Buying Digital Cameras for Kids & Teens - Part 1: Selection Criteria

teen with camera Normally, the articles on this site are written for children. This article is different because the decision of which camera to buy is usually made by parents. For this reason, this article (as well as Buying a Digital Camera for Kids - Part 2) will be aimed at parents. If you are a child and you are thinking of buying a digital camera, you can still read the article and learn a lot from it, but the language may be a bit harder to read than our regular articles.

In part 1, I will look at the general selection criteria, while in part 2 I will make actual recommendations. Please note that throughout both articles I will make references to actual camera models and prices. These prices and models were current at the time when this article was written, but may have changed since.

Choosing Digital Cameras for Kids

Buying digital cameras for kids is very tricky simply because there are so many choices. Deciding on a camera will depend on:

  1. The age of the child and how serious he/she is about photography
  2. Features: What exactly should the camera be able to do?
  3. Durability: Should the camera be built to last? Can the child handle fragile equipment?
  4. Ease of use: How much learning is necessary to use the camera properly?
  5. Price: What price range should the camera be in?

Fortunately, there are digital cameras out there for kids of all ages and all levels of expertise/interest. It is just a matter of understanding what one's options are.

What Options Are There?

One of the first questions I normally hear is: Should I buy a "proper" camera or a toy camera? Then, if the decision falls on buying a proper camera, the next question is, what kind?

Below, I will first examine proper cameras vs toy cameras, and then offer a very brief overview of the kinds of cameras available today. Proper cameras fall into three broad categories: compact cameras, DSLR (Digital Single-Lens Reflex) cameras, and hybrids. I will refer to these types extensively in part 2, so if you are unfamiliar with them you might want to read the more detailed article on The Different Types of Cameras from our regular article section.

Toy Cameras vs. "Real" Cameras:

Toy Cameras Toy cameras are designed for the youngest kids. They have very few functions and features making them very easy to use. Toy cameras are cheap, durable, and can take decent "regular" pictures. By "regular" I mean simple pictures of people and places, similar to the kind people share online. However, the color depth (or richness of the color) will generally be worse than even the cheapest "real" cameras. Also, because they have smaller sensors, slower shutter speeds, cheaper lenses, fewer features, and so on, they are particularly bad at taking photos:

  1. Of movement: Pictures will be blurry
  2. In low light conditions: Pictures will seem dark
  3. In bright light: Pictures may have "lens flare"
  4. Which require a lot of detail, e.g. landscapes
  5. Of things which are very close: Again, due to lack of detail
  6. Of things which are far away: Due to lack of a zoom (etc.)

The "Vtech Kidizoom Digital Camera" is a good example of a toy camera made for young children; it is very easy to learn, it will withstand a lot of abuse, and your child will enjoy having his own camera.

2. Compact vs DSLR vs hybrid cameras

Childrens Cameras Compact Cameras (also called point and shoot): These are all-in-one cameras, which do not come with interchangeable lenses. They are cheaper, smaller, often more durable, and largely automated. They are easy to use and will often take better pictures than the other camera types when in the hands of a beginner. However, due to their small size (which implies small sensors, lens, etc.) and the lack of control over the camera settings, they will take worse pictures than a DSLR or hybrid operated by a competent photographer (particularly in less than optimal conditions, when photographing movement, etc.).

The "Nikon Coolpix S30" is a possible choice if you are looking for an inexpensive compact camera for your child. The camera is robust and waterproof down to 3 meters, and its specs are better than most cameras of this type. The camera has a 10 megapixel sensor, 3x zoom, and can record HD video. The controls are easy to use, and the camera is designed to be easy for children to hold. This camera is available for about $90.

Action cameras are a sub-category of compact cameras. These are small compact cameras that have been designed for use in extreme conditions and are made to be attached to helmets, handle bars, etc. They can be shock proof, dirt proof, water proof, etc.

Action cameras are available from about $150-$350. One example is the ISAW A1 (which costs about $180). It comes with a waterproof housing, as well as with attachments for mounting the camera to a helmet or to the handle bars of a bike. The camera takes HD video with a 120 degree field of view. With the waterproof housing the camera can be used for all sorts of water-sports, including diving to a depth of 50m.

DSLRs:DSLRs These cameras have interchangeable lenses, optical viewfinders, and are highly customizable. They come with large sensors, which produce higher quality images than compacts, particularly in suboptimal conditions. DSLRs are also much better at photographing movement. They are also large, expensive, and difficult to use - at least if one wants to exploit their full potential. DSLRs are the camera type of choice for the vast majority of professionals. As hybrid cameras continue to improve (see below), one of the few advantages of the DSLR is that the more expensive models come with full-frame sensors (no other type of camera has this). Full-frame sensors have certain advantages and are particularly good for landscape photography.

Entry level DLSR cameras are available for about $450 - $500. For this price one can buy a camera with an 18-55 mm lens from either of the two leading manufacturers, Canon and Nikon. The included lens is suitable for portrait photos and landscapes. For wildlife photography one should have a lens with a focal lens of 300mm or more.

A DSLR camera with a full frame sensor allows the photographer to make full use of wide-angle lenses, whereas other cameras capture a narrower field of view. Full-frame cameras, such as the Canon 6D, are now available for around $2100.

Hybrid Cameras Hybrid cameras: These cameras come with interchangeable lenses. They are only slightly larger than compacts while having sensors comparable in size to the DSLR (except for models with full-frame sensors). They can do this by removing the optical viewfinder. Overall, hybrids have now nearly caught up to the DSLR in terms of quality and functionality while being cheaper and much smaller/lighter. This does not mean that DSLRs always take better photos, but merely that DSLRs can take better pictures in certain circumstances or for certain types of photography (e.g. expensive DSLRs with full frame sensors are better for landscape photography). For a more in-depth description please see the article on the Types of Cameras.

Hybrid Cameras are available from about $350. The Panasonic Lumix GX1 is one example. It is priced from around $400 and can perform the functions of many DSLRs.

This concludes part 1. In Buying a Digital Camera for Kids - Part 2, I will outline specific recommendations for each age group.

by Simon James Allanach, edited by Alan Frost
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