Most of my childhood is a blur, but I clearly remember the day my mother gave me my first camera. It was an ancient Kodak with manual wind-on and a plastic spindle where you could attach a flash cube. For years, it lived in a snug box at the bottom of a chest of drawers in our living room, and when it wasn’t bearing witness to family holidays and school plays, I used to take it out and unclip the leather case just to feel the click of the shutter under my fingers.
If it had any controls beyond point and click, I didn’t know what they were for, and it was a long time before I learnt how to load the film correctly and avoid the flames of orange light across my prized pictures. But it was mine, and it started an obsession with seeing what came out of those magic canisters of film, and that has given me, not to mention shareholders in Kodak and Fuji, many years of satisfaction.
What’s in it for the children?
A camera is one of many tools with which children can unlock their creative response to the world. It’s different from paintbrushes and saxophones in that you don’t need an artist’s manual dexterity to get satisfying results out of it. Photography is also one of the most parent-friendly and non-destructive hobbies around, requiring neither big expenses nor making a big mess or noise. It’s infinitely more productive than lazing in front of the TV, and in a very real way it encourages patience and a calmer mind: When children first grab a camera, they tend to jab at the shutter button but once the initial excitement wears off, they’ll realize the shaky pictures that result just aren’t that cool.
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The first point is to give them something to call their own—something that won’t break your heart (or the bank) if it gets dropped in a puddle. For me, photography switched from a mild curiosity to a confirmed interest when that old Kodak became my responsibility.
Second-hand cameras can buy you plenty of bang for not too many bucks, especially if they’re old ones you have lying around the house: Use your largesse as the perfect excuse to treat yourself to an upgrade. However, it’s also important to keep it simple. Handing down that 1980s Minolta SLR might solve the problem of what to do with your obsolete gear, but the technical knowledge required to make a decent picture with it could deal a fatal blow to your child’s inner shutterbug.
Besides, children love the instant feedback of digital. The buzz they and their friends get from turning the lens on each other and immediately seeing their faces is the surest way to keep them coming back to the little black box.
Passing on the shutter bug
• At first, it’s best not to impose too many restrictions. Start with the camera on auto, and let them go at it with a minimum of rules.
• Show interest in your child’s pictures. Get prints made, help them build an online gallery, and make a scrapbook or journal of their shots. As you look through their photo albums together, you can begin to suggest simple ways of improving them, like keeping horizons straight and cropping in on points of interest.
• Keep their enthusiasm up by going on photo excursions—zoo trips, beach days and holidays are ripe material for exploring through a lens.
Even a basic automatic camera can teach a child valuable lessons about photography—and preserve memories they’ll treasure for years. And if, after a couple of years, your young whippersnapper shows signs of being the next David Bailey or Ansel Adams, you can help them take the next step.
David Stott is a photographer based in Australia. Write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org