What could be scarier than trying to get a great picture of an uncooperative child? Here's your answer: the uncooperative child grabs your expensive digital camera and tries to take YOUR picture. Yes, every parent's nightmare. Time to get that kid her own camera. And you thought picking out a camera for yourself was challenging! How do you choose a camera for a 3-year-old? How about an 8-year-old or a 12-year old?
As every parent knows, choosing any device for a child--whether it's a camera, a handheld electronic toy or a computer--depends a lot on the child's developmental age and ability to understand the features the device has to offer. Here's a rough guide to choosing a camera for your child, broken down by age (though remember that age is not a hard-and-fast guideline, so make your final decision based on what you think your own child is ready for).
Age 3 to 7
Kids this age love to throw things, so don't get your 3-year-old a Nikon D800. Instead, opt for one of the brightly colored made-for-kids models put out by V-Tech or Fisher Price. These cameras are even tougher than the "tough" sport-type cameras that are marketed to adults, plus they are cheap enough that tantrum-driven destruction will only end up costing you around 40 or 50 bucks. I don't have to tell you that they don't take great pictures, but the images they do capture are more than good enough to elicit some oohs and ahs from your budding Ansel Adams. Most have LCD screens just like grown-up cameras, and the photos they take can be transferred to any computer and then printed out and subsequently destroyed with crayons and marker pens.
Make sure to invest in some rechargeable batteries if you're buying this type of camera. Most of them use disposables, and they eat batteries fast. A charger and two sets of batteries will prevent the insanity of having to purchase an eight pack of double A's every four or five days.
Age 7 to 10
By the time your child reaches that 7th birthday milestone, she has a better understanding of the value of her possessions and how to take care of them. She is also more capable of figuring out and using semi-complicated controls-- turning the flash on or off, zooming in and out and deleting pictures on the fly should be no problem for a child this age. Now is the time to get her a "grown-up" point-and-shoot digital camera. But don't go overboard, yet. Try to find something used (if you can't get a good deal locally, try eBay). Digital cameras are evolving so quickly that you have a good chance of finding a very reasonably priced camera, and it might even be something that was state-of-the-art only a few years ago. If you must get her something brand new, go for one of the aforementioned "tough" sport-type digital cameras--these are designed to be used and abused and many of them are impact resistant from five or six feet. They can also resist getting wet.
Remember, though, that kids this age are still prone to losing things or leaving them somewhere where they are likely to get stolen. So don't invest too much money. You can add appeal to any used or low-priced camera with accessories like a colorful case and trendy strap.
Age 10 to 15
Now is the time to assess whether or not your child has just a passing interest in photography or is a budding prodigy. Kids this age may be starting to get really serious about their photos; they may want to have a camera with them at all times to capture memories with friends, and they may be interested in scrapbooking, creating larger prints, entering photography contests or uploading their images to social media. This is the age when a lot of kids get their first cell phones, so if a phone with a camera seems to satisfy them, there's no need to go out and purchase an expensive digital camera as well. But if photography is more than just something they play around with occasionally, it's time to think about getting your child a new camera with some more advanced features. For the very serious photographer, choose a reasonably priced entry-level DSLR; for a kid who loves to shoot but doesn't show a whole lot of interest in the technical aspects of photography, pick a point-and-shoot camera that is mostly automated but still gives him some basic controls, such as aperture and shutter priority shooting modes.
Age 15 to adult
It's finally time to get serious about your child's interest in photography. By now, she will either be a devoted hobbyist or an occasional tinkerer. If it's the former, talk to her about what her "dream camera" might be (within reason, of course)--then encourage her to earn and save money towards the purchase of that camera. Earning all or at least part of the money needed to purchase a nice camera will give your child a sense of accomplishment as well as an understanding of the true value of her equipment. And a child who spent her own money on a camera is more likely to want to learn and use all of its features and stick with her hobby for the long term.
A nice mid-priced DSLR camera that has the option to be used in complete manual mode is a good choice for a teenager who is serious about photography. But there are also other choices, including more advanced point-and-shoots called bridge cameras and the smaller, lighter micro four-thirds cameras that have interchangeable lenses but aren't as bulky or expensive as a DSLR.
Children are naturally creative at any age, and photography is a great way for them to express themselves. The key is to understand where your child is developmentally, and to encourage rather than push his interest in the hobby. Make sure to buy him a camera that is well matched to his level of interest and technical abilities, and the rest should come naturally.
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