How to teach photography composition & collaborative critique

How to teach photography composition & collaborative critique


Today’s students see photographs constantly whether they’re searching online or posting to their favorite social media accounts. And even though they’re really familiar with bookmarking and liking their favorite images they may be unaware of what exactly makes a photo “work”. Composition is a subtle, yet mighty aspect of photography that can be used to turn plain images into compelling works of art. In Through The Lens Turning Emotions Into Art, Luke Thomas writes about how he gravitated towards photography during the pandemic. Using his story as inspiration, this lesson plan introduces basic composition principles with several opportunities for hands-on activities.

*Before-class prep: Prepare scenarios for Activity 3 (suggestions below).


  • Part 1.2 Photography Composition slides to provide students with visual examples of the composition principles
  • Learning to Critique artistic analysis protocol
  • Tablets or Smartphones w/ Built in Cameras or cameras (at least one per every two people)
  • Paper
  • Markers
  • Tape
  • (Optional: a backdrop, like a sheet, for each group)


Give students a minute to think about their answer to the question, “what makes a good photo?”. Then invite students to share as a class, in small groups, or in pairs. If students are in pairs or small groups and have access to a computer or other digital tool, they can pull up an example of what they think is a good photo.


Part 1: Give students 5 mins to read “Through The Lens: Turning Emotions Into Art”, By Luke Thomas.
Part 2: Discuss questions in pairs or small groups:
  • What role do photos or photography play in your everyday life? 
  • Is there anything you started doing during the pandemic that continued to be part of your wellness practice? 
  • What do you think are some of the most visually attractive or appealing places in your community? Why?


Pull up Part 1.2 Photography Composition slides for students to see examples of each composition principle. Anyone can take a selfie, but one thing that sets great photos apart is creative composition and angling. We’re going to do a quick activity that uses the Rule of Thirds.

Why use the rule of thirds?

Think the best way to take a photo is to put stuff in the center? Nope. Sure that can look cool on occasion, but most professional photographers know that people tend to pay attention to objects when they hang out in a specific place: the “thirds” of the frame.

How to use the rule of thirds?

Think of a photo like there’s an invisible tic-tac-toe board going through it. In other words, the frame is divided into three equal sections left to right and up to down. Our eyes tend to like it when important things are at the intersection of those lines. NOTE: Sure there are exceptions to the rule. But in general, most photographers try to use this framing as a kind of “golden rule.”

Exercise – Using the rule of thirds:
  • Pair participants up with a partner. Pass out smartphones or iPads so each group has at least one. Ask each person to take a photo of something RED in the room using the rule of thirds.
  • Have students share their favorite photo.

TIPS: Use the rule of thirds grid lines to compose the subject within the lines that intersect with one another. 

(If grid lines aren’t visible {for iPhone/iPad} go into Settings > Photos & Camera > Grid and activate it)

  • X – too many elements (excess objects)
  • ✓ – few elements – tighter crop (DON’T ZOOM, instead move yourself closer to the subject)
  • X – dead center – don’t place your subject directly in the middle of the frame
  • ✓ – leading looks – (if your subject is a person, capture more of  what’s in front of them instead of the back of their head)


Now that students have been introduced to the rule of thirds, we’re going to practice taking photos using a concept called “Leading Lines.”

What are leading lines?

Leading lines are the natural “lines” in a photo. They’re not actual lines, but more like how the elements in a photo make your eyes move because they point to something. There is a natural instinct for the viewer to visually follow leading lines. Look for natural lines to place your subject in so it looks as if the lines are leading to your subject.

Exercise – Using Leading Lines:

Now, using elements in the room to create leading lines, take a photo of your partner. Feel free to be creative! You have five minutes to take a photo of each of you.


For our last activity today, we’re going to play with some props and use our photo skills to tell a story. So keep in mind what we have learned about the rule of thirds and leading lines. Now we are going to throw one more element into the mix: zoom.

  • Materials: 
    • One smartphone per group of 3 
    • Paper and markers
    • Tape
    • Enough space to have each group move around
    • (Optional: a backdrop, like a sheet, for each group)
  • Have students get into small groups (3-5 students in each group depending on the class size).
  • Hand out a scenario and some markers/paper to each group.
  • Instruct students to take 3 photos to tell the story of what’s going on. Students will take a wide shot, a medium shot, and a close up (show examples from the slides). 
    • Each photo should tell a different story (or have a different interpretation) when seen solo.
  • Each group will get a scenario to photograph — you can use our examples or invite the groups to come up with their own. They are welcome to make props using the markers and tape.
      • You’re a giant dinosaur destroying a tiny city
      • You’re doing pushups with someone sitting on you
      • You’re brushing your teeth while driving a car

For this activity, the group will come up with 3 photos — an extreme closeup, a medium close up, and a wide shot. Each photo should tell a different story (or have a different interpretation) when seen solo.


Learning how to critique – Explain what a critique is. Make sure to set ground rules for how to respond to work respectfully & with profession terms. You might say: “Try to be thoughtful about your comments. Remember, you are trying to help someone produce the best art possible. Try not to just say a photograph is “good” or “interesting.” Go deeper! Use the proper photography terms like aperture, exposure, shutter speed, etc. It will help if you decide to pursue photography as a profession or side-hustle.” 

Pass out Learning to Critique handout. 

  1. Students will select one photograph that they have taken today to show their peers.
  2. Set a timer for 5-10 minutes (depending on how many students are present and how much time you have).
  3. Peers will critique the photography without photographer’s response.
  4. Set a timer for 2 minutes.
  5. Photographer will respond. They may:
    • Answer any questions.
    • Explain any challenges they had.
    • Talk about what they would have done differently.
    • Talk about what they like about the photo.
    • Explain their process and intention.



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