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Gen Z is bringing low-tech cameras back — how to shop for one

"Today, carrying a digital camera is as much a stylistic piece as a functional one."
Vivian Le / TODAY

First it was scrunchies. Then it was mom jeans. Within the last decade, Polaroid was one of the first cameras Gen Z brought back. Now, film and digital cameras are the next tech gadgets to find themselves in the hands of the younger generation.

Whether your old digital camera from way back when is tucked away in your attic or the Gen Zer in your life is begging you to let them explore and experiment with a film camera, the tips and tricks below can help explain their recent interest, all while helping them properly take care of their new favorite gadget.

Explaining the trend | What is a digital camera? | What is a film camera? | What's the difference? | Features to search for | Care and maintenance tips | Film cameras to shop | Digital cameras to shop | Camera accessories to shop | Meet the experts

Why are film and digital cameras trending?

'80s and '90s trends have resurfaced in recent years, leaving those who grew up in these decades perplexed as to why younger generations now would want to sport the same accessories and fashion trends that were around when the word "rad" was also popular.

"Thanks to Y2K, being low-tech has become a complete aesthetic in itself," says WGSN trend forecaster Brielle Saggese. "It signals to a simpler time when personal tech wasn’t obligatorily glued to your hand but instead a conscious choice. Today, carrying a digital camera is as much a stylistic piece as a functional one."

Saggese emphasized that online authenticity is an aesthetic in itself, making film and digital cameras more appealing to a younger audience. Popularized by apps such as BeReal, where users are prompted to take a photo at a specific time each day of what they're doing right at that moment, genuineness and legitimacy online has become normalized.

"To get that imperfect or authentic image, they go for blurry, messy or even gritty visuals from an iPhone’s 0.5 selfie, photo dump or BeReal," says Saggese. "The digital camera leans into that. It has this natural grain and grit to it that still screams authentic, but it also adds a layer of personality that most “authentic” iPhone content can’t replicate."

What is a digital camera?

Digital cameras include a number of settings, with users being able to adjust features like lighting and zoom with the turn of a dial. Depending on the SD card inserted, photographers can take anywhere from hundreds to thousands of photos instantly.

"A digital camera gives you an easy way to take large amounts of photos at any time," says New York City-based lifestyle and wedding photographer Anna Duncan. "You can snap, look, delete and redo as many times as you want, which is perfect for high stakes situations like weddings, events or important moments in your life."

Technology advancements have also made it easy to instantly share the photos taken on a digital camera via Bluetooth or adaptors to upload them to your phone or laptop.

"A digital camera allows for freedom in experimentation as it costs nearly nothing to snap more photos," says Emma Allen, senior graphic designer at Bonfire Marketing and Web Co. "We are also able to observe the images as we shoot and make necessary corrections in real time."

What is a film camera?

Film cameras offer a more slow-paced and permanent approach to photography, as you cannot look back at the photos until they're developed and the overall process generally takes more time.

"A defining quality of film is the effortless and genuine look it produces," says Allen. "We can experience a fairly instant sense of nostalgia from developing film simply because of the quality of the images. The editing process on digital images often attempts to emulate this timeless attribute of film."

Reusable film cameras often require that you insert the film roll yourself. Once the film is in the camera, you can begin snapping photos. However, film cameras also require attention to detail and a sense of caution. Simply opening the back flap and exposing the film to light before it's developed can ruin the entire roll.

What's the difference between a film and a digital camera?

When stating the main difference between the two mediums, photographers used the word "nostalgia" to capture the essence of film cameras. Digital cameras, on the other hand, are more instant, more technologically advanced and play into the fast gratification we have become accustomed to.

"Besides the technical differences between the two cameras, I think film gives such a nostalgic and whimsical feel to photography," says Duncan. "The shift from the immediate gratification of a digital camera to the film process feels refreshing and exciting! You don't know what you've captured until days or weeks later, so it feels extra special when you finally get to look through your photos because it's raw. It makes each frame feel extra special because you only have one or two versions of it versus the hundreds of photos you can snap of the same moment on your digital camera.

While film photography comes off as not very cost-effective and inconvenient, the advantages of film cameras compared to digital cameras make the so-called "hassle" worth it.

"Buying and developing film these days can be expensive and time-consuming, but these downsides offer an equally sought after upside," says Allen. "Without the instant feedback of digital images, film allows for more space to live in the present moment, which is a real challenge in our world of instant sharing. Additionally, the set amount of images on a roll of film creates a meaningful awareness each time the shutter is snapped."

Features to search for in a digital or film camera

Before beginning the search for a camera, Allen offers a piece of advice to think about that will help to narrow your search.

"When looking to purchase a digital or film camera, you should certainly keep in mind your plan of usage," she says. "If you are hoping to tap into photography as a career, it might make sense to start with a digital camera to explore at a smaller expense, with more control and adaptability as you learn to photograph subjects. If you are hoping to capture daily life experiences in a meaningful way, a film camera is a great route. Point-and-shoot film cameras are often more compact for travel or stuffing into a bag for a night out."

Once you've determined how you plan to use the camera you want to purchase, either for passion projects or to kickstart a new side hustle or career, then you can start to look for specifics features that differentiate each camera.

"For a digital camera, I would look into the range of ISO (how many different lighting scenarios can it handle), battery life and the overall quality of the images (does it take RAW photos or just JPEG, etc.)," says Duncan. "For a film camera, I would look into if you want full control over your settings — which you'll find in a fully manual film camera — or if you want something simple like a point-and-shoot, more similar to a disposable camera."

Purchasing a camera is often a large purchase, one that many aren't willing to break the bank over or deplete their savings account for. Understandable. A film or digital camera might be sitting unused in your parents' attic, or it's up for grabs at a nearby garage or estate sale.

"A cheaper camera doesn’t always mean cheaper quality — especially film cameras!" says Allen. "There are plenty of secondhand options at thrift stores, flea markets, on the internet or possibly your grandparent's basement. A cheaper digital camera is a great way to learn the basics of photography: composition, manual settings, editing. Once you feel confident in those skills, you could consider upgrading to a professional grade setup."

Once you gain a more comfortable understanding of the kind of photography you want to practice, then you can get more serious about purchasing a more expensive option or additions such as lenses.

"Each camera has its price for a specific reason, but sometimes the quality of a camera exceeds what you may need for your personal use," says Duncan. "While a $4K camera kit is worth what it costs, you may only need an $800 camera to get the quality that you're looking for. Typically, you can get away with an average camera body and a nicer lens and get a great effect for taking day-to-day photos!"

How to maintain the quality of a film and digital camera

Aside from general caution when handling a camera, maintaining its quality is simple.

"You can take it in for regular maintenance to have the equipment cleaned and calibrated to maintain its quality," says Duncan. "I would also recommend storing it somewhere safe and wiping it down if you notice any dust, sand or other particles that may scratch at your lens or camera body over time. Typically cameras are resilient, so you don't need to do anything radical to keep everything functioning well for long periods of time!"

Allen has a more "lenient approach" to taking care of her cameras, as she isn't afraid to let it earn some "scratches along the way" as she takes it on her adventures. However, one purchase has made taking care of her camera all the worthwhile.

"One helpful purchase is a protective camera bag for your camera body & lenses," Allen says. She also advises that you should make "sure your lease cap is on when not in use and having a routine cleaning is beneficial for professional setups."

Film cameras to shop

Kodak M35 35mm Film Camera

Film format type: 35mm | Shutter speed: 1/120

An affordable option that can convince someone to start taking up film photography, this film camera from trusted photo brand Kodak is available in eight colors, perfect for matching a style aesthetic that Saggese mentions.

The film for this reusable film camera is sold separately and is almost as pricey as the camera itself. However, over time is cost effective as it saves monty spent on buying multiple disposable cameras.

Reviewers love this camera for its "build quality," as it can withstand the chase that comes with photographing moving subjects.

Kodak Ektar H3 Film Camera

Film format type: 35mm | Shutter speed: 1/100

Another affordable option, this camera takes half-film photos, meaning that on a roll of 36 exposures, you'll end up with 72. Available in four different colors, this point-and-shoot film camera is "an excellent camera for the price and if you want an alternative to disposables," said one reviewer, adding that "It's really easy to just pass the camera to a friend who is inexperienced with this camera, as it's pretty much wind, point and shoot."

Canon Canonet 28 Film Camera

Film format type: 35mm | Shutter speed: 1/620

This vintage-looking camera is also available in different editions, so even if you cannot get this widely popular version, there are other options to shop. This model was one of Canon's first 35mm film cameras, popular because it can take shutter-style photos with the simple push of a button.

Digital cameras to shop

Kinoca Minolta MND50 Megapixel Digital Camera

# of megapixels: 48 | # of digital zoom: 16x | Video capabilities: Yes | Screen: 3 inches

Capture both video and photos in a number of different settings including panoramic photos, photo burst and macro mode, which helps to focus add clarity to your photos. In addition, capture videos in either time-lapse or slow motion settings.

Sony Cyber-Shot DSC-W800 Digital Camera

# of megapixels: 20.1 | # of digital zoom: 10x | Video capabilities: Yes | Screen: 2.7 inches

This camera has an easy mode, which helps you problem solve, even when you don't have the instruction manual handy. Included with the camera is a protective case, SD card, memory card reader and wallet, tripod and a cleaning kit.

Reviewers love this camera because it's easy to use and has "good quality."

Canon PowerShot SX740 Digital Camera

# of megapixels: 20.3 | # of digital zoom: 40x | Video capabilities: Yes | Screen: 3 inches

With built-in Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, you can easily import photos to your phone or laptop without needing to upload them to a monitor beforehand. "I'd recommend this camera for a beginner just getting into photography like me since it's not an intimidating camera," said one reviewer, adding that "it's very easy to use and navigate."

Canon PowerShot ELPH 190 Digital Camera

# of megapixels: 20 | # of digital zoom: 10x | Video capabilities: Yes | Screen: 5 inches

Digital cameras that were often used by the parents of Gen Z are now being popularized by the generation, as seen on TikTok. Most have flocked to secondhand sites such as Facebook Marketplace or eBay to find this Canon digital camera, as it's sold out on their website.

A simple camera to navigate, especially for those who grew up in the digital age, this one pick does require users to download the photos from their camera to their laptop, then to their phone for sharing.

Camera accessories to shop

Professional Camera Cleaning Kit

This cleaning kit includes everything you need and more, including a lens cleaning pen, microfiber towels, a reusable spray bottle, an air blower and a lens cleaning brush. Better yet, it's only $10!

B&H Photo Think Tank Camera Bag

With dividers and included pouches, store everything you need for capturing photos in this smaller camera case. Included with this camera case is its own rain pouch, adding an extra layer of protection for your gadgets.

Peak Design Camera Cube

This affordable camera pouch includes dividers in the main pouch to separate lenses from cameras and accessories. In addition, zipper pouches are incorporated into the top flap, as a way to utilize space in a smaller camera case. Reviewers love this product because it's "simple, safe" and "reliable."

Wandrd Tech Bag

With options to purchase a small, medium or large bag depending on how big your camera is, this one zips open to reveal three pouches. Perfect for storing a charger, your camera and film, this bag makes it easy to grab and pack this case for any adventure.

Meet the experts

Anna Duncan is a lifestyle and wedding photographer based in New York City. While her husband, Ben, joined her business in 2020, Anna has been photographing since 2014 and has done so in 15 states and two countries. Anna uses multiple mediums to capture clients most cherished days.

Brielle Saggese is a trend forecaster at WGSN, with an emphasis in youth culture, well-being and identity.

Emma Allen is a senior graphic designer at Bonfire Marketing and Web Co., who has experience photographing different subjects, including Iowa State Athletics and passion projects, such as senior photos. Her work spans across and involves brand identity, illustrations, print collateral and photography.