Picture it: springtime in Shelburne Falls, Massachusetts, a stone’s throw from the Berkshire Mountains on the western border of Massachusetts and New York.
Now, picture a family of six. Two adults in their thirties, and four children, one in a stroller who yells if the parents stop moving, one excited about going into second grade, one in preschool, and a kindergartner. One of the six is lugging an old Canon Rebel DSLR, but it isn’t either of the grown-ups, nor is it the soon-to-be-second grader, who is itching to become an adult already even though her mouth is half baby teeth. The one with the DSLR is the kindergartner.
Springtime in Shelburne Falls means one thing: the bridge of flowers. Every April, local amateur and not-so-amateur florists cover an old walking bridge in flowers, transforming it into the centerpiece of a cozy downtown. It’s on that bridge that the Kindergartner carries his camera, which his father (me) has hung around his neck. He uses it to take photos of every last flower on a bridge of hundreds, much to his stroller-bound sister’s chagrin.
I don’t have nerves of steel. I probably run a household with too many rules, too many safety rails, and plenty of helicoptering. Often, when I’m working in my office upstairs and I hear the children laughing, I mishear it as crying. (In my defense, one of their favorite games includes pretending their stuffed animals are crying.) So how was it not only possible but actually easy for me to lend my “grown-up” camera to the family kindergartner?
In this article, I’ll explore why the DSLR is great for a kid even as young as five years old, how to reduce the risks of damage to the device, and what all of this has taught me about parenting.
Why a DSLR?
DSLRs can be serious, expensive cameras. Why, then, would I risk such a precious gadget by putting it into the tiny hands of my kid?
Well, not all DSLRs are expensive. When I bought it years ago, my Canon Rebel XSi cost somewhere in the $300 to $400 range. If you were to buy one now, you’d have to get it used, and you’d pay less than $100. I don’t think I would have made the same decision if I owned a Hasselblad. But I’ve always been on the novice side of the amateur spectrum, and it would take a lot more development of my photography skills for me to justify owning a truly professional camera. That said, after my experience lending my son my inexpensive DSLR, I’d now make the same decision with a more expensive camera.
Okay, cost and risk aside, why give my kid a DSLR? Why not let him just shoot photos with my phone, an easy-to-use device that’s so well-protected you’d think it was a bomb because I’m so clumsy that I drop it on a daily basis? Surely that would give the child an idea of photo-taking.
Well, many parents will tell you that, to a kid, phone = games. That was my experience, anyway. My kids would ask me to use my phone to take pictures. I’d hand it to them, and after a few minutes (tops), they would be asking if they could play Wordscapes.
But there are other reasons, too. Taking pictures with a phone is just bland. Is there anything less satisfying than tapping that phone screen and getting little to no feedback on whether or not you took a photo? They’re awkward to hold, they’re easy to drop, you don’t have a strap to wrap them around your neck. While that all sounds like the complaints an adult would have, I suspect from my son’s behavior when trying to use my phone’s camera that it just isn’t as enjoyable an experience.
I’ve also had the following experience with each and every one of my four kids (how’s that for a sample size?):
- The child asks if they can take pictures with my phone.
- I give them my phone.
- The child runs away excitedly with the phone to go find a cool rock to photograph.
- The child returns within thirty seconds, drowning in tears because when they tried to take a photo they swiped instead of tapped, and now they’re in slo-mo, or video mode, or panorama mode, and they can’t escape the Sisyphean hell that is endlessly turning until the panorama photo is complete. If they don’t return with tear-streaked face, that can only mean that they’ve swiped completely out of the photo app and they’re here to ask if they can play Wordscapes instead.
I’m not going to completely shut down the idea of a child using a phone to dabble in photography. Honestly, learning how to tap instead of swipe seems like a good fine motor skill to teach. And there are probably some terrific technical solutions. There’s so much good software working behind the scenes that, with a phone, kids can take photos without thinking about aperture, shutter speed, and tricky things like that.
So, in a pinch, I’ll let my kids use my phone as long as they sign a document stating that I warned them they would get frustrated, and that any tears hereafter are not the fault of Dad.
In a 2019 article about choosing your kid’s first camera, James wrote about why the point and shoot camera was a good fit for his young kids. That wasn’t the case for me.
After the positive experience I had lending my son my Canon Rebel on that trip to Shelburne, I bought him a point and shoot the following Christmas. He doesn’t use it. It actually really took the air out of his interest in photography. I can’t say for certain what it is, but I suspect that, while people often comment that kids don’t notice the quality of things (like cheaper animation in movies, junk food versus healthy food, etc.), I think my son could tell that his photos just didn’t look as good on that point and shoot as they did on the DSLR.
The DSLR Embodies Process over Product
My kids aren’t like me when I was a twenty-year-old creative writing major, having an existential crisis over a comma. They don’t know the rules, and even if you told them the rules, they probably wouldn’t care about the rules. At least, that’s how it is with my son. And what did that lead to? Experimentation. But there’s very little experimentation to be done on a phone or a point-and-shoot, both of which detrimentally simplify the photography process.
In elementary art lessons, teachers talk a lot these days about process over product. Meaning that, when a kindergartner sits down with some painting materials, you want them to focus on seeing how the materials work, practicing with them, rather than focusing so much on whether their corner sun looks perfect. As my wife, a former Boston public school art teacher will attest, that curiosity for materials and love of process often goes away, and while her kindergartners were able to keep art fun, her fourth graders were frustrated when they couldn’t get their art looking exactly the way that they wanted.
That’s something that’s easy to overlook about a DSLR. They’re neat. They have buttons all over the dang place. To a kid, the symbols accompanying the buttons and menus of a DSLR might as well be hieroglyphics—just as incomprehensible, just as fascinating. The tripod is its own mechanical wonder of snaps and extendy bits and stuff your dad says be to careful with unless you want to get pinched. These are tools that kids love quickly, and that are easier to teach a kid to take care of. I swear, kids can tell when something is cheap.
And here’s the most surprising thing about my Shelburne Falls trip. When we returned to our Airbnb, I took out my MacBook and got everything ready.
“Hey, Buddy!” I said, “Let’s take a look at your pictures!”
I transferred the photos that my son had taken that day, imported them into Lightroom, and created him his own library within which he could view and edit his photos any time he liked. After a few minutes setting all of this up, I realized that my son was off playing with his siblings, and even as I pulled him away for a moment (“Your photos, man! Don’t you want to see?”), it became clear that he didn’t really care how his pictures came out. He didn’t exactly say “booooring” but he might as well have.
For him, the fun wasn’t looking at the photos. The fun was taking the photos. As so often happens, we learn more from our kids than they learn from us.
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