The hottest Gen Z gadget: A 20-year-old digital camera

Tabarez documented prom night with an Olympus FE-230, a 7.1-megapixel, silver digital camera made in 2007 and previously owned by his mother.
Olympus FE-230, a 7.1-megapixel, silver digital camera
Olympus FE-230, a 7.1-megapixel, silver digital camera

BY KALLEY HUANG

NEW YORK: Last spring, Anthony Tabarez celebrated prom like many of today’s high schoolers: dancing the night away and capturing it through photos and videos. The snapshots show Tabarez, 18, and his friends grinning, jumping around and waving their arms from a crowded dance floor.

But instead of using his smartphone, Tabarez documented prom night with an Olympus FE-230, a 7.1-megapixel, silver digital camera made in 2007 and previously owned by his mother. During his senior year of high school, cameras like it started appearing in classrooms and at social gatherings. On prom night, Tabarez passed around his camera, which snapped fuchsia-tinted photos that looked straight from the early aughts.

“We’re so used to our phones,” said Tabarez, a freshman at California State University, Northridge. “When you have something else to shoot on, it’s more exciting.” The cameras of Generation Z’s childhoods, seen as outdated and pointless by those who originally owned them, are in vogue again. Young people are reveling in the novelty of an old look, touting digital cameras on TikTok and sharing the photos they produce on Instagram.

On TikTok, the hashtag #digitalcamera has 184 million views.

Modern influencers like Kylie Jenner, Bella Hadid and Charli D’Amelio are encouraging the fun and mimicking their early 2000s counterparts by taking blurry, overlit photos. Instead of paparazzi publishing these photos in tabloids or on gossip websites, influencers are posting them on social media.

Most of today’s teenagers and youngest adults were infants at the turn of the millennium. Gen Zers grew up with smartphones, making stand-alone cameras and other gadgets unnecessary. They are now in search of a break from their smartphones; last year, 36% of U.S. teenagers said they spent too much time on social media, according to the Pew Research Center.

That respite is coming in part through compact point-and-shoot digital cameras, uncovered by Gen Zers who are digging through their parents’ junk drawers and shopping secondhand. Camera lines like the Canon Powershot and Kodak EasyShare are among their finds, popping up at parties and other social events.

Over the past few years, nostalgia for the Y2K era, a time of both tech enthusiasm and existential dread that spanned the late 1990s and early 2000s, has seized Generation Z. The nostalgia has spread across TikTok, fuelling fashion trends like low-rise pants, velour tracksuits and dresses over jeans. Mall-stalwart brands like Abercrombie & Fitch and Juicy Couture have reaped the benefits; in 2021, Abercrombie reported its highest net sales since 2014. Now, there is Y2K nostalgia for the technology that captured these outfits when they were first popular.

This time, the poor picture quality isn’t for lack of a better tool. It’s on purpose.

Compared with today’s smartphones, older digital cameras have fewer megapixels, which capture less detail, and built-in lenses with higher apertures, which let in less light, both of which contribute to lower-quality photos. But in a feed of more or less standard smartphone photos, the quirks of photos taken with digital cameras are now considered treasures instead of reasons for deletion.

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