Last spring, Anthony Tabarez celebrated his high school graduation like many students today: dancing the night away and capturing it all in photos and videos. The photos show Tabarez, 18, and his friends smiling, bouncing and waving their arms around a crowded dance floor.
But instead of using her smartphone, Tabarez documented prom night with an Olympus FE-230, a silver 7.1-megapixel digital camera made in 2007 that belonged to her mother. During his senior year of high school, “old” cameras like this one started showing up in classrooms and at social gatherings. On prom night, Tabarez passed her camera around, snapping pastel-toned shots that seemed to come straight from the beginning of the millennium.
“We’re so used to our phones,” said Tabarez, a freshman at California State University Northridge. “When you have something else to shoot, it’s more exciting.”
Cameras from Gen Z’s childhood, considered old-fashioned and meaningless by those who originally owned them, are all the rage again. Young people are reveling in the novelty of an old-fashioned look, touting digital cameras on TikTok and sharing the photos they take on Instagram. On TikTok, the hashtag #digitalcamera has 184 million views.
Modern day influencers like Kylie Jenner, Bella Hadid and Charli D’Amelio are encouraging fun and emulating their early 2000s counterparts by taking blurred and overly lit photos. Instead of paparazzi posting these photos in tabloids or gossip sites, influencers post them on social media.
Most of today’s teens and young adults were babies at the turn of the millennium. Gen Z grew up with smartphones, making standalone cameras and other gadgets unnecessary. They now want to take a break from their smartphones; last year, 36% of American teens said they spent too much time on social media, according to the Pew Research Center.
That respite is coming in part through point-and-shoot digital cameras, discovered by Gen Zers who are digging through their parents’ junk drawers or buying them second-hand. Lines of cameras like the Canon Powershot and Kodak EasyShare are among his finds, appearing at parties and other social events.
In recent years, nostalgia for the Year 2000 era, or Y2K, the time of technological enthusiasm and existential dread that spanned the late 1990s and early millennium, has gripped Gen Z. The nostalgia has spread across TikTok, fueling trends in the fashions like low-waisted pants, velvet tracksuits and dresses over denim. Strong commercial brands like Abercrombie & Fitch and Juicy Couture reaped the benefits; in 2021, Abercrombie recorded its highest net sales since 2014. Now, there’s a Year 2000 nostalgia for the technology that trademarked these clothes when they were first popular.
This time, the poor image quality isn’t for lack of a better tool. It’s purposeful.
Compared to today’s smartphones, older digital cameras have fewer megapixels, which capture less detail, and lenses with larger apertures, which let in less light, which contributes to poorer quality photos. But in a more or less standard smartphone photo feed the quirks of photos taken with digital cameras are now considered valuable rather than reasons to delete them.
“People are realizing that it’s fun to have something disconnected from the phone,” said Mark Hunter, a photographer also known as Cobrasnake. “You get a different result than you’re used to. There’s a certain delay in gratification.”
Hunter, 37, started documenting nightlife in the early 2000s using a digital camera. In these photos, the celebrities — including “You Belong With Me”-era Taylor Swift and the then-newly famous Kim Kardashian — look like ordinary partygoers, caught in the bright light of Hunter’s camera.
He now photographs a new group of influencers and stars, but the photos would be almost indistinguishable from his older ones if the models were holding flip phones instead of iPhones. They’re turning back the clock to 2007 and “basically reliving every episode of ‘The Simple Life,'” he said, referring to the reality show at the time.
But many new point-and-shoot digital cameras come with today’s functions, and older models have been discontinued, so people are turning to thrift stores and second-hand e-commerce sites to find cameras that look vintage enough. On eBay, searches for “digital camera” are up 10% from 2021 to 2022, with searches for specific models seeing even sharper jumps, said Davina Ramnarine, a spokeswoman for the company. For example, searches for “Nikon COOLPIX” are up 90%, she said.
Rudra Sondhi, a freshman at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario (Canada), started using his grandmother’s digital camera because it seemed a happy medium between video cameras and smartphones. He estimates that he takes one picture with his digital camera for every five on his smartphone.
“When I look at my digital photos” –from the camera– “I have very specific memories attached to them,” Sondhi said. “When I see the ones on the phone, I kind of remember the moment, and it’s not special.”
Sondhi, 18, shares photos taken with the digital camera on a separate Instagram account, @rudrascamera. These photos document coming of age, from college dorm pranks to punk rocking at a Weeknd concert. When he takes out his camera, his friends immediately consider the moment special, he said.
For Sadie Gray Strosser, 22, the use of digital cameras represented the beginning of a new phase in life. She took a semester off from Williams College during the pandemic and started using her parents’ Canon Powershot. Her Instagram photography account, @mysexyfotos, cataloged late nights and long drives in washed-out, low-contrast snapshots.
“I felt so off the grid that it was almost normal to use a camera not connected to a phone,” she said.
When her digital camera broke last summer, Strosser said she was “very upset”. She later started using her grandmother’s Sony Cyber-shot, which had “a very different personality”. In the meantime, she said, if her iPhone broke, “I wouldn’t mind one bit.”
Translated by Luiz Roberto M. Gonçalves
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