New research shows children are natural photographers

October 17, 2002

New research shows that, contrary to popular belief, children as young as four years old show a remarkable aptitude for photography and are perfectly capable of framing a portrait shot. The photographs gave an insight into how youngsters view their world. Four year olds mostly took emotionally stimulating photographs such as those of their parents or visually stimulating pictures such as those featuring bright colours and patterns. The research also shows that by the age of seven children became quite adventurous in their subject matter and could easily stage and pose photographs.

The ESRC-funded research was a collaboration between the School of Psychology and the Kodak/Royal Academy of Engineering Educational Technology Research Group at the University of Birmingham. The researchers collected over 1,500 photographs from children aged four to fifteen years old and examined the relationship between photograph and photographer. They then interviewed more than 200 children to test the children's understanding of the intentional nature of photographs and discover what they thought about their photographs and how they viewed photography as an activity. "We wanted to discover what children understand about the relationship between the three dimensional world in front of their eyes and the resulting two dimensional image of the photograph they held in their hands," explains Professor Glyn Thomas and Professor Mike Sharples, co-authors of the research.

Single use cameras were handed out to the children to use as they pleased and children were then interviewed about the resulting photographs. "We wanted to find out why they took photographs, how they see their own photographs and what made them happy or unhappy about their photographic efforts," says Professor Thomas. The research clearly highlights the qualitative differences in children's photography at different ages. "There was evidence, for example, that as children get older they are able to reflect more on their photography and are able to talk about their underlying intentions," explains Professor Thomas. "Older children were also more likely to describe photographs as images with formal properties of their own distinct from the things being photographed," he adds.

Interestingly, eleven-year-old children were more likely to take outside photographs in a natural setting and their pictures were less likely to feature people. "The changes in the subject matter of these older children's photographs were mirrored in their commentaries which revealed an increasing desire to create satisfying photographs as aesthetic objects in their own right," explains Professor Thomas. Fifteen-year-olds however began to use photography more as a social activity with many describing photography as an activity to engage in with friends. "Many of their photographs fulfilled a social purpose maybe to symbolise the ties of friendship or to amuse and embarrass others," adds Professor Sharples.

The final part of the research aimed to discover how children use visual cues in taking photographs. "We wanted to see if children who were given a sample photograph could use knowledge of results to improve on their skills," says Dr Laura Davison, who carried out the interviews. "Even the youngest children were able to do this but what was striking was that the type of visual cue offered by the sample photograph dramatically altered the ability of the youngest children to recreate that photograph. Where a qualitative change was made even the five-year-olds were able to adjust their photographs accordingly," she adds.
For more information contact Professor Glyn Thomas at the School of Psychology, University of Birmingham, Edgbaston, Birmingham B15 2TT. Telephone 44-121-414-7931.

Or Iain Stewart or Lesley Lilley , ESRC External Relations, telephone 44-179-341-3032/413119.

1. The ESRC is the UK's largest funding agency for research and postgraduate training relating to social and economic issues. It has a track record of providing high-quality, relevant research to business, the public sector and Government. The ESRC invests more than £53 million every year in social science research. At any time, its range of funding schemes may be supporting 2,000 researchers within academic institutions and research policy institutes. It also funds postgraduate training within the social sciences, thereby nurturing the researchers of tomorrow. The ESRC website address is
2. REGARD is the ESRC's database of research. It provides a key source of information on ESRC social science research awards and all associated publications and products. The website can be found at
3. To view a selection of the photographs taken in the course of the research go to

Economic & Social Research Council

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