Teaching Photography
Without Enough Equipment
Art Teacher, Marvin Bartel, Ed.D © 2006


Recently, a high school photography teacher sent a note like this to an art teacher list serve: “I have to fill the "downtime" my students have in photography. My class has 22 students and we only have 11 enlargers. What ideas can I use?”

A photography class using digital cameras may have similar problems if there are not enough computers and software. Sitting around having downtime gives any course a bad reputation.  Good students do not take the course and poor students gravitate to the course for easy credits.

To develop a good reputation as a high school art teacher, class time has to be UPTIME. Developing creative class dynamics in a facility that is short on equipment is challenging, but with some teaching innovation it can be fun and really build enthusiasm for the program.  I think of it as teaching two classes at once.  Both classes are there for UPTIME.  Each group of 11 has teams and their tasks and are organized with the stronger students assigned as team captains for groups of 3 or 4 students. 


As the teacher, I need to be the coach that keeps the whole thing going.  In education that is practice for the game of life, nobody sits on the bench.  The time-outs are short and to the point.  I have the playbook.  Teams are encouraged to work to out-create each other.  Class time is a participatory learning game for everybody.

In some sessions, everybody has to learn some basics and the strategies before attacking the creative issues of the day.  Often the whole class meets just long enough to discuss and clarify tasks and strategies for the period. One group of teams goes to the darkroom, the other group is in the classroom setting up and working on photo problems.  Photo setups are negotiated in teams, but each individual in each team is expected to make their own variations and make their own individual final choices and variations.  No duplicate photos are accepted.  Team members have to score their own points.


This is a quick list for some possible teamwork assignments to do in the classroom.  I am sure other art teachers and photo teachers could add more ideas that have worked for them. While these teams are working in the classroom, the other half of the class is working in the darkroom perfecting their processing and printing abilities.

  1. Lighting setups
  2. Window lighting using a tripod or another way to hold the camera
  3. Still life composition styles
  4. Various shaped and sized pinhole camera making and taking
  5. Four types (styles) of portraits of each other
  6. Art from copy stand
  7. Copy stand work for a photo presentation from a photo book
  8. Micro-photography experiments (insects, weed seeds, ears, lips, eyes, toes, etc.)
  9. Very low-light photos
  10. Flashlight motion compositions
  11. Double exposure compositions (self talking to self, my four hands)
  12. Picture within a pictures and frames within frames
  13. A series to show each of the visual elements
  14. A series to show each design principle
  15. Time and motion experiments
  16. Depth of field experiments
  17. Surrealist assignments
  18. Social comment photo poster assignment (save the earth, or team selected topic)
  19. Photomontage compositions using trial prints and contact sheets wasted in the darkroom
  20. Learning to dry mount, cut mats, and presentation principles
  21. Conduct team critiques of each other's photos
  22. Prepare and give reports on photographers that work in each of the above specialties, reports on the purposes of photography, reports on photo styles, very early historical photography, contest to find and judge the most creative photographer in the world, etc.


Some stronger students occasionally complain that there are too many slackers in their team. At some point we have a discussion about the virtues teamwork and how it prepares us for a lifetime of accomplishments in today’s complex work world. We develop a system of assessment that students are willing to buy into.  They might choose to assess each other on a number of points. Have them think of things they like about team members and make a list for a teamwork rubric.  These are examples I have used.

  • Ability to listen
  • Ability of ask open questions that get others in the group to think creatively
  • Willingness to pitch in with the work
  • Willingness to try new ideas and experiment

I give them each a copy of the rubric and ask them to check it off for each colleague at the end of each project for several projects.  It is part of the grading system to supplement credit earned on the photography itself. This page has a teamwork rubric that has them name the top person in each category. If they see it in advance, they can strive to be the one in their team that gets mentioned at least once.


I have never taught high school photography. I never took photography in high school and never took a photography class in college. I came to photography as an artist and an art teacher and taught it in college for many years. If you are a high school photography teacher, you could probably make a lot of improvements to my ideas on this page. 


The biggest teaching credit for the ideas in this essay goes to Bill Smith.  Mr. Smith was my high school metal shop teacher in grades 9 and 10.  We had a nice big shop, but not nearly enough welders, forges, anvils, metal breaks, drill presses, and other equipment for the whole class to the same thing at once.  He instructed us about procedures and safety.  We had to work in teams to master each process in the shop.  We did not get to move the next process until our hole team mastered what we were learning. Once we achieved basic competencies by doing a practice routine and/or a simple tool making project using each metal working process, we each were allowed to design, fabricate, and properly paint a piece of original functioning machinery.

Even though I have been an artist all my life, I have learned significant photographic content from my students. Working in photography has also been a great composition teacher for me as an artist.

I have been a high school art teacher.  I have been a college photography teacher for many years.  I have placed student teachers in high school photo classes.  Quite a few of my students have become great high school photography teachers.

© NOTICE 2006, Dr. Marvin Bartel, Ed.D. If you wish to copy or publish any part of this electronically or otherwise, you must get permission to do so.  Contact the author

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