Cameras for Kids

Our kids have been around cameras since they were babies, whether it was snaps from daycare, watching Daniel Tiger’s dad capture family moments with his SLR, or shots at home. Familiarity tends to grow interest, and around their second birthdays, each of them started to become curious about holding and using the cameras for which they’ve become accustomed to posing. Camera reviews aren’t new, but they tend to focus on complex cameras and aimed at adults wanting shiny new features. Case in point: my previous purchase, the Olympus OM-D E-M1X. It was enough to pique my youngest’s attention though, and as you can imagine, watching a two year old try to hold the camera verges on the comical.

There are a handful of reviews aimed at cameras-for-kids, and these tend to be comprised of many of the same cameras, all of which with some similar specs and features. These tend to be colourful, somewhat durable, big-but-light, and hopefully with large buttons for kids still working on their fine-motor-control. They tend to have low resolution, often not more than 1.3MP.

They’re also expensive for what you get. The Hamilton-Buhl Kids Flex is an example of this right now, costing $60 for 1.3MP. This is better than the Fischer Price camera which was the leading “for kids” camera when we were looking for our daughter two years ago, offering only .3 MP: 640x480, or the state of the art resolution if you were buying a home PC in 1987.

That’s why we looked elsewhere when we were looking for cameras for my daughter. What we picked-up were a pair of Canon cameras, an A1200 and SD780. The cameras were 4-6 years old, and we picked them-up used for about $40 each. The SD780 even has image stabilization which is great as young photographers often have trouble with camera shake. You can now get a 10MP point-and-shoot for about $10 in reasonable condition, or an excellent condition 16MP Nikon with image stabilization for $25. These all make great beginning cameras for about a five year old.

These digital point-and-shoots are usually loaded with a lot of modes and complexity which is overwhelming for young children. An alternative may be to go even older-school, and look to film. The Fuji Instax cameras do frequently appear as a recommendation for young kids, and they have a lot going for them. We got our daughter a Fuji Instax Mini 8, and just ordered its successor Mini 9s for our boys. There’s very little difference between the two models functionally, they have a fixed focus lens and fixed shutter speed of 1/60. The ergonomics are good for young hands, and 1/60 of a second is sufficient for taking sharp photos. My daughter loves the instant product of the photo, and the limited pack of ten photos helped instill some shot discipline when she first started, as well as a useful tool for working on counting and subtraction. There’s a bit of complexity with setting the right exposure, initially I’d set this when I handed to her, but she later learned to set it on her own with some reminding.

Photo of a dog outside

Scan of Instax Mini film

The Mini 9 is still available, discounted, although it’s been discontinued. Unfortunately, its replacement, the Mini 11 loses the fixed shutter speed, but gains fully automatic exposure. I haven’t played around with it, and while it sounds like the better camera, a fixed shutter speed I’ve found is the most helpful feature for having a two year old take a sharp photo.

Photo of a dog

Sharp photos from the Leica X2 at 24 months

With a 1/250 shutter speed, even a 23 mo old can take sharp photos, and if you have $800 to invest in your child’s photography, a Leica X camera will provide, in my opinion, the best combination of ergonomics and opportunity without adding complexity. Set auto-focus, auto-ISO, auto-aperture, and fix the shutter fast enough. Alternatively, you can look for a used OM-D E-M5 or OM-D E-M!0 which–although they add complexity–adds in-body image stabilization (IBIS) to help keep images a bit sharper in unsteady hands. IBIS isn't a miracle worker, and being able to ensure a fast shutter speed is going to be the best course for sharp pictures of which your child can be proud; but an old OM-D can be had for $200-$600 depending on the generation, and adding a 25mm prime for $150 will still be cheaper than the Leica X2. Optionally, you could add a 40-150mm Olympus lens for another $100 to that system.

If you don’t want to spend that level of money, or the recurring cost of film–roughly $.60/shot for the Instax, you may be back looking at the kids cameras hoping to avoid complexity. We found (this one) on prime day advertised as a 5MP camera for $20. What it really offers is that same 640x480 sensor in the Fischer Price camera, with the option to perform some rather horrendous upscaling. Surprisingly, it doesn’t solve the complexity problem, and can be frustrating to use as the buttons on the back will change modes and get in the way of just taking a shot. The kids-cameras tend to add things like games, while having high shutter-lag and low resolution. I also regret the lack of a viewfinder–all three of my kids’ first reaction is to mimic trying to use the viewfinder, and when my daughter was just starting to use cameras using the viewfinder seemed natural.

Just as there is no best camera for an adult, there is no single best camera for children. What works best will depend on the child's maturity and natural inclinations for interacting with the camera. For older-than-toddlers, I think the used point-and-shoot option is probably going to be best for most cases. For younger children, I would consider the Instax until they’re ready for something else.