A lot of things surprise me on TikTok. But a recent surprise was that an item that’s been languishing in my junk drawer is selling like crazy among Gen Z. Every other video on my For You Page, it seems, is a TikTok Shop plug from a Gen Z creator for this $50 digital camera. And the #DigitalCamera hashtag is extremely popular.
I actually have three of these things in my junk drawer. See proof:
And, no, this camera is not a special new version with internet connectivity and superior photo editing. In fact, when you look at its product page on Amazon, it’s marketed toward parents of small children who want their kids to be able to take photos without having unfettered access to the internet. And it’s got the same features (and SD cards) as the digital cameras we were using near the turn of the century.
So why in a world where smartphones exist is the dumb camera I had dangling from my wrist between 2005 and 2009 flying off shelves?
We asked some Gen Z experts.
“Gen Z’s draw towards digital cameras and similar tech is layered,” says Anastasia Pelot, Senior Content Marketing Manager at YPulse, a marketing research company that specializes in millennials and Gen Z. “[It’s] a mix of nostalgia, seeking authenticity and a desire for a break from the ever-present digital life. It’s a testament to their unique position as digital natives who also yearn for connections to a simpler, pre-smartphone.”
Let’s break it down (and then get into some camera recs).
Reason 1: The Nostalgia Factor
The first decade of the 2000s is the bygone era Gen Z is nostalgic for (editor’s note: we do not blame them).
“Gen Z has a clear affinity for the early 2000s, Pelot says. “Y2K music, fashion, but also the overall ‘aesthetic’ or vibe, and older model digital cameras fit right in. These cameras bring a piece of the past into their present, offering a tangible link to an era they find captivating.”
So, if you’re wondering why young people want to carry around a bulky digicam that takes up bag space and that holds photos hostage until you bust out that SD card, that lack of convenience is kind of the point, says Connor Blakley, a member of Gen Z and CEO of Youth Logic, a Gen Z-first agency that helps companies engage young consumers. He equates digital cameras to “a time capsule or modern scrapbooking” (Blakley and his girlfriend share a digital camera).
“I actually think it’s functionally inconvenient because if you’re using a digital camera, you have to upload the picture later on your computer and then send it from your phone to others,” Blakley says. “It feels nostalgic when you look at it. We get so sucked into our phones, it’s hard to appreciate the memories. This allows us to take a step back and appreciate these times we’re capturing without feeling the weight of the Internet.”
Digital cameras are just part of an overarching Gen Z-driven nostalgic tech trend that’s all about “finding uniqueness in a digitally saturated world,” Pelot says. Other examples Pelot and Blakley cite include retro gaming consoles, classic watches, physical books (as an alternative to e-books and audio books), polaroid cameras, record players, vinyl records and even flip phones.
“I know a lot of my peers are always saying we want to become so successful that we can buy a flip phone,” Blakley says. “We’ll say, ‘I just want to escape and get a flip phone.’”
Reason 2: The Digital Detox Factor
“Using digital cameras offers a mini digital detox, a small step,” Pelot says.
Born between 1997 and 2012, the members of Gen Z had their childhood and adolescence shaped by technology, social media, connectivity and the instant gratification (and pressure) that all brings. And it’s a lot.
“I think a lot of Gen Z is waking up to all the negative repercussions of living in an almost totally digital, connected world,” Blakley says. “We’re the first generation that’s been dealing with this stuff since such a young age. A lot of us just want to get out of it.”
The appeal of digital cameras and their limited functionality, therefore, lies in the fact that they keep you off your connected devices. While “limiting screen time” is usually a conversation centered on the iPad babies of Generation Alpha, it’s something Gen Z is also consciously doing, Blakley says.
“I don’t know a single friend of mine in Gen Z who hasn’t set certain limits on their phones or certain social apps because they catch themselves consistently spending their life and attention on absolutely meaningless things,” he says.
Reason 3: The In-the-Moment Factor
Growing up amid the rise of Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, etc., members of Gen Z have lived much of their lives on (and for) social media. Digital cameras interrupt that instant photo-to-social media pipeline. You’re not immediately tempted to edit a photo or Airdrop a photo to a friend or post a photo because NONE of those things are even options on a digital camera.
“It allows us to be where our feet are,” Blakley says. “And to be present without feeling like you have to be pulled into your phone.”
So if you’re out with friends, you’re simply out with friends, enjoying the moment.
And then … well millennials know what happens the next day. You get to relive the fun you had, by downloading and looking at all those photos.
“There’s still an element of curation to it,” Blakley says.
The photos are downloaded onto a computer and then sent via iMessage to the group. Maybe there’s a social media photo dump of all the best shots. But the crux of the matter is, the digital camera lets you enjoy the moment in the moment and then curate, edit, share and store those digital photos later– on your own time.
“It allows for that breadth of space and natural social interactions, and you don’t have to get sucked into that digital world immediately,” Blakley says.
Reason 4: The Vibes and Aesthetic
The original users of digital cameras know the photos they produced now have a charming nostalgic feel that’s different from the crisp photos taken by our phone cameras. And Gen Z likes that look.
“The ‘lower’ quality of photos from these cameras is a big part of what makes them cool,” Pelot says. “Unlike the high-definition pictures from smartphones, these images have an ‘imperfect’ quality that sets them apart, making them feel more ‘real.’”
It’s the same reason behind the resurgence of polaroid cameras. In fact, Blakley and his girlfriend keep both a digital camera and a polaroid at the ready when they’re out.
“She determines which occasions call for which and I’m the test dummy,” Blakley says. “We definitely switch between both.”
The Best Digital Cameras to Shop
If you’re buying a digital camera, here are some solid options on the market.
Pelot also notes that “there’s a growing interest in the secondhand market for digital cameras, aligning with sustainability and the idea of recycling and reusing older tech.” So check thrift stores and stores that sell open-box and refurbished tech — as well as with your friendly neighborhood millennial who is cleaning out their junk drawer.
Digital Camera, FHD 1080P Camera, Digital Point and Shoot with 16X Zoom and Anti Shake
This camera is the one going viral on TikTok. Its budget-friendly price point is a big part of that (it’s $50, often less when on sale). It has a nice entry-level suite of settings and a simple interface. The shutter speed is a little slow, which might come as a shock to those used to smartphone cameras. But for posed photos with friends, it’s a good option at a good price point.
KODAK PIXPRO FZ55-RD 16MP Digital Camera
Spending a little more can unlock some nice features when it comes to stand-alone digital cameras. This one has more customizable settings that will get you better photos and a 5X optical zoom, which makes a difference in photographing something farther away (if you’re sightseeing, for example). It also has the capacity to capture higher quality, more detailed images. So if you’re looking at a step up from just nights out with friends, consider this camera.
4K Underwater Camera 11FT Waterproof Camera
Before water resistance became standard on iPhones, having a waterproof digital camera was a must for beach and pool days. This one’s under $100 and, while it doesn’t have a lot of the features above that will yield the best photos, if you’re looking for a digital camera that can take some damage while you’re out at the pool with friends, it’s a solid option. It takes photos underwater, too.
SD Card Reader for iPhone
If you want to send your digital camera photos straight to your phone before you get home to your computer, this small device will do the job. It has slots for pretty much any SD card your digital camera will have. You just need to carefully take out the SD card from your camera (do NOT drop it on the floor of the Uber), insert the card into this dongle and insert the dongle into your phone.
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