“What’s the best camera for my kid? Her birthday’s coming up, and she wants to get into photography.”
If I had a dollar for every time someone asked me that question, I’d be at least $100 richer.
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Kids are exposed to photography today so much more than when I was young. When my parents brought out the camera, it was for special occasions: holidays, school dances, etc. But from the moment they are born, we take photos of today’s kids. Not just the special occasions, but the beautiful everyday moments that preserve simple and profound memories.
It’s no wonder that children want to be part of this process. When they are tiny, they want to mimic what mom and dad are doing on the phone with those quick snapshots. And when they get a bit older, it begins: “Mommy, can I take a picture?” And you hand that precious camera to your precious child, hovering nearby to catch that camera if it drops.
And eventually, the kids get older, get devices with cameras on them, and discover for themselves what it’s like to record a part of their life in an appealing way. They go to middle school and high school and choose classes like photojournalism or join the yearbook committee.
And all through that process, parents wonder if they should buy their kids a “real” camera. And when the kids express an interest in having a real camera, the questions really start. What kind? Which brand? Point & shoot or dSLR?
The good news is that we don’t need to stress much about this choice. There’s no one best camera for kids, but there are many that will accomplish the goals you should have for each stage in your child’s life.
Best Camera for Kids – Elementary School Aged
The benefits of kids taking photos at this stage in life are often overlooked. With a camera in their hands, kids learn to answer these questions:
- What makes you happy? By choosing what to take a photo of, kids learn to identify with their emotions. Parents can help by asking them why they chose to photograph a specific subject, what they like about a photo they took, or how they feel when they look at that photo.
- What do you want to include in your photo? Each time we communicate, whether we’re speaking, writing, or expressing ourselves with a camera or other creative device, we need to decide what to include. More importantly, we need to decide what to leave out of this expression, what’s not relevant, what won’t help us make our point. Kids begin to learn this skill by zooming in and out and choosing what to include in their composition. They learn the value that comes by including one subject only and leaving out extra detail.
- What makes a good photo? Parents can help kids see the difference in lighting from photo to photo, and help them see which types of light make the “prettiest” pictures. Parents can also help kids distinguish between sharp and blurry photos. But the kids aren’t learning to be good photographers, necessarily. They are learning much more important things:
- The value of planning before you take a photo or do anything else.
- The relationship between the choices you make and the outcomes or consequences. “If you do x, y will happen.”
- The ability to critically analyze your own work, appreciate and build on what’s good, and identify places for improvement.
These skills aren’t about becoming good photographers. They are about building life skills that will develop into qualities essential for being successful and fulfilled adults.
So which camera works best for this age group?
Any cheap and durable point and shoot will do the job.
Kids this age don’t need interchangeable lenses or fancy manual controls. They don’t need to learn to set exposure perfectly or manipulate white balance. They need to frame their subject and take the photo.
The waterproof options might be fun. Make sure to read the instructions for how long they can be underwater.
I would avoid:
- The specifically kid-looking toy cameras, the pink ones with monkeys around the camera display, or the ones with handles for little hands to hold. If your child has a genuine interest in photography, don’t give them just another toy.
- The models that print instantly. Buying that film is expensive. Instead, teach your child to prioritize which photos to print, or help them upload favorite photos onto your computer.
You could try one of these models:
When I recommend cameras, I recommend avoiding the kits with mini tripods, memory cards, lens cleaners, etc., if you can. You can often save money by buying what you need individually. Here’s a guide for knowing which memory card to buy.
Best Camera for Kids – Tweens and Teen
Somewhere in middle school or high school, kids’ real interests begin to develop. They are moving from one elective to another in school, exploring hobbies, and figuring out who they are. The key words in that sentence are “begin to develop” and “exploring.” They might or might not develop a lifelong interest in photography at this point, and your budget should reflect that.
Your budget should also reflect the fact that tweens and teens are still learning to take care of devices appropriately and to keep up with small things like tiny memory cards in messy rooms.
Kids at this age are still honing the skills described above for younger kids. In addition, they develop more concrete and specific skills when they are this tweens and teens:
- Their first lesson should be to respect people’s privacy. They need to learn when it’s ok to take someone’s photo, and what to do (and what not to do) with that photo after they take it.
- Communication – Older kids learn valuable skills when they direct people to pose, ask people if it’s ok to take a photo, and use other assertive communication techniques that photographers develop. They also learn to be diplomatic and find the best way to arrive at a situation (expression, pose, setting) that suits the needs of both the photographer and the subject.
- Attention to Detail – it’s hard to take a good photo without paying attention to detail. Using cameras teach kids to check their surroundings and settings before shooting, and to look critically at their photos.
- Technology – Most kids these days have no trouble with technology. But maintaining photos on a memory card, importing them to a computer or phone, and printing them are all skills that will transfer well to the business world or any other career.
- Fine arts – Learning photography introduces kids to the qualities of fine arts: composition, light, value, color, etc. Being familiar with artistic concepts and terms is valuable for many occupations, and it certainly leads to a more fulfilled life.
So, which type of camera do tweens and teens need?
It’s at this point that I recommend buying a camera with interchangeable lenses. Using different lenses opens up new creative dimensions in photography – kids can zoom in at sporting events or get a close up of their BFF.
The brand of camera isn’t important, nor is having all the bells and whistles. You want to find a camera that has Aperture and Shutter priority modes, plus Manual too, for the ambitious kids.
However, if Mom or Dad has a camera with interchangeable lenses, you should stay in the same ecosystem so that you can share lenses. If Mom has a Canon, buy Junior a Canon that can use Mom’s lenses. Plus, Mom will be familiar enough with the camera to teach Junior a thing or two.
A regular dSLR or a mirrorless dSLR is what you should get at this point. At the time of this writing, you can get more camera for your money if you buy regular dSLRs vs. the more compact mirrorless versions.
Most of these cameras come in “kits” that include one or two lenses. You’ll usually get a longer zoom and a shorter one, or one all-purpose zoom. That is a great place to start.
Also, think about whether your kid will want to shoot video. Most cameras these days have video modes, but it’s worth checking before you buy.
When comparing prices, remember:
- The international versions and gray market versions are not the way to go. They often have no warranty and have different specs and operating instructions than you’ll commonly find online.
- Refurbished cameras are a good idea if you buy from a reputable dealer. Check for the Certified Refurbished designation on Amazon, or buy from B&H or Adorama, and read the warranty terms.
- Just like above, try to avoid the bag/tripod/flash/cleaner/everything else in the world kits if you can. Shop around and see if you can buy the lens and body separately for less money.
- Check Craigslist and neighborhood buy/sell/swap groups. You might be able to get a used camera at a great price.
- If you are going to buy an extra lens for your child, make sure to read the next session and note the price differences among the various brands.
I’d suggest trying cameras like these. And below, I’ll mention a great starter lens for your tween or teen.
Best Starter Lens for Tweens & Teens
Now that your older child has a dSLR and a zoom lens, think about adding on a “nifty fifty.” 50mm lenses are often the first prime lens that photographers get. They are good for getting closer shots and candids, especially indoors. And their large apertures are great for low-light situations and produce plenty of beautiful background blur and bokeh.
Each camera brand usually offers an entry-level 50mm that is the perfect accompaniment to a new camera. (Note that I linked to a 25mm Olympus lens below because I linked to a mirrorless Olympus above. Through the magic of crop factors, a 25mm is a 50mm equivalent on the Olympus mirrorless. Just take my word for it, or read this article if you are up for algebra at this time of the day.)
The most important thing to remember when buying a camera for kids is that the brand name and bells and whistles aren’t important. The best cameras for kids are the ones that set them up for success in life, no matter what their hobbies and careers end up being.