Student Opinion: The Digital Camera Renaissance

By Janitors, CC-BY-2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Canon_PowerShot_SX600_HS_%2812473318743%29.jpg

LOS ANGELES—Over the past two years, digital point-and-shoot cameras from the early 2000s have taken the internet by storm. Now, it is common to see teenagers and young adults with these cameras in hand, snapping blurred, overexposed photos. 

Digital cameras, or digicams, are constantly advertised on TikTok, with the photos people take on them being readily shared on Instagram. The hashtag #digitalcamera on TikTok has over 194 million posts.

Modern celebrities like Kylie Jenner and Bella Hadid, as well as many Korean idols, such as Blackpink’s Lisa and Le Sserafim’s Sakura, have also joined the fun by posting photos from their personal cameras. 

I was never more aware of this trend than at a birthday dinner two weeks ago, when the words “let’s take a photo” prompted everyone to reach for their digital cameras. Our table looked like a garage sale for 2000s tech, including a Canon PowerShot, a Nikon Coolpix, and a Samsung DualView. Also among them was my own, a silver Fujifilm XP that previously belonged to my dad. 

When I first asked him for a digital camera, he was baffled. “The quality is nothing like your phone,” he informed me — except, as I responded, “that is the point.” 

Many original owners view digital cameras as obsolete, the images they produce inferior to the clarity and sharpness of ones taken on a phone. However, today’s teenagers and young adults grew up during, or were born into, the era of smartphones. They became accustomed to taking high-quality photos which only got sharper with the development of the lens. 

Ironically, it is the overwhelming clarity of the smartphone camera that deters today’s young people from using it. “My phone is so high-quality it makes me uncomfortable,” many of my friends who own digicams have remarked. The clearer the photo, the more imperfections people notice within it. 

In contrast, the low resolution of digital camera photos embraces imperfections. A blemish on the face, a bad hair day, or a messy room appear unpleasant through a smartphone lens, but through a digicam are often considered “authentic” or “aesthetic.” 

Compared to smartphones, early 2000s digital cameras have fewer megapixels and higher apertures. This means they capture less detail and light, creating a lower-quality image. Older digicams also have low shutter speeds, meaning that even a small movement during capture can cause the photo to blur. All these features contribute to a raw, imperfectionist visual that evokes nostalgic delight. 

The pursuit of nostalgia continues to play a crucial role in the popularity of digital cameras. For the past two years, a yearning for the Y2K era has seized the internet and saturated social media. Characterized by “tech enthusiasm and existential dread,” as stated by Kalley Huang of the New York Times, early 2000s trends first made a comeback through fashion, such as low-rise jeans and butterfly clips, but quickly came to include digital cameras. 

The Y2K bug has resulted in a slew of digital camera content from a variety of sources. The 90s subculture-inspired an offshoot of fashion house Marc Jacobs, called Heaven, which draws in buyers with its low-res film, grainy aesthetic, and digital camera-photographed campaigns. 

Similarly, South Korean girl group NewJeans, known for their Y2K styling and musical sense, kick-started a rush for vintage tech with the music video for their viral song, “Ditto.” In both cases, consumers have been won over by the sense of longing and affection triggered by digital camera visuals. 

Every aspect of digital photography — the clicking noise as the lens adjusts to light, the mechanical zoom, the grainy quality and the blinding flash — transport people back to their childhoods. “It looks like memories, because it’s blurry and imperfect. It looks more like how we remember things,” Katie Glasgow, a video creator and indie musician remarked in an interview with BBC

Longing for the past is a universal experience, and therefore has power over people. A research study from 2014 illustrates this phenomenon, showing that consumers are more likely to spend money on brands and items that evoke nostalgia. 

But point-and-shoot cameras manufactured today often include advanced settings reminiscent of a smartphone. So, young people are turning to thrift stores and secondhand e-commerce sites to get their hands on a sufficiently vintage digital camera.

From 2021 to 2022, searches for “digital camera” on eBay increased by 10 percent, while specific model searches such as “Nike COOLPIX” or “Canon Powershot” increased by up to 90 percent

In the constant search for nostalgia and authenticity, it is no surprise that digital cameras are all the rage in Los Angeles, an expensive and infamously superficial entertainment capital. Young people, especially those in the heart of the city, are constantly inundated with high-quality movies, newsfeeds, commercials and photos. This creates a reality that often feels intimidating and artificial. 

In a BBC interview about digital cameras, Paul Greenwood, head of research at the creative agency We Are Social, stated: “People want to feel comforted when in the real world they feel uncomfortable. And there’s some reasons why people are feeling uncomfortable – like the existential dread you’re seeing with Ukraine, the pandemic, wealth inequality.”Young people have long since assimilated the wonder of high-resolution and live smartphone photos into the dread and discomfort of their lives. Therefore, looking at the world through the tiny, grainy screen of a digital camera is a nostalgic respite to these feelings. The resulting blurry photos are raw, imperfect and uneditable. They possess an off-guard beauty that recreates a person’s rose-tinted past, while also instilling optimism for the present and future.

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