The most common conversation I have on social media is people asking me my advice on purchasing a camera. Usually for a child that is showing interests in the arts.
It usually goes something like this:
Hey Melissa, My kid is interested in photography or filmmaking and I want to buy a camera for them. I am looking at, insert the top of the line camera, and I want to know if it’s worth the money. What should I get?
Have you ever seen Back to the Future? You know that character Biff? He wrote a wonderful song called “Questions,” that I want to adapt for myself, but insert camera tech lingo and camera advice into.
Since most people know him as Biff from the movie, he put together a song of the same questions he gets over and over.
I’ll just leave that here. It’s funny.
CAMERAS ARE BEAUTIFUL TOOLS.
This is my long winded and likely more than you bargained for but it’s my honest opinion:
I will be the first to admit that I LOVE playing with expensive cameras. I ALWAYS have camera envy because the technology is changing so fast. Truth: My current kit, costs as much as a years salary and it took me 8 years to save for. It’s already outdated and I’m working on saving for that next level up. Gear envy in my industry is a never ending cycle and keeping my prices competitive enough to keep up is a real challenge. But I stand by my advice below. A camera does not make the artist as much as a paint brush does not make a painter.
Creativity is fostered, its earned. With experimentation, budget limits and repetition. If your young ones are showing interest in the arts, the best thing you can do is fan the flame with opportunity to learn. To “make a living,” as a filmmaker or photographer your kid is going to need a whole lot more than an expensive camera. They are going to need the skills to both create and sell their art. They are going to need a network of people. They are going to need grit. LOTS of it.
Working in the arts is a hustle. School isn’t going to teach that. Not even college. I am still learning how to make money selling my skills to clients. It’s taken me years to build a career that feeds me. That journey took people. That journey didn’t start with an expensive camera. It started with my dad’s left-overs. My first camera, was an old 8mm video camera that my dad stopped using. My first photography camera was a hand me down. They weren’t top of the line. They were sitting in a box, collecting dust. I picked them up and started playing with them. Because they were old, I could experiment without fear of ruining them. When they broke, I took them apart to fix them. I learned how they worked. My first edit bay was made up of old VHS players. It wasn’t a top of the line computer, even though they were available at the time. My first films were lit by lights I bought at Home Depot for 10 bucks. I eventually upgraded to real gear, that all came later but only after I proved I was serious.
It’s not about the camera. Its about intent.
If your kid has the intent to learn, they will learn on whatever they have available to them. It won’t matter how much you spend. Let them earn newer technology by creating work. I upgraded as the years went by and will admit, I had help to get my first “real,” camera. As an adult, that made a huge difference in my ability to get a job. But when I was learning, it didn’t matter what camera I had. I wanted to make work, so I figured it out.
I made films with my cousins, I took all kinds of pictures, I borrowed all my families VHS decks to create an edit space for myself and spent hours making music montages.
My parents did the best thing they could have for me, they created the space for me to create and fostered that creativity. It lead to me forging a career that I am really proud of.
That all started with a hand-me-down used camera.
Here is my advice:
Create with what you have first. Experiment. Inspire your youth to use the tools they have in front of them to create. Teach them that it’s about the person behind the camera and their vision, not the camera itself. Go to thrift store and pick up an old camera. Ask people for a hand-me-down. Take it apart, see how it works. Make a pin hole camera out of a cardboard box.
My cell phone camera is my favorite camera. Seriously. It’s compact, fits in my pocket, shoots great quality and forces me to see the world and interact with it differently. I still use it to shoot for clients. I did just last week.
People and network is what builds a career. Instead of buying the gear, find them a mentor. Pay for a 24 hour film festival and get them on a crew. All of us start from the bottom, the sooner your kid can start that journey the better. I still use mentors to move myself forward. Make sure they can motivate them, it’s important. Mentors who inspire growth will help kids to soar in the arts.
Inspire with vision. Budget limitations force creativity. Use that. Steven Sotebrg just shot an ENTIRE Netflix film on his iPhone. The iMovie app costs $4. They can shoot and edit a short film all on one device. What if, the tool they needed was already in their hands?
Teach them how to accept critique and develop ideas with a growth mindset. The first films they make will be crap. Teach them to suck. Teach them to suck and push through it. Set out to make the crappiest film ever. Have a sense of humor about how bad it is and then use that to inspire them to refine their skills. If failure is fun and seen as experimentation it fosters growth.
Set a goal for entering a contest. Youth festivals and art shows are amazing resources. That resource goes away after the age of 21. Take advantage of every program and contest out there for youth in the arts. As an adult it becomes harder to play in this space without funding. Use the free programs while you can. Find programs that can offer access to gear and computers.
Inspire with diversity. Take your kid to museums with art by minorities. Take them to a local art show, to see old movies in the park, get them outside their routines. Help keep their eyes open to different points of view. With free days at museums and art festivals, it doesn’t cost much.
Teach them how to make money selling their work right away. Forget Girl Scout cookies - give them a budget to print work and sell a show. Market on instagram. Take a portfolio into a gallery and ask for feedback. Help them design a package for a local business and sell it. Figure out how to hang work in a coffee house. Host a fundraiser for a project. Whatever it takes. Do it together. This was the skill I needed most in the working world.
Help them find their voice and hold that value. What do they want to bring to the world? What stories do they want to tell? What is unique about them and what they create? Help put them in situations where they have to tell those stories in front of audiences. It’s vulnerable to talk about my work but I have to push through that to move forward. That grit keeps me fueled with opportunity among rejection.
Make work. Lots of it. Repetition and variety over quality is the only way to get stronger and develop an eye.
Lastly, encourage the shit out of them. Especially when its hard. I’ve had so many set backs in my career but I still have a career because I stuck with it. I kept working, no matter what. It’s still hard. But I have LOTS of cheerleaders. From friends, family, old teachers, new mentors and now even clients. I still need encouragement. Making work is hard, making money creating work is hard. Encouragement goes a long way to creating resilient minds. They are going to need that muscle to work through rejection and maintain a healthy self worth.
Even if after all that, if they decide not to go into the arts, they will have learned valuable skills for adult life and it won’t be about the camera. It will be about their self worth, problem solving and grit. An expensive camera, isn’t going to teach that. Do the above and you’ll ensure that by the time they get their hands on those flashy tools, they will know how to wield them toward their goals.
There you have it. My long winded advice for what seems to be a simple question. I wasn’t able to buy my own gear till I was 32 years old. It took me that long to work and save up. I made hundreds of films for clients without one, before that. Through internships, friends, grants, programs, rentals and mentors I was able to work and create work. It’s about intent to create.
Also, here is a cute photo of me as a kid playing “kitchen.”