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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 Mr. Tabarez, 18, and his friends grinning, jumping around and waving their arms from a crowded dance floor.
But instead of using his smartphone, Mr. 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, Mr. 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 Mr. 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The cameras of Generation Z’s childhoods, seen as outdated and pointless by those who originally owned them, are in vogue again.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 Z-ers grew up with smartphones that increasingly had it all, making stand-alone cameras, mapping devices and other gadgets unnecessary. They are now in search of a break from their smartphones; last year, 36 percent 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 Z-ers 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, fueling 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 to 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.
“People are realizing it’s fun to have something not attached to their phone,” said Mark Hunter, a photographer also known as the Cobrasnake. “You’re getting a different result than you’re used to. There’s a bit of delay in gratification.”
Mr. Hunter, 37, cut his teeth documenting nightlife in the early aughts using his digital camera. In those photos, celebrities — including a “You Belong With Me”-era Taylor Swift and the newly famous Kim Kardashian — look like ordinary partygoers, caught in the harsh light of Mr. Hunter’s camera.
He now photographs a new cohort of influencers and stars, but the photos would be nearly indistinguishable from his older ones if his subjects were clutching flip phones instead of iPhones. They are rewinding the clock to 2007 and “basically reliving every episode of ‘The Simple Life,’” he said, referring to a reality television show from that era that features Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie.
But many new point-and-shoot digital cameras come with today’s bells and whistles, and older models have been discontinued, so people are turning to thrift stores and secondhand e-commerce sites to find cameras with sufficiently vintage looks. On eBay, searches for “digital camera” increased by 10 percent from 2021 to 2022, with searches for specific models seeing even steeper jumps, said Davina Ramnarine, a company spokeswoman. For example, searches for “Nikon COOLPIX” increased by 90 percent, she said.
Zounia Rabotson’s earliest memories are of traveling and posing in front of monuments and tourist attractions as her mother pressed a button and a digital camera whirred to life. Now a model in New York City, she has returned to her mother’s digital camera, a Canon PowerShot SX230 HS made in 2011.
On Instagram, Ms. Rabotson, 22, posts grainy, overexposed photos of herself wearing denim miniskirts and carrying tiny luxury handbags. She says that she looks up to models from her childhood and that taking photos in a similar style makes her “feel like I’m them.”
“I feel like we’re becoming a bit too techy,” she said. “To go back in time is just a great idea.”
Ms. Rabotson doesn’t disconnect entirely. She has featured her camera on social media, captioning her fourth most popular video on TikTok: “Pov” — point of view — “you fell in love with digital cameras again.”
On TikTok, teenagers and young adults now show off cameras nearly as old as they are and explain how to achieve a “new aesthetic.” The cameras are not always well received. After the influencer Amalie Bladt posted a video on TikTok telling viewers to “buy the cheapest digital camera you find” for “the over exposure look,” some of the more than 900 commenters responded in horror.
“NO NO NOOOOO PLS NO, I CANT RELIVE THIS ERA,” one person commented. “I swear I’m not that old.”
But the comments by despairing millennials and people with more modern tastes were overwhelmed by those where users had tagged their friends and asked how to upload photos from their digital camera to their smartphone.
Among some Gen Z-ers, the digital camera has become popular because it appears more authentic online, and not necessarily because it is a break from the internet, said Brielle Saggese, a lifestyle strategist at the trend forecasting company WGSN Insight. Photos taken with digital cameras can impart “a layer of personality that most iPhone content doesn’t,” she said.
“We want our devices to quietly blend into our surroundings and not be visible,” Ms. Saggese said. “The Y2K aesthetic has turned that on its head,” she added, describing mirror selfies and photos where digital cameras are visible accessories as “stylistic choices.”
Rudra Sondhi, a freshman at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, started using his grandmother’s digital camera because it seemed like a happy medium between film cameras and smartphones. He estimates that he takes one photo with his digital camera for every five with his smartphone.
“When I look back at my digital photos” — from his actual camera — “I have very specific memories attached to them,” Mr. Sondhi said. “When I go through the camera roll on my phone, I sort of remember the moment and it’s not special.”
Mr. Sondhi, 18, shares photos taken with his digital camera on a separate Instagram account, @rudrascamera. These photos document the range of young adulthood, from goofing around in a college dorm room to moshing at a performance by The Weeknd. When he takes out his camera, he said, his friends immediately deem the moment special.
For Sadie Grey Strosser, 22, using digital cameras has represented the beginning of a different life stage. She took a semester off from Williams College during the pandemic and began using her parents’ Canon Powershot. Her photography Instagram account, @mysexyfotos, cataloged nights out and long drives in low-contrast, washed-out snapshots.
“I felt so off the grid, and it almost went hand in hand, using a camera that wasn’t connected to a phone,” she said.
When her digital camera broke last summer, Ms. Strosser said she was “so upset.” She later started using her grandmother’s Sony Cyber-shot, which had “such a different character.” Meanwhile, she said, if her iPhone broke, “I couldn’t care less.”