“First, I took picures. Then I learned to walk so I could get a higher point of view.” That's what I say when someone asks how long I've been into photography. When would be an appropriate time to teach your child photography? No matter the age, my answer is: NOW!
Photo © kryczka/istockphoto.com
The earliest photographic evidence of my interest in photography goes to a grainy black-and-white picture, shot in the driveway of my parents' home at 18 Ipswich Ave. (an address that no longer exists) in Great Neck, New York. In the picture, I am of crawling but not walking age, and I'm carefully examining my dad's camera case. The photo was shot using a Bolsey B-2, a clunky 35mm camera I would inherit as a teen.
When I was 5, my uncle Al gave me an Ansco cadet—a 120 rollfilm camera with a fixed-focus lens and two modes: “Color” and “Black and White”. I still have the photos I shot with it—of childhood friends, my neighborhood, the world of a 5-year-old. I would eventually graduate to a Kodak Instamatic 105, then Dad's Bolsey, and finally my big step into serious photography, an Exakta RTL 1000. OK, so Exakta wasn't such a great idea, as it turned out. That would be corrected by the time I hit 15, when I got a Canon FTb-n and enough lenses to launch my early photographic career on my high school newspaper. Photography became a life-long interest, hobby, profession and avocation.
If I could start shooting at five, your young one may be ready as well! Here are a few tips for getting a young shooter started, as well as some cameras to consider.
How to encourage your child's interest in photography
Children are naturally curious, and impulsively explore the world around them. They're often hunting for treasures, watching insects crawl, playing with mud (to see what it feels like, not to make you buy stock in laundry detergent companies), and staring at people (which, unfortunately, adults discourage). You can harness this curiosity into a lifetime hobby or even profession with photography.
Choose an appropriate camera
The best camera for a 9-year-old might be easily destroyed by a pre-schooler, but a grade school-aged child will refuse to use a camera that's designed for little kids. A tween will want more features but mays till be prone to destruction. How long did that first cell phone last? Scroll down for some possible candidates for first cameras.
Pre-schoolers: Choose something simple, indestructible and cheap. It should be easy to grasp since motor coordination is still developing. Look for a camera with an optical viewfinder.
Early grades (K-4): Younger children may still need something durable; by 7-9 years old they'll be ready for a camera with more control.
Middle school (grades 5-8): These kids are ready for low-end point-and-shoots that may offer a modest zoom range and a variety of shooting modes. At this age, however, your camera might be in competition with the built-in camera on their cell phones. Choose a model that offers ease of use plus more features than a cell (such as an optical zoom lens, close focus and creative modes) to get their interest. For guidance, read The Best Budget-Priced Cameras Right Now! For girls: This may sound sexist, but girls at this age are more conscious of appearances; let them have a say in which color body to get. Look at The Best Fashion Compact Digital Cameras Right Now! for a colorful selection; many of these cameras may fit into a middle-school- and even high-school-friendly budget.
Take Time for Training
Don't just hand a child a camera—show how to use it, even if it's as simple as “look in this viewfinder and when you see what you like, press this button.” Go on a photographic safari around the neighborhood and demonstrate how to frame and compose. Let your child take a picture, then find something to praise about the photo. Then use your skills as a photographer to show them how to make it even better.
NOTE: If you don't consider yourself a skilled photographer, or just want to brush up on the basics, you might want to refer to my series “Fix the Pix” for some good basic composition advice. You can also refer older children to this resource.)
Keep it simple
My instructions to my then 6-year-old daughter were “find something you're interested in and fill the frame with it. Then take its picture. If there's too much other stuff around it, get closer.” The results thrilled her!
You can teach older children the camera's features if they express interest but if they are early in the process stick to basic things and don't let a camera's cool and useful (to you) controls get in the way of their picture-taking joy.
(Come to think of it, there are some adult photographers I know who could benefit from this advice as well.)
Learn by Chimping
If your camera has an LCD finder (the cheapest ones may not) take a look at the photo your child just shot. As him what he likes best about the picture, and what he might do differently next time. Use praise, don't discourage but do point out how he can improve the picture.
Let them “waste” pixels...after all, they're cheap...but then show how to get better shots
After you've spent a few minutes (not hours!) showing your child how to use his or her camera, let her loose so she can explore without feeling her parent or responsible adult is looking over her shoulder. Remember your first pictures? A more experienced photographer might look down on such shots as a waste, but you were learning to be a photographer. Give your child the space to explore, make mistakes, learn...but most of all, to have fun and to develop their enthusiasm for photography!
So...which camera should I buy for my child?
The below list of cameras for kids represents the modern-day equivalents to my old Ansco Cadet (which I still have hanging in my office. It stopped working long ago, but I can't let it go). They are limited, but they're also very affordable and are a good way to gauge your child's interest in photography. With the simple pointers above and the right camera below, you never know if the seed you plant will grow into a lifetime interest in photography!
Cobra Digital C150 Squeezable Soft Camera
Let's face it: While you are never too young to start shooting, little tykes tend tto not have a firm grip on things. The Cobra C150 is a VGA-quality camera (it can capture computer monitor resolution images; don't expect to make prints) that can be used for outdoor daylight photography and will take plenty of typical childhood abuse. A squishy exterior protects the camera's sensitive electronics, while an optical viewfinder teaches Junior to compose. Available in squishy Blue or Red.
Crayola 2.1MP Digtial Camera
Designed specifically for preschoolers, the 2.1MP Crayola camera has a cool form factor that is well-suited for those tiny hands that have not quite gotten their motor coordination together. This may be the only camera in existance with built-in handles. Your little one can take as many pictures as he or she wants since the camera stores images on removable SD cards. A 1MP card offers ample space. Images are screen quality but you may also be able to make 4x6-inch prints. Available in Purple or Green.
Bell & Howell Splash WP5
The Splash is a good low-cost camera for “middle-aged” children—those in lower elementary grades but past pre-school age. At 12MP, resolution is more than enough for ANY photographer, but this is a great camera for shooting in any weather (I've never seen a kid who didn't like jumping in and splashing a puddle) and can even be used when swimming. The Splash has a plethora of scene modes so if your young lad or lass wants to emulate Mommy or Daddy's photographic talents, this camera has enough features to get a variety of well-exposed and focused shots while keeping up with your big rig. Available in Purple, Black, and Blue.
Digital Blue LEGO Digital Camera
A fully-functioning 3MP digital camera, this imaginative image-capture device looks like a lego toy. And in fact, its external shell is made up completely of Legos, and you can add additional legos to it. So is it a camera, or a toy? Well, it's both, and if you're a playful sort, it will do double duty. You could even create a Lego tripod to give it tabletop support. Features are minimal: built-in flash, a 1.5-inch LCD, 128MB of internal memory (holds up to 80 photos at a time, downloadable via USB) and a fixed-focus lens.
Vivitar ViviCam 8018
At only $50 the ViviCam is a minimal investment to get your photographically-interested grade-school-aged child started in photography. Its 8MP sensor will produce more than sufficient image quality for even 8x10-inch prints while its fixed focal length f/2.8 lens is fast enough to shoot even in subdued light without flash. The 1.8-inch LCD monitor is small compared to the 2.5-inch-or-larger ones we adults are used to, but it still provides enough info to help with composition. This camera is a good way to gauge your child's interest in photography; as he or she learns, you can step up to a more advanced camera. Available in Red and Black.