Sometimes I feel sorry for the children of photographers. It's a hard life. From the time of their birth, they have had that camera constantly in their faces, through every milestone, birthday party, and major and minor life events. Yes, the children of photographers need never worry about forgetting anything that happened to them during their childhoods. Chances are, whatever it is, it's stored somewhere on a memory card or hard drive somewhere inside their shutter-happy parents' home.
Besides being eternally tormented by mom and her DSLR, the children of photographers do have something going for them, and that is exposure to photography at an early age. The chances are pretty good if your child has grown up in the presence of a camera, she's also developed somewhat of an interest in photography. Your job as a parent is not only to make sure that you capture a ridiculous number of photographs of your child as she's growing up, but that you also teach her how to use a camera herself.
Of course if you're like other parents, the mere thought of letting your child anywhere near your $1200 DSLR is probably the stuff of nightmares. Let's face it, most of us would much rather be pursued by a pack of wild dogs then hand our beloved cameras over to the kid who thinks spending hours building extra-tall Lego towers is less fun than gleefully knocking them over. After all, if your camera isn't broken, at least you can still get some awesome pictures of that pursuing pack of wild dogs. And because I know that pretty much every parent feels this way, I would never recommend starting your kid out with your personal camera. It's time to get her a device of her own.
Now, there are a lot of toys companies that have jumped into the digital camera marketplace and have produced some pretty kid-friendly digital cameras. I don't really like to recommend these as starting cameras for kids who might be serious about learning photography, however, because they really are just toys. Worse, most kid-friendly digital cameras include games, and today's kids tend to get disproportionally sucked into playing those digital games instead of taking pictures, even kids who actually do have an interest in learning photography. So it's really a better idea to get her a basic point-and-shoot camera to start with.
That doesn't mean that you have to spend more than $100—remember that people upgrade their cameras all the time, which means that there are a surplus of used digital cameras available on sites like eBay and Amazon.com that are really not very old and would make excellent beginner cameras. Now, depending on how old your child is, how accident prone she is, and how easily frustrated she is, you may want to avoid certain kinds of cameras in favor of others. For example, a point-and-shoot camera with a lens that extends and retracts is going to be a lot easier to break than a point-and-shoot camera that has a fixed focal length lens or a lens that doesn't move in and out. Similarly, cameras with interchangeable lenses such as micro 4/3 cameras, which may be inexpensive if you buy them used, are still going to present difficulties for kids who may not have the coordination or care that adults do. It can be tricky to change a lens and you need not only a gentle hand but also enough caution to know that you should avoid getting fingerprints on the inside of the camera. Not all kids have this knowledge or the ability to internalize the reasons why they need to be careful, so interchangeable lens cameras are probably better for the older teenager rather than for primary school aged children.
Don't forget about your retired gear, as well — you may have an older point-and-shoot camera stuffed away in a drawer somewhere that you would be willing to donate to the cause.
Some kids are easily frustrated or accident prone and may throw a device when it's not behaving as expected or if she can't figure out how to use it. That's really a kid thing and she'll grow out of it at some point, but you don't want her to grow out of it amidst a growing pile of broken point-and-shoot cameras. If your kid is easily frustrated, (and you probably already know this if you let her use your smart phone to play games while you're at the supermarket), then you should look into buying an inexpensive rugged class camera. These cameras are not only designed to withstand punishment such as throwing, or drops from a great height, but they're also great for kids because they can be taken on vigorous activities such as skiing and snowboarding or even swimming. Tough digital cameras are a little more expensive than basic point-and-shoots but they've been around long enough that you can probably find a decent one used. If not, you can rest assured that the one you buy for your accident (or on purpose) prone child will outlast most other inexpensive point-and-shoots.
What you really shouldn't be worrying too much about when you buy your child's first camera are things like picture quality and the ability to use manual features. That's just not the sort of thing you need to be teaching your kid right now, and if you worry too much about making sure she shoots in manual mode you may actually have your efforts backfire. Kids don't want to learn about settings when they're very young, they just want to be able to point that camera at something cool and end up with an equally cool photograph. So save your concerns about picture quality and manual mode for her second or even third camera.
What to teach first
Despite the name "point-and-shoot" the last thing you should be urging your child to do is point-and-shoot. Start with some very basic rules of composition. "Fill the frame" is a very good place to start —it's easy to understand and easy to apply. Explain it in as simple terms as you can, for example: "Try not to include too much space around the outside of your subject." Then send the child out with the camera, may be even by offering a few subject suggestions, and have her bring back some example shots. If she didn't get the "fill the frame" concept the first time, you can explain it a little better using the example photos she came back with.
The rule of thirds is another very simple guideline for a child to get her mind around, and is the one rule that can instantly turn a snapshot into a thing of beauty. Depending on your child's age you can explain the rule of thirds simply, or in a more complex manner—for a young child, it's enough to just say that she should place her subject on the right or left side of the frame but not in the middle. For an older child, turn on the rule of thirds grid, and explain that she should try to place her subject on one of those rule of thirds intersections.
Ultimately, try to take it slow. Don't give your child a long list of all of the different rules of composition because that is going to be way too overwhelming for her. She doesn't want that list, she just wants to take pictures. So have her show you her work every week or two and then when you think she's mastered one of the rules of composition, pick another one for her to move on to. And keep it easy—the rule of simplicity and the rule oods are two other compositional guidelines that are pretty easy for kids to grasp and apply to their work.
Most of all, be a supportive presence for your child and her budding photography hobby. Don't be overly critical, but don't overpraise either. Always find something nice to say about her work, but don't leave out your comments on how her work could be improved. Remember that we don't get better if we are only ever told how wonderful we are, and we don't get better if we are only ever told how terrible we are, either. Find something wonderful about every photograph, even if it's just choice of subject or brilliant colors.
Don't add new concepts and ideas to your child's repertoire too soon. Give her plenty of time to experiment with some of the ideas you've given her before giving her any more. Make sure that you have a place to showcase all of her best work — she's going to think it's pretty wonderful to have her own portfolio, so spend some time going through photos with her and help her choose her favorites. If you keep her portfolio through the years you'll see real developments from when she was a beginner to when she started to become a more advanced hobbyist with a style all her own.
Photography, as you know, is a wonderful hobby even for a younger child. It's a great way for her to express herself and develop her own personal sense of creativity. In our modern education system, art tends to take a backseat to other educational pursuits, so whether it's art, photography, or some other creative activity your job as a parent to make sure that your child gets all of the nurturing that she needs to really blossom as an artist.
- First cameras
- Avoid toy cameras
- Pick a sturdy point-and-shoot
- Consider a used rugged camera for accident-prone kids
- Avoid cameras with interchangeable lenses
- What to teach
- Teach one guideline at a time (rule of thirds, rule of simplicity, fill the frame)
- Let your child master one guideline before moving on to the next
- Put all her work in a portfolio