How to Pick the Perfect Camera for Kids

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As a parent, one of the most enjoyable aspects of photography for me is sharing my love of photo-taking with my two kids. My wife and I enjoy taking pictures of our two boys, looking through old family photos with them, and involving them as much as we can when we are using our cameras.

However, when our oldest was about five years old he started wanting to get in on the action as well, and that’s when we hit a bit of a road block. We wanted to get him and his younger brother a camera, but with so many options we didn’t even know where to start. Fortunately we found a solution that has worked wonders for us and could be great for you too.

What you need to know about choosing cameras for kids.

The Options

When we started looking more seriously into cameras for our kids we realized we had several options, all of which we ended up discarding for the following reasons.

Let them use our cameras. As much as we wanted them to get a real hands-on experience with photography, the cameras and lenses we use for formal photo sessions are much too expensive to hand over to our little boys. When they’re older we will certainly let them use our camera gear, but not at such a young age.

Invest in rugged point-and-shoot cameras. Some cameras made by Olympus and Panasonic are designed to take a bit of punishment and seem ideal for kids, but we didn’t want to spend hundreds of dollars on a camera that our kids might enjoy for a few days and then put aside in lieu of something else. (As parents we have learned that our kids’ enjoyment of a particular toy or object is rarely correlated with the amount it costs, and just because something is expensive by no means ensures they will like it or use it more than once!)

I have no idea why, but my six-year-old is obsessed with taking pictures of ceiling fans. This has led to some good discussions about shutter speeds and also the effect of flash when freezing motion.

Purchase a kid-oriented camera. If you search online you can find dozens of kid-oriented cameras that have big buttons and bright colors, but all the ones I have used have been quite unimpressive. Tiny low-quality LCD screens, slow response times, horrible image quality, and awful sound effects all seem like they are designed specifically to suck the enjoyment out of photography altogether.

Let them use an old mobile phone camera. This seems to make a lot of sense given the prevalence of tablets, phones, and other devices with cameras and touch-screen technologies, but we ultimately decided against it. We didn’t want the hassle of dealing with internet restrictions and app downloading, especially when our kids are so young. In the future we might open this door, but for now we’re more comfortable giving our kids an actual camera instead of a device that has many functions, including a camera.

The more we looked at choices available to us the more we seemed to hit dead ends, until we came up with a solution that seemed to check many boxes all at once: we would buy each of our kids a used point-and-shoot camera.

Old point-and-shoots can’t match modern cameras, but they’re not too shabby either. And when a kid can snap a picture of a sunrise with their very own camera, it’s a fun moment to witness.

The solution

A used point-and-shoot camera hit every one of our criteria. And the more research we did, the more we realized that this plan had almost no drawbacks and a variety of benefits including…

Price. You can look on eBay or used gear sites like KEH.com for used point-and-shoots and find plenty of options for $25 to $50. That’s well within the range that we are comfortable spending on a toy, and if our kids lose interest or break their cameras accidentally, we haven’t lost a lot of money.

Selection. The sky really is the limit when it comes to selecting a used point-and-shoot, and no matter your budget you can probably find one that suits your needs – especially if the goal is to give it to a child. As a starting point search for “Powershot”, “Coolpix”, or “Cyber-Shot” and sort by price to see plenty of low-cost point-and-shoot options.

A quick eBay search for Canon PowerShot digital cameras between $25 and $50 turns up dozens of results.

Features. I owned a few small pocket cameras way back in college and over the years I had forgotten how many features these old things had! Most of the ones we looked at included things like optical viewfinders, video recording, optical zoom lenses, self-timers, limited manual controls, white balance options, various metering modes, macro/portrait modes, custom scene settings, and instagram-style filters. Some of these require digging through menus, but it’s all there for children to explore and figure out, which is part of the fun of photography in the first place.

Image quality. Can a decade-old point-and-shoot match the quality and megapixels of a modern DSLR or smartphone? Of course not. Most of the cameras you are likely to find will be in the 3-megapixel range, which pales in comparison to any modern camera. And good luck taking pictures at high ISO values. But the point is to use this as a way to get kids interested in photography, and no child I know is going to balk at having only 3 megapixel images. That’s plenty big enough to crop and print. (Remember, a 4×6 photo at 300dpi is only 2 megapixels.)

Image quality on a used point-and-shoot can’t rival a DSLR, but it can be easily and cheaply replaced if dropped in water when taking pictures of turtles. And that’s almost what happened when this photo was taken.

After all our investigating we ended up getting our boys each a Canon PowerShot DS450 Digital ELPH from eBay. We paid $27 for one and $29 for the other, including shipping. Our kids (age 6 and 3 when they received them) were so thrilled they could hardly put them down. They called them their “Professional Cameras” and quickly started taking pictures, experimenting with different options, and figuring things out in the menu screens while teaching each other what they had learned.

Over time our kids have learned a lot more about photography and how to use their cameras to get the images they want. And they really enjoy experimenting with the self timer and taking short videos too. We made albums for each of them within our Apple Photos app. Over the past year they have built their libraries up with thousands of pictures which they like looking through and sharing with others.

This picture of grandma and grandpa’s dog isn’t going to win any awards, but my son had fun taking it and it helps him remember this visit.

At times their interest has waxed and waned, and sometimes a month will go by without them picking up their cameras. But that’s how kids are with most toys, and I don’t think the situation would be any different had we spent $200 on a brand-new kid-friendly point-and-shoot. The situation isn’t all sunshine and roses though, and there have been some drawbacks and risks that any parent would need to take into account when buying a used camera.

The risks

Purchasing anything used, whether it’s a camera or a car, carries with it its own set of risks and parents should be aware of what they are getting into.

Gear condition. If you get a new camera, whether it’s a brightly-colored toy camera or an advanced drop-resistant point-and-shoot, you can be fairly certain that the product you pay for is the same as the product you receive. It will also likely come with a warranty, but neither of these is the case with used cameras. Reputable sites like KEH, B&H, and Adorama rate their items with a scale that gives you a pretty good expectation of their condition, but what you get in the mail might have scratches, dents, or other defects you might not expect.

Both of the cameras we got on eBay had dings and dents, but my kids didn’t mind at all and I would suspect most kids (especially very young ones) wouldn’t even notice.

Beware of auction sites. If you have never used eBay or other auction sites before, navigating their options can seem like a bit of a digital minefield. Look closely at seller ratings, return policies, and buyer-protection options before making a purchase. And if you come across a camera deal that seems too good to be true, it probably is. The same goes for cameras you might find on Craigslist or Facebook Marketplace. Don’t be afraid to ask questions of the seller.

Accessories not included. Depending on where you get your camera it may or may not come with niceties like a wrist strap, a memory card, or even a charger or working battery. The cameras we got for our kids had batteries that barely held a charge, so we got a pair of third-party batteries for about $15. It wasn’t too big of a deal but it served as a good reminder of the difference between buying used vs. buying new. Things like this aren’t deal-breakers and your pocketbook will be still be much happier, even if you do have to buy some of these additional items.

On a recent trip to the local botanic gardens my kids finally got to be the ones taking pictures of daddy, not the other way around. Simple wrist straps definitely helped them keep track of their cameras in the process.

The lesson here is one that has rung true for ages, ever since humans began trading for goods and services: caveat emptor—let the buyer beware. If you do a little bit of research, ask questions, and trust your instincts you will probably end up with a perfectly good camera that will be great for kids.

It’s been well over a year since my wife and I got used point-and-shoot cameras for our boys, and despite a few hiccups, the experiment has been a resounding success. It has not ignited some latent passion for photography, but our boys have had fun experimenting and exploring and creating – and thus far they haven’t broken their cameras either.

My three-year-old took this with the pocket camera we bought him for under $30. I asked him why, and he told me he just liked the colors of the bike.

Meanwhile my wife and I rest easy knowing that they can’t access harmful internet sites or download strange apps onto their 2005-era digital cameras. And if our kids do end up breaking or damaging their point-and-shoots it will be a very cheap problem to solve. (As a bonus, if they do break their cameras we plan to use it as a financial lesson and make them save up for replacements.)

If you or someone you know has kids who are interested in photography, I highly recommend checking out the many used cameras available to you before shelling out hundreds of dollars on a brand-new model or buying a cheap kid-friendly camera with actual bells and whistles, but limited capacity for photography. The risk is fairly minimal, the results can be quite rewarding, and you might even find yourself renewing your own excitement for photography simply by helping teach the younger generation what makes the art form so special to you.

Read more from our Cameras & Equipment category

Simon Ringsmuth is an educational technology specialist at Oklahoma State University and enjoys sharing his enthusiasm for photography on his website and podcast at Weekly Fifty. He and his brother host a monthly podcast called Camera Dads where they discuss photography and fatherhood, and Simon also posts regularly to Instagram where you can follow him as @sringsmuth.

  • Rodolphe

    I would also suggest considering an instant camera such as the Instax range by Fujifilm. Cheap to buy (though more film can get costly). The main benefit is that they get rewarded by seeing their printed picture straight away. Then you can give feedback / use them for something arty etc. Great fun!

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