How to choose the right camera for your child so they can learn photography.
Updated: Apr 17, 2019
When I use the term ‘young child’, what I mean is child under about the age of 14. Anyone from about 14-19 I’d define as being clearly a teenager. The transition between childhood and adulthood occurs in the teenage years. During that time interests are becoming hobbies and possible paths in life. Choosing a large investment in camera gear at that critical junction between childhood and adulthood is not necessarily wise.
Young children from about 5 years old into their tween years are very fluid in their interests and flexible in their use of something like a camera. Their interest in photography may start young, and it may also wane into their teenage years as their interests shift. However they may also cut their teeth in photography during their early childhood, learning what the buttons do and how to get an acceptable exposure, they may even gain a bit of a photographers’ eye. Their work will likely be as juvenile as they are, but they may also blossom into a fantastic photographer as they mature, their technical skills in areas that require brute practice to get right having already been learned as young children.
Still, this question is complicated and there is no single answer to it. There’s actually a whole lot of questions and what-ifs that go into cracking that one nut. To help me understand I asked Joy Bauman, my mother, for help. Joy has been an elementary school teacher for over 25 years. She is currently the director of children’s programs at the Rock Rapids library. She had a lot to say about this question.
Joy says. “For a young child the most important thing in a camera is that it must be durable.” I agree and think you should be spending no more than about $200 on a first camera. “it could get left somewhere, or stepped on.” Joy says. “You can teach them to take care of a camera but accidents will always happen. A case for the camera is a good idea too, after all they are used to backpacks.”
What about a Point and shoot camera?
Joy says.“Given how small these point and shoot cameras are, the biggest issue kids are going to have is keeping their fingers out of the way of the lens. That’s why I like the idea of them looking through the lens, because they can see if their fingers are in the way." In favor of the SLR form factor she added. “I think it’s easier to coordinate when the camera is up against their eye and forehead as opposed to looking at the back of the camera.” It's preferable to get a camera with an optical viewfinder but they seem to be disappearing nowadays. manufacturers seem to have a trend going of making all cameras able to shoot exclusively with a back screen as the viewfinder.
What About a DSLR?
Joy says, “Young kids will have coordination issues when it comes to holding a camera still. They can get better at that in time but at first that’s going to be a major issue.” So that alone means that we need to look towards lighter and smaller cameras. Big DSLR cameras, especially full frame or cameras with big battery packs therefore are not a good choice. However, she agrees that given how much exposure young children have to technology these days, young kids should be able to master a DSLR with a bit of training from someone more knowledgeable. If you can set their camera up they should be able to take at least halfway decent pictures in the automatic modes.” Indeed, however one problem may be that you as a parent don’t know a DSLR camera very well. A child could get into the wrong menus and create a configuration that makes it “stuck” for lack of a better word with the wrong settings to take decent pictures. I’d have no problem if my child were to use one of my DSLR bodies because I know the Canon DSLR menus like the back of my hand. I know where everything is. Can you say the same? If not, giving your child a DSLR might be an expensive mistake where not even you can now use that camera.
If you have a DSLR already then perhaps you could buy a used older model for them. If you aren't experienced with one though, forget it! The modern DSLR camera is just too complicated for a child to learn alone. It's also going to be very expensive to repair if it gets dropped or water on it.
So what camera do we suggest?
We recommend a camera no more expensive than about $200-$250. The camera preferably would have an optical viewfinder, and be somewhat simple. Does something like this exist? Well, something that fits the bill is called a “bridge camera” and it’s a lot cheaper than you think. Bridge cameras are the step between the expensive DSLR cameras with their removable lenses and the much simpler point and shoot mini cameras used today. Their optical trains are usually made with bigger sensors and glass elements allowing for near DSLR quality images, but the lenses are integrated into the camera so nothing can get broken, lost or removed.
On the expensive side but a good base to start is the PANASONIC LUMIX FZ80
This camera is $250 but has everything a child would need up into adulthood. It’d be a great piece of kit to grow up with.
Kodak makes the Kodak PIXPRO line with several bridge cameras. While it doesn’t have an optical viewfinder it does have a simple set of controls. Smaller cameras like this still have a good grip for smaller hands.
Canon makes the Canon PowerShot SX410. Actually the whole Powershot line might be a good choice.
These are only a few suggestions, they aren't set in stone. If you can find yourself a bridge camera for a cheaper price, by all means do so, you should be able to find older models for under $100 which is perfect.
What accessories should you get?
Joy has seen all the accessories that I carry and use for different projects. I carry a camera case the size of a small suitcase and before a lot of shoots I’m swapping lenses and accessories out all the time to make space for the equipment I need for the situation at hand. “it’s just going to be too confusing. They need more experience before they are ready for that. It’s not that accessories are a bad thing, it’s that learning photography is a step-by-step process. You’re dealing with beginners, and they need things simple."
A child isn’t going to understand what filters for instance will do to a photo. They may find a filter novel in that it does something, but they won’t be able to harness the potential of it. Instead, buy a cheap tripod. The one accessory I can totally get behind for anyone is a good, cheap, tripod. This will allow a child to experiment with long exposures and fun little projects like light drawing. They can also use the tripod to take steady shots. One need not spend that much money on a tripod for their child either. $20-50 is very adequate and there are some great tripods even at Wal-Mart and Amazon.
What can you expect one your child gets a camera?
You can expect a lot of learning to take place. You can expect your child to take thousands of photos, most of them trash. From time to time a good photo will come out, this should receive encouragement. Even the best photographers in the world will take hundreds of photos before they get one that they think is good. It’s the way things work with photography.
Expect a lot of failed experiments and strange looking photos. That’s not only how children learn, it’s how they grow. You should also expect to see the world from a new perspective through their photos. They see things from a different angle, a different height, and what they find interesting may be different than what you would expect.
What you can do to help your child become a better photographer?
Creating a photograph doesn’t end when the shutter clicks, it ends when the photo is published, wherever that may be. That work usually doesn’t end in the camera. Encourage post-processing of photos starting with the act of “culling” the huge number of photos taken down to a handful of very good ones, then work on those photos.
Adobe makes a version of Lightroom called “Lightroom mobile” A child should be able to work on editing their photos on an Ipad or tablet within that software. Encourage the enhancement of photos. It’s not hard.
Once your child creates something they are proud of you must take their creation to the next step, publishing. Print that photo! Joy and I both agree that the self esteem gained from seeing their idea manifested on a tangible print that they can show off to people is one of the best things they can receive from their interest. Wal-Mart print labs can do prints for under $0.50 each. A few dollars should get you a collection your child can be proud to show off. You can even give a photo album as a gift.
Lastly I’d like to suggest that you expose your child to all sorts of photography techniques that they can do. For example their camera should be able to do exposures of at least a few seconds.
That’s enough time to create a simple light drawing or motion blurred image. Suggest that they take their camera everywhere and shoot everything. Most digital cameras can produce video as well. If possible let them make videos.
It might surprise you how good of a photographer your child becomes. It might also surprise you to see them get their work published in a children’s magazine they like, or have their work entered into a photography contest. They might just win! Photography is a skill that will serve them the rest of their life, even if it’s just taking a better selfie for social media. Give them a head start at a new skill set, after all it’s better than passively watching TV or playing video games, it’s creativity!