W H Majoros, if she happens to like birds.


Baby steps for sure. Gradually ease into anything. You’ll get a feel very quickly on how well and fast she picks up on things. Obviously, go shooting, a lot. See if she starts to get bored with it, or is highly into it.

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Thanks David
This is Denver Public Schools. They have a program that the student applies for. There are very few mentorships approved each year. The student has to meet certain criteria. In this case, an old attorney friend of mine is on the board there and she thought of me as I bombard her and others with my photographic facebook posts . I just hope I can keep it fun for this kid. Thats why I’m looking for advice.
Will report back at some point.


I haven’t been around much, but your post inspired me to respond.

I don’t know you, but I’ll take an educated guess, that you know more than you think you do and certainly you have the knowledge AND experience to pass along to our youth. What an awesome opportunity!

That said, the very first thing I thought of… has nothing to do with photography really… You have the chance to instill in this young person the value of getting out there… being in, and enjoying nature, the great outdoors. Instill that in a person and they will have that for life - Regardless if they ever pursue photography… they could find painting, poetry, writing, conservation efforts. etc…

Spend time with the youth out in nature, your favorite park or nature preserve, where ever. THEN, while immersed in that environment… the fresh air, the crisp autumn breeze, the smell of the grasses… then toss in some conversation about composition… SEEING… absorbing the environment, letting it come to them, rather then they looking for it… DOF, film speed, etc. that stuff will come along as needed; get them excited about the process, not the technicals.

Get them hooked on nature and the outdoors… the fact that they have a kit 100-300 lens is NOT important… no sense in telling them they can get sharper pictures by getting a $5000 camera and $10,000 f/2.8 lens… they can do wonders with what they have…

That’s my .02 and I have no doubt you will do great with the youth! Have fun!


How fantastic for both of you!! I hope you’ll keep us posted on the journey – that’s what is should be!

Your images that I’ve seen here are incredible and I think that will be contagious – not at first the vision or the technique, but the joy and wonder. Vision and technique will follow with maturity – and maybe contribute to it.


I agree that telling her how to make good pictures should be the furthest thing from your mind. Letting her loose on her favorite things is the way to approach it. By all means tell her what was good or what you liked about them is appropriate.

I have to go back to my introduction to photography as a child. I used to help dad in the darkroom. Printing is usually considered a more advanced part of photography but it doesn’t have to be. Printing brings photography to an arts and crafts level. You actually do things with your image and hold it in your hand. If there is a printer and paper around I would give her some basic training on one and let her print some of her images.

But I agree that SEEING is the big thing in photography. That requires curiosity. When she shows you her picture I would show her how it could be seen differently. A difference perspective. A different mood. Much of it is similar to what goes on here at NPN. Why did you take that picture? How did you feel when you took it? Ask her what she liked about it? The big thing is to not teach formally but do it by answering questions.

I would even show her books of well known photographers. I used to love to paw through my dad’s copies of Aperture in the early days. I didn’t do it to become a better photographer. I just liked looking at pictures. People who like photography like to look at pictures. It’s a natural combination. And they don’t have to be pictures of photographs. I never liked art museums, however. They just bored me and I couldn’t wait to get out. It was the solemness of people looking at pictures that was a major turnoff.

One last thing. Never underestimate them. They will always surprise you. Challenge them. Kids love being challenged. Kids don’t want things easy. That’s a common misconception. Don’t think this is too advanced for them and give them things that they can easily master. Boredom is your greatest enemy when teaching. My sons favorite teachers were always the toughest. Structure is good in my opinion. Don’t let them just ‘do their own thing’. There should be purpose to every session. I would not praise everything she did. Praise should be meted out based on how advanced they are. In the beginning it’s all praise. Later on you give an honest appraisal. That’s what they want. Even at that age kids appreciate honesty.

Art is different because you do want her to do your own thing but you want her to do something purposeful, something intentional. I’m not sure how you teach creativity exactly. It’s not enough to have interest. You have to use it to make something. That process should be rewarding in itself and not ‘an assignment’. It must be hard to keep interest peaked but the good teachers are masters at it and students value them.

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@Diane_Miller @Lon_Overacker @Igor_Doncov @davewallace @Mike_Friel @BrettOssman

Little update on my adventures with my 5th grade student. We did all lessons on zoom except for our field trip. The first lesson we went over sample pictures and talked about what was good and bad about each. Talked about nice backgrounds, good light etc. She got a lot of this. Then we delved into her camera. It is a beginning Nikon. Unfortunately , no dials - you have to go to the screen on the back to put it into manual, adjust ISO etc. I created some summaries for her that she could carry with her as she worked with this. She took many notes. I kind of felt that she was getting it, but I did not appreciate how hard it was as I was not handling her actual camera but using the online User’s Guide. I learned more about it on our field trip (see below) . Our final group of lessons was on LR. I knew she got it there. She loved being able to adjust her photos in the computer. Took to it like the proverbial “duck to water”
We scheduled our outing for early morning sunrise at a local lake. I had warned her and her Mom to dress warm. It was 30 degrees and soft sun at 6:30 AM and this 11 year old had on a pair of jeans, a sweater and a jacket and no gloves. Luckily, I always carry extra clothes in the car, so I was able to put a down vest etc. on her. If I do this again, I will have a handout on the importance of warm clothing for sitting in the weeds! We did find some avocets and after flushing them one time (the few photogs on seen were extremely understanding), we managed to find them the second time and she crept up and sat down at the edge of the reeds just like I told her to and got some shots . She was very excited - it was fun to watch.
Above I talked about her camera. When we first got there I told her what my setting were as we were shooting some cormorants. She said she had her camera on totally automatic and had forgotten how she could switch it and handed it to me. Sitting there, in the cold, I realized how utterly ridiculous it was to expect her to change setting on the back of the camera. After I fooled with it for awhile, I came to the conclusion that i would have had it in automatic too and I realized that Nikon is doing a disservice to young people by not marketing a camera with dials and some simplicity designed for students. Lesson learned on teaching this art form , for sure.
Our next step is her presentation at her school. I plan on attending.

Definitely rewarding use of time to do this. I would do it again.


I’m so glad that the Denver schools offer such a program! Wildlife photography for a young photographer with entry level equipment could be quite frustrating. Access to a mentor is critical. In the Denver area, I hope you, or her parents, could take her to the Rocky Mtn. Arsenal for Bison, deer and birds (they have blinds on some of the ponds), the Butterfly Pavilion in Westminster, and Mt Evans for Rocky Mtn. Goats and Big Horm Sheep. Obviously, ample opportunity to practice technique is so important for development, and maintaining interest.

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Hi Bill
Yes all those places are great. I wanted to take her to the Butterfly Pavilion but she was not very interested in butterflies. Her parents took her separately to the Arsenal. I ended up taking her to Kountz Lake. She was well entertained there as she wanted to photograph avocets and we found them that day. Kountz is my favorite place due to the variety of birds that migrate through there.
One of the issues we dealt with is doing this during the pandemic. That is why so much of our activity was on zoom. Her age group was not approved for vaccinations until sometime late last year and she ended up not being fully vaccinated until February.
This was through Denver Public Schools. I don’t know if any of the other schools do this
It is certainly worthwhile, as you say.

You would be surprised at what a 5th grader knows about technology. With teaching, do not talk down to your student and think about how we do critiques at NPN. Learning how to interpret the camera’s light meter and reviewing the essentials of exposure need to be addressed first. One important aspect about any form of photography is that the photographer is more important than the camera. The camera is just the tool for capturing the scene. And the photographer puts it all together to capture the moment. The student will learn from you about using the proper settings for different types of subjects. Go slow and have fun. Practice makes perfect and there’s always more failures than successes. I think that you will enjoy this as well…Jim

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