Teaching Kids Camera Photography Makes No Sense and Maybe Never Did

A few decades ago, cameras meant something to the kids that carried them to camp, school, or on vacation. But, sentimentality aside, is phone photography really so bad?

by Chris Mohney
Originally Published: 
An old black camera

The earliest photographs I have, that I know I took myself, are from fifth grade. That’s when I got a hand-me-down manual film camera from my brother. I took pictures of our house, our cats, my brother, and my brother’s collection of Dungeons and Dragons model figures. Clearly I was a very cool kid. Later I would take a roll of film on vacations or other trips, snap a few listless frames of wherever we happened to be, and leave the rest of the roll unshot until a fit of boredom led to a frenzy of photographing rocks, other kids, their dogs, or yet more cats.

My camera wasn’t miraculous or even particularly interesting to me as a kid. In fact, kids generally had zero interest in cameras back then. Why would we? Here’s an annoying clunky box that clicks. Make it click a few times while pointing it at stuff. Maybe in a few weeks you’ll get back some blurry images on paper that you can promptly throw in the trash.

What about now? Kids know what cameras are, but they know them as an ancillary function of other, more interesting devices, like phones or tablets or game systems or laptops. Cameras exist in the context of Instagram, not the other way around. Why would you isolate this one button into a whole other object? It would be like taking one tire off a car. Look! See how it rolls!

Let’s be clear that we’re separating the idea of camera-as-object from the act of “taking pictures.” There is absolutely no way to stop your kids from taking pictures, sharing pictures, looking at pictures, or sending pictures. Try to imagine how many frivolous pictures a 14-year-old digital native will take even before they send or receive their first dick pic, not even considering a full human lifetime of tedious party ensemble shots and sub-par bathroom selfies. I shudder to think of how many thousands of uncategorized photos lurk in my computer’s hard drive, and I’m a certified Old. Even for me, the number of hard-storage photos is dwarfed by what floats in the digital cloud, mostly shot and forgot, untouched and unseen for years by me or anyone else. A glance at our family storage plan with iCloud, for example, lists 35.7 GB of photos. It’s our own steadily expanding half-acre of Amazon Web Services real estate, and my kids don’t even have their own phones/cameras yet.

We’re taking plenty of pictures, is what I’m saying. And despite my youthful indifference, I’ve grown to like taking pictures. But I haven’t owned a dedicated camera in … a decade or more now? And I can’t imagine buying one for myself or my kids. But should I?

The “cameras for kids” product category has three answers for this question:

1) Make the camera also play video games.

2) Make the camera print out physical photos.

3) Make the camera sturdy enough to tolerate water or other physical abuse.

Having tested these scenarios in real life, the results are:

1) Kids just play the games and ignore the camera.

2) Kids take and print a stack of terrible photos which you throw out.

3) Kids drop the camera to the bottom of the lake where it’s swallowed by a mudcat.

Nobody can blame what’s left of the camera industry for flailing around, considering the 84 percent drop in sales from 2010 to 2018. Maybe investing the retirement fund in Kodak stock was a little premature? And while we still send disposable cameras along with the kids to camp (see below), let’s not entertain the laughable idea that a disposable camera renaissance is on the way (headline: “Millennials growing sick of perfect iPhone shots,” oh sure). Of course there will always be a place for high-end personal cameras, extreme environment cameras, security cameras, more security cameras, disconcertingly located security cameras, and drone cameras for majestic aerial footage of wildebeest herds and/or the neighbors pissing in your pool. But do kids need or want cameras of their own?

Well, probably no, but maybe yes, and also no.

My daughter uses an old, mostly dead iPhone as a camera, taking meticulous pictures of toys arranged in various inscrutable dioramas (last night it was a triptych of Jenga blocks arranged as “house,” “hotel,” and “doom towers”). She still has a kid camera that she occasionally digs out to play the games available on its tiny LCD screen. I think the only photo she every took with the kid camera was a highly pixelated selfie used as an avatar in those games.

So this was the first summer my son went away to camp, we went to the drugstore to buy disposable cameras to record his adventures. This meant contorting my son’s brain around the idea of a film camera, which I could tell he finally just accepted as some uncanny adult nonsense he was forced to endure. Then we learned that the photos would take weeks to develop in some godforsaken facility at an undisclosed location. At that point, my son’s face assumed the neutral expression of a kid waiting for something incomprehensible to run its course so he could return to more important matters (rolling around on the couch and making explosion sounds).

This is why a kid with a camera is like a twentysomething with a record player. There’s some reasoning there, maybe a preference. But it’s more of an aesthetic statement than a consumer necessity. The explosion of digital photography democratized picture taking, and uncoupling photography from cameras took this movement even further. Kids understand pictures not as static art objects, but as a blizzard of visual content to be remixed, kicked around, and messed with beyond the point of capture. That’s what makes it fun.

To his credit, my son did attempt to use the three disposable cameras we sent with him. One camera was predictably lost; the other two were about 25 percent shots of the ground, 50 percent shots of nice but anonymous nature, 5 percent shots of my son taken by fellow campers, and 20 percent shots of his fingers blocking the lens. Most of them are forgettable, but some are actually pretty good. Maybe I’ll end up scanning them.


From 1 to 10 (with 10 being a good thing).


7 – Kids like getting new things, even if it’s actually an old thing.


4 – You mean people had cameras that were … just cameras?


5 – Impress your children with how many photo prints could fit on a single SD card! Insane!


9 – A great example of how inconvenient and annoying technology used to be.

Junior Revisitor Rating

4 – “Kinda strange” (taking pictures) and “Alright” (play video games on camera).

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