No, you don't want your six-year-old using your DSLR - yet. Are you shopping for a camera for your child this holiday season? Do you want to introduce your daughter to the wonders of photography, without sacrificing your fragile iPhone or pricey camera in the process? I've been there - watching lovingly while my kids get so much enjoyment taking "selfies", creating videos of Barbie dolls and train sets, and learning to document the world around them.
With all the junk out there this holiday season, a camera is a relatively inexpensive gift that will last for years, while providing hours of education and creativity in kids as young as two years old. I got my daughter started at that age, and while she tends to prefer hyperactive videos at the moment (she's now six), she's taken some pretty impressive still shots as well. An avid swimmer, she particularly enjoys shooting underwater with a waterproof, shockproof camera I got her for her third birthday.
Before you get started, here are five tips for introducing your kids to the amazing world of photography:
1. Avoid "Toy" Cameras - There are a lot of toy cameras out there, and while they may seem like an easy choice for your child, I'd caution you on most. They tend to take extremely poor quality images - something they might have lived with ten years ago, but if your kid has experimented with your smartphone camera, she's going to be disappointed. Yes, they've got princesses and superheros plastered all over them, which may get you some big smiles when they're unwrapped, but kids aren't dumb - they'll lose interest quickly if they can't really enjoy the images they create. And you'll be frustrated too, trying to explain why that photo of the cat they worked so hard to get looks like a furry smudge.
2. Go for Durability - Any camera you get for your child is going to get dropped, stepped on, thrown, and generally mistreated. Yes, you want to instill a sense of responsibility and care in your child, but if you teach him or her to treat their camera like a delicate flower, with constant admonishments to "be careful!" they're going to be afraid to use it. One of the most important considerations for pro photographers when choosing a camera is feeling comfortable with it in our hands and having a good "build quality" - it's durable and will stand up to constant use. Take it a step further with your child's camera and choose a water-proof, shock-proof model. Not only will this give you peace of mind your investment won't be listed on eBay for parts by New Year's, your child will be able to take it to the playground, to the beach, and even in the water, which will open up creative possibilities they wouldn't have if the camera had to stay home. I particularly like the Nikon Coolpix S31 - which comes in a variety of colors (yes, even pink!) is waterproof to 5 meters, and takes HD video. Best of all, it's less than $100. The Nikon Coolpix S31
3. Get Them Inspired - One of my favorite bedtime activities with my daughter is to scroll through my Instagram feed looking a photos from around the world. She's developed a specific taste in styles and subjects - she despises black & white - and loves recognizing locations and photographers she's familiar with. Share the photos that you're taking - of family events, vacations, and more - preferably on the big screen of your computer or television, so that your child gets the full effect of what a powerful image can be. Take her to a photography museum like ICP, or a local gallery in your town. Find some fun photography books like Underwater Dogs at the library or bookstore. Stoke your child's imagination with the possibilities of their new camera, and they'll have a head start on creating beautiful images.
4. Print! - Sadly, with the proliferation of social media and smartphones, printing photographs is done less and less frequently. But there's something about holding a photograph in your hands, or hanging it on a wall, that makes the process so much more fulfilling. Children love to make stuff, so don't let that memory card fill up and sit in a desk drawer somewhere. Whether you use a home printer (I love the Canon Pixma series), a local drugstore, or a professional lab like Adoramapix in NYC (yes, they ship!) I really think it's imperative that you DO something with those photos. Let her decorate her room with framed photos that she's taken herself. Let your preschooler take some 4x6 prints from his holiday break for show and tell. And with photobooks, prints on canvas, and other photo products, the possibilities really are endless.
5. Don't Push It - You've bought the perfect camera, made prints of your child's work, encouraged her to bring it along on vacation. But she's just not taking to it as you had hoped. Don't force the issue. In my experience, trying to force a new hobby or interest on a child who isn't receptive is doomed to failure, and may close their minds to other experiences. Perhaps he'll never develop an interest, but maybe it's just not the right time. Conversely, if he takes to photography like a fish to water, encourage him. Lots of schools and community centers have photography classes for kids as young as kindergarten. As with any skill, photography takes lots of practice - the sooner you start her off, the sooner you may have the next Vivian Maier on your hands.