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Miu Miu AW23
Courtesy of Miu Miu

Say sleaze! The return of the digital camera

From indie sleaze TikTok teens to Miu Miu AW23, MySpace digicams are being rediscovered as a not-so-obsolete techsessory

Every year, the UK government goes full Supermarket Sweep and presents an updated version of the CPI Basket of Goods: a fictional trolley of items used by the Office of National Statistics to determine the rate of inflation. Newly relevant or popular things are thrown in to make it more accurate, with this year’s edition featuring the addition of dairy-free spreads, video doorbells, couriers, frozen fruit, and train tickets. 

Objects heading towards obsoletion, meanwhile, get binned, and in a hit for those coming of age in the mid-noughties, this year saw CDs and DVDs get frisbeed, alcopops swilled down the sink, Superking cigs stubbed out, and vending machines get wrapped (home-killed lamb shoulders were also chucked FYI).

There was a more notable but slightly questionable omission, however: the digital compact camera came a cropper and was removed for good. “There is a narrower range of digital compact cameras available for pricing, following a decline in consumer spending, because of the increased usage and quality of smartphone cameras,” the report reads. 

While it’s true that most of us have switched from superkings to princess vapes and alcopops to hard seltzer – and, yes, even burners, bricks, and dumbphones have cameras – it’s too late to write off the compact, because it’s now coming back to byte us thanks to a recent revival. 

Spurred on by the likes of digicam girls Kendall Jenner, Addison Rae, and Bella Hadid, social media has been abuzz with creators uploading videos spanning tutorials, photography slideshows, sales demos, and unboxings. Maxims like “Digital forever”, “I call my Coolpix a Pixie”, and “Sometimes the wrong white balance is the right one” are posted by handles ending in .JPG, .PNG and .ZIP file extensions. 

“We’ve seen a huge rise in the popularity of digital cameras over the last 12 months,” Bernadette from Retro Camera Shop says. “Film is still just as popular but now people want both,” she contnues. Now, we’re not just litty lengy, tippy tappy; we’re clicky snappy, too, using point-and-shoots like there’s no tomorrow – only yesterday.

Why the hype? Well, it’s all about image. In our world of endless aesthetic revivals, one where many of us are still infected with the Y2K bug, the visuals of digital camera photography are a nostalgic delight. With the indie sleaze revival still running riot, the compact plugs us into the past, recreating the naive imagery that once seemed so cutting-edge.  

“The type of photos these cameras take look the most similar to MySpace aesthetics and that kind of paparazzi, party photography aesthetic that dominated at the time,” says Olivia V, creator of the @indiesleaze Instagram account. “I remember taking pics on my 3 MegaPixel camera for MySpace. I’d also bring it to parties and then upload hundreds of the night’s photos to a Facebook album,” she reminisces. Graininess, overexposure, migraine-inducing flash, and bleary-eyed focus are now desirable, reminding us of a time before filters and Facetune let us be phoney on our phones. 

"I think there’s something fun about older cameras, they aren’t perfect and don’t show people’s perceived imperfections,” says Jo of Aperture Priority, a popular Depop shop selling vintage cameras. “They have a nostalgic look that captures a memory in the way that a phone camera just doesn’t. There’s also an element of creativity and a feeling of ‘I took this photo’ that personally I don’t feel when I use a phone camera,” she continues.

@sunny.plushies I have now hyper-fixated on cameras, and naturally I had to show off what I have so far! i have a couple of camera unboxing videos coming soon too 🤭 #camera #cameras #digicam #digitalcamera #filmcamera #nikon #minolta #fujifilm #papershootcamera #tour #hyperfixated #viral #fyp #fypシ #fypage ♬ CRAFT - OFEKNIV

Before this resurgence came the return of the film camera. While digital camera sales worldwide have seen a 93 per cent fall since 2010, the comeback of analog cameras in the last decade has led to Kodak hiring hundreds more people to meet demand for film and been the saviour of camera shops across the world. The likes of Jamie Hawkesworth, Colin Dodgson, Zoe Ghertner and Harley Weir have brought the fuzzy feeling of film back to high fashion campaigns and glossy mags, revelling in the deep colour, high dynamic range, and the patience it necessitates.

As even its fans will note, the digital camera offers none of these things. Think of it this way; film is like vinyl (superior warmth but requires patience), DSLRs are like CDs (high quality and reliable) and smartphone cameras are like streaming (instant, easy, anywhere). So what does that make the digital compact camera? With its shit battery life, clunky file transportation, and relatively low-quality media it’s probably closest to an iPod Shuffle. Clearly, though, there’s something about the crude reality of outdated digital tech that’s making us tick.

“I started seeing YouTubers like Leah Wei of Leahsfieldnotes incorporating these blurry, nostalgic clips into their vlogs and decided I wanted to try out the same,” Katie Glasgow, a video creator, indie musician, and digital camera TikToker says. “As soon as I started posting clips and photos from these cameras, I was flooded with comments of people asking for the names of the cameras, how to use them, and which ones I would recommend.” Now, she makes vlogs using digicams and videos showing how they work, building up a collection of Cybershots, Handycams, and Polaroids. 

To supporters like Glasgow, it’s all the nostalgic fun of using something obsolete with the immediacy of using something current. “The nostalgia is a big part of it, the photo quality looks like photos from our childhood,” she says. “The mechanical sound of the zoom, the blur and pixelation, the harsh flash against the faces of a group of friends, it creates its own version of memory that’s somehow more real and more dream-like at the same time,” she continues. 

It’s also a lot easier to use a digital point-and-shoot than faffing around with film or learning how to tame an SLR, plus there’s no need to worry about using up your roll on trashy snaps. “Film costs £10 to buy and £10 to develop and it might be blank. With digital you see the image in moments and it costs nothing to transfer images to your phone,” Jo says. 

The world of fashion is also starting to develop an appetite for digital camera photography based on its aesthetics. Luxury brands using VHS cameras isn’t anything new – from Acne Studios campaigns to Eckhaus Latta shows, we’re used to it by now – but embracing the static digicam is. In a nod to the trend, Dazed’s London Fashion Week AW23 street style was shot by Jamie-Maree Shipton on a no-frills, all-thrills pink compact camera that was more Costco than Canon.

This raw imperfectionism has been best perfected by Heaven thanks to Marc Jacobs and the legion of Y2K grunge girlies he’s galvanised. Alongside its use of crazy low-res film and grainy aesthetics, the brand’s embraced digital camera photography for its campaigns and parties, recently offering a “selfie cam" for the likes of Doja Cat, Charli XCX, and PinkPantheress to point-and-shoot with at its bash at Brooklyn’s Elsewhere club. 

Last month, Miu Miu ran a photo series on Instagram capturing its models moments before its Fall Winter 2023 show. Aside from the collection’s bejewelled knickers, wallflower skirts, and scholarly cardigans, every image contained the same accessory. At first glance, it might seem like they are mirror selfies, but the images are far too crisp to be anything compact, using the same trick as those hoax selfies influencers love, the camera becoming the subject rather than the object. Mrs P’s creative device points to the fact that digital cameras are loved as things in themselves, not just for the photography they help realise. 

As Chavie Lieber for WSJ put it, NYFW’s hottest accessory this year was the digital camera. “The devices dangled from front-row guests’ wrists, like dainty accessories,” Lieber wrote. It’s why TikTok features scores of videos showing off digital cameras adorned, embellished, and customised with charms, stickers and gems, showing the camera off for the camera. 

Into the aesthetic? How to get your hands on your own. “There are companies now making ‘kid cameras’ or other things meant to replicate the look of early 2000s digicams and selling them for like 50 bucks, and resellers on eBay hiking up the prices of shitty cameras because they are trendy right now,” Glasgow notes, recommending to hit up your thrift shop or Facebook marketplace. 

Jo is equally wary: “Look for images of the camera turned on and sample images so you know the results: we always supply these,” she warns. “Beware of cheap cameras on eBay: many have not been tested.” For Bernadette, hazier is hotter. “If you’re after the early 2000’s nostalgic look, the lower the megapixels the better,” she says. “We only stock digital cameras under 15.0 MP as we know it’s going to give the desired look people are looking for.”

Perhaps the most bizarre indication of this monetisation of our nostalgic, ersatz culture is the Paper Shoot Camera, an eco-friendly "Digital Camera That Takes Photos Like A Film Camera". Priced at over a hundred bucks and plastered all over TikTok, it’s similar to what Crossley is to vinyl or Urban Outfitters is to vintage, a faux-retro version that costs more than actually buying one secondhand. Plus now, for those who don't want to bother actually buying a digicam, there are filters and presets to make your iPhone photos look worse than they are. 

Here lies the dizzying nature of revivalism; we want our digital camera photos to look good but not too good and sometimes like film with the sharing ease of phones; instant cameras to be digital; our film cameras to look warm and beautiful unlike digital cameras or phones but without the hassle; and our phone's photos to look either impossibly perfect or purposefully imperfect, or sometimes like they’ve been taken using film cameras, digicams, fish-eye lenses, camcorders or a pinhole. 

Maybe, what we really all need is a device that combines all of these, shooting film and digital, printing-on-demand and doing whatever the hell you do on your phone too. Watch out, CPI Basket of Goods 2024: I’m coming for you.