Whether they’re photographing, editing or publishing images, most people have a whole photo studio in their pockets nowadays. So how do you distinguish a photographer from your average smartphone user with an Instagram account?

If you ask TUMO photography workshop leaders, it comes down to emotion. Mariam Loretsyan is clear: “Unless there’s passion driving you, you’ll never have the courage to get close to your subject, the patience to wait for the right moment, and the attention-to-detail required to snap a perfect shot.” At the end of the day, if your photo doesn’t transmit an emotional story, it is not truly a photograph. The other photography workshop leaders agree. Varazdat Rafaelyan remarks that “After completing all three levels, students learn to think before taking a photo, not after.” While students will learn to master the technical aspects of photography, like with any art, photography has more to do with the person than the tools of the trade.

Level I

Back to basics. Students learn the ABC’s of exposure, which is to say how light passes through a camera. ISO, shutter speed and aperture are concepts students must comprehend, not memorize—otherwise they won’t remember them by level 2. Before teens are handed DSLR cameras and tasked with indoor and outdoor photo assignments, they’re exposed to the big names and most influential work in the field. They’ll learn how to curate their best photos using Adobe Bridge software and lightly edit their shots using Adobe Photoshop—but remember, if you learn how to expose your shots right from the get go, you’ll save time on editing later on.

Level II

Equipped with an understanding of camera settings and exposure, students in level 2 shift their focus (see what we did there?) to composition. The goal is to place subjects, objects and empty spaces within a frame thoughtfully, considering the desired emotional impact and where you want to direct your viewer’s gaze. Students learn about different genres of photography and have the freedom to choose and develop their own style. The challenge is to see their everyday world differently and look for the exceptional moments hidden in the mundane. To get there, teens have to step out of their comfort zones: Approaching interesting subjects to photograph can be an intimidating task. To break the ice, students in level 2 are tasked with photographing strangers for their street photography assignment. Meeting and getting to know new people not only boosts students’ confidence, but is an indispensable skill for photography and beyond.

Level III

By now, students have a good understanding of exposure, composition, and have warmed up to the idea of approaching strangers. To round out their photo-education, level 3’s aim is to develop students’ visual storytelling skills. For photography workshop leader Hrant Sahakyan, working with students in this level is his favorite part of teaching. “There are many things I know by default as a photographer, but putting them into words when students ask questions is educational not just for the students, but for me as well.” With feedback from their peers and workshop leaders, teens select a theme and follow their subject over the duration of the workshop’s four weeks. Each week, they bring in new photos uncovering their subject’s life story. They work and rework the photos until they whittle their selection down to the strongest shots to showcase at their end-of-level presentation.

Students who successfully complete the photography workshops at TUMO will be more than just good photographers. They’ll be good storytellers. Ultimately, Mariam says that photography is what you put into it: “You have a single frame to capture an emotional climax, which is impossible unless you’re in touch with your own emotions as well as your subject’s.” Like with all our focus areas, in the end, it’s not the camera that takes the photo. It’s you.