Complete Guide On Disposable Cameras: What Are They And Why Are They Coming Back

Photography in the late 1980’s became casual and relaxed with the popular disposable film camera. It was no longer necessary to lug a heavy, expensive camera around your neck and four rolls of film in your pocket. You could just stick a cheap, disposable camera in your pocket and never miss a memorable moment or gorgeous landscape.

Disposable cameras are small box cameras designed for rugged use by unprofessional photographers. After temporarily losing ground to digital cameras and smartphones, disposable cameras are coming back due to a renewed interest in film photography and because of their ruggedness, ability of some to be waterproof, lack of rechargeable battery, and lower price. There are also many places that can develop disposable cameras. If you don’t want your negatives returned and you don’t care about high-quality scans use Walgreens, Walmart, or CVS. However, if you do want your negatives back I recommend MPIX.com, TheDarkroom.com, or OldSchoolPhotoLab.com.

You may wonder why anyone would go back to old technology instead of moving forward. Below we will discuss the trend and why people are using disposable cameras.

What Is A Disposable Camera?

a pile of 6 disposable cameras

Disposable cameras are small box cameras that have preloaded film and, in some cases, a built-in flash. They are cheap and sturdy no-nonsense cameras that take the hassle out of photography for those who don’t need professional-grade shots.

“Disposable” means that the camera is meant to be used up at one setting and then discarded. Now not all disposable cameras are thrown into the trash; those with pre-loaded film are mailed off to have the pictures developed. 

Sometimes those cameras will be refilled and sold again. Other times the cameras will be discarded after the film has been extracted and removed.

Those who do not have preloaded film can be refilled by the consumer and used again.

The first disposable camera had a film with only eight exposures; today’s film cameras usually have between twenty-four and twenty-seven exposures. This makes them ideal to take on 

  • Vacation
  •  road trips
  •  adventures
  •  anywhere you might want to quickly capture photos without needing professional quality.

A digital disposable camera has the capacity for about twenty-five photos. Add a memory card and the capacity increases by thirty photos.

Why Are Disposable Cameras Coming Back?

Having exhausted the filter options on phone cameras without ever finding the perfect one, and not wanting to invest in bulky digital cameras that are ruined by one drop, millennials are coming back to the simple, disposable film camera.

Why come back to analog film after seeing the clarity and convenience of digital? Several reasons are driving the return of disposable film cameras.

  • No filter means the photo has an authentic feel
  • No preview or delete option means you get what you shot
  • Limited number of exposures makes you choose carefully what you shoot
  • The element of surprise adds to the fun of see your pictures when they return
  • Print pictures can be shared in ways that digital pictures can’t
  • With analog film, you catch the moment exactly as it is with no re-do’s

Often, we find that the older way works best, and that is certainly true in the case of disposable cameras. More people are returning to the simple disposable camera of by-gone days to capture their memories. That bright, grainy photo brings back memories of simpler days before we felt the need to photograph every meal and document every moment. The scenes we choose to spend our limited number of shots on have greater significance because of the scarcity of shots available to us. 

With a disposable camera we capture the realness and rawness of the moment as it happens. We can’t just retake the shot because somebody’s hair wasn’t perfect or somebody closed their eyes just as the shutter snapped. It simply is what it is.

The very vulnerability of those moments is what draws us back to using the disposable film camera after two decades of presenting doctored photos for the world to see. Finally, we come back to just being who we are, and enjoying every moment.

Kodak Waterproof Disposable Camera
Kodak Waterproof Disposable Camera

Why Do Disposable Cameras Exist?

Disposable cameras were invented for people who just wanted to preserve memories of scenes or moments without having to worry about breaking or losing their expensive camera. Disposable cameras combined the best traits into one small, indestructible package. They are:

  • Inexpensive
  • Rugged
  • Lack of rechargeable battery
  • Some are waterproof
  • Easy to Use
  • No-fuss developing process

These are the kinds of cameras nature-lovers take on a hike or adventurers take on a mountain climb. Stick it in your pocket and it’s within easy reach when you want it, unfazed by the bumps and falls of the trail.

Who Invented Disposable Cameras?

The first disposable camera was invented by H. M. Stiles in 1949 and called the Photo-Pac and cost $1.29. For some reason, this camera never caught on in the market. Seventeen years later, the French company FEX introduced its version of a disposable camera. The popular disposable camera of the last century was introduced in 1986, by Fujifilm.

In 2004, the United States was introduced to the disposable digital camera created by a company called Pure Digital.

Do Disposable Cameras Take Good Pictures?

The quality of picture from a disposable camera varies with the camera. Of course, the analog film cameras do not produce the quality of the digital cameras, but the higher end film cameras will produce a decent image.

Some higher end disposable cameras actually produce brighter colors than the professional cameras and the images can be quite clear when taken in proper lighting.

The secret for getting good photos from a disposable camera lies in knowing your cameras limitations and how to maximize its capabilities.

Most disposable film cameras use 35mm film. Some cameras have the film built-in and the whole camera is mailed in for processing. Other cameras can be opened and reloaded with film.

Best Disposable Film Cameras

See the charts below for the best 35mm and waterproof disposable cameras and where to buy them. if you want to know more about where to purchase disposable cameras and more about reloadable disposable cameras, see this article.

35mm Disposable Cameras:

Camera Model
Color or Black and White Film
Price
Exposures
Flash?
Color Film (400 ISO)
$13 – $15
27
Yes
Black and White (400 ISO)
$13 – $15
27
Yes
Color Film (400 ISO)
$18
27
Yes
Color Film (400 ISO)
$32
24-36
Yes W/ Color Filters
Black and White (400 ISO)
$22
24-36
Yes
Color Film (400 ISO)
$14
27
Yes
Color Film (800 ISO)
$14
39
No

Waterproof 35mm Disposable Cameras:

Waterproof Camera Model
Color or B&W
Price
Exposures
Flash?
Color Film (400 ISO)
$35.99 (2-pack)
27
No
Color Film (400 ISO)
$22.99
27
No
Color Film (400 ISO)
$19.95
27
No

Note that most disposable cameras have 400 ISO film but there are a few that have 800 ISO film loaded into it like the one recommended on the list.

For more information about different disposable cameras available, check out this webpage on TheDarkroom.com.

Do Disposable Cameras Have Batteries?

Only the disposable film cameras with flashes require batteries. The rest of the camera do not need a power source since it is purely mechanical. Those cameras with flashes normally use 1 regular AA or AAA battery to charge the flash, which is included in the purchase and not meant to be replaced. If you have a reloadable disposable camera, then you will need to supply or replace the battery for the flash to work.

Disposable Cameras Do Expire

While the camera itself does not expire, the film and batteries for the flash do expire. Film usually expires about 2 – 3 years after the manufacture date but may still be good for another five or six years if stored away from heat and humidity.

While you can still develop expired film, there is no guarantee that the pictures will have any degree of quality left especially if the camera wasn’t stored properly away from heat, direct sun, and humidity. Color film may lose some of its quality after the expiration date and your negatives may be grainier, have less contrast and sharpness, and color shifts than usual if the film has expired because of film degradation and fog. If the camera was stored in heat, direct sun, and in humidity light leaks, color banding, and color shifts may occur.

Film processing can be expensive so you don’t want to pay for bad photos.

How Long Do Disposable Cameras Last Undeveloped?

How long undeveloped film will last depend primarily on how the camera is stored. If it is stored where temperatures fluctuate or where humidity can affect the film, the results will be disappointing. If stored away from 

  • Direct SunLight
  • Humidity
  • Heat

If you must keep your undeveloped camera for a while, be sure to store it in an airtight container and place it in a dark closet or corner. This will give your film the best chance of surviving.

Most Disposable Cameras Do Not Have Timestamps

Most disposable film cameras do not have a timestamp feature. Since the disposable camera is fully mechanical except for the flash, there is no computer chip to tell the camera what date or time it is.

However, this feature is available when the film is developed at the lab and usually printed on the back of the print. These can be especially useful when looking through old pictures and trying to determine when, where, and why they were taken. 

Tips for Getting Good Quality Pictures From A Disposable Camera

If used properly, a disposable camera can produce bright, interesting photos. As with any art, one must know ow to maximize capabilities and minimize limitations to get the highest degree of performance from a disposable camera. For best results, follow these simple tips:

  • Shoot in as much light as possible (most are made for shooting outside in bright sunlight)
  • Make sure your subject is not backlit; they will be in shadow in the printed photo
  • Make sure you the subject is 4 – 10 ft from the camera when using the flash
  • Try different angles 

The best way to learn what works and what doesn’t work is just to play with it. Practice makes perfect, and the only way to get good at anything is to put in plenty of practice. So, take your camera and hit the trails!

Just experiment and see what you get. You may be surprised at the wonderful shots you get back from a cheap, unadorned camera when you learn how to maximize its potential.

Do Disposable Cameras Work in Low Light?

Underexposed Image from A Disposable Camera Without Flash
There wasn’t enough light in this image and therefore is underexposed. This person should have used the flash.

Typically, disposable film cameras are not good in low-light situations without a flash. Using a flash will help in low-light conditions, but it won’t light the entire scene. The flash just isn’t strong enough to provide adequate lighting in settings where natural or artificial light is negligible. Most cameras suggest a distance of 4 – 10 ft between the camera and the subject.

Disposable Camera Image Using A Flash In Low Light
This disposable camera here used a flash in a low light setting but the subject is too far away and is underexposed. .

Disposable Cameras Don’t Work Well in The Dark

Disposable cameras don’t work well at all in night-time settings because their exposure settings often don’t change and set up to photograph in bright sunlight. Generally, the flash is your only way of controlling your exposure.

While there is flash on the camera, it isn’t strong enough to capture a sweeping landscapes or something far away. Your subject needs to be between 4 – 10 ft away for the flash to work properly.

A Flash Should Not Always Be Used

Using a flash with a disposable camera is not always recommended. In some settings, a flash will do more harm than good. In brightly lit settings like outside in bright sunlight, the flash is not useful. If your subject is backlit (or standing with the light behind them so their front is in shadow), a flash is also not useful because it isn’t strong enough to get the entire person. For this to work, you would need to be closer to them. For most cameras, they suggest between 4 – 10 feet.

Back of a Kodak Disposable Camera. It suggests 4 - 10 feet range for the flash.
Back of a Kodak Disposable Camera. It suggests 4 – 10 feet range for the flash.

Also, in nearly dark settings a flash will not illuminate the subject properly either too much or not enough light or detail. Most cameras suggest between 4 – 10 ft to get successfully lit images with the camera flash. Since there isn’t a way to preview the image, you can only guess at the correct distance.

The subject was too close in this image made by a disposable camera with the flash on and is overexposed.
The subject was too close in this image made by a disposable camera with the flash on and is overexposed.

Using a flash discriminately will help you shoot vibrant prints and regardless of setting can ruin what would have been a perfect picture.

For some cameras, if you decide you don’t want to use the flash after you have charged it, which can be done by pressing the button the front or sliding a button if you will have to discharge the flash.

How To Clean Your Disposable Camera Lens

Camera lens get dirty from exposure to the elements on the trail, and they get greasy from fingertips accidentally touching them. Periodically, it’s going to necessary to clean your lens if you want good, clear pictures. 

To clean a camera lens is not complicated, but it does require a soft touch. The lens can easily be scratched during cleaning, especially if it has been exposed to dust and sand. 

To clean the lens, 

  • Blow on it or brush it with a soft-bristle brush to remove as much loose debris as possible.  
  • Use a lens cleaning solvent and a soft cloth
  • Carefully wipe the lens to remove grease and fingerprints.

How To Use Kodak Or Fujifilm Disposable Cameras

To use your Kodak or Fujifilm camera, you simply need to wind the thumbwheel until it will not turn anymore to take the first picture. 

Back of a Fujifilm disposable camera.
Back of a Fujifilm disposable camera. See the thumbwheel on the top right.

If your camera has a flash, you will need to hold the flash button or slide the button until the light turns red to indicate that the capacitor is charged. Then simply point at your subject, look through the viewfinder until your focus is where you want it and press the button on the top of the camera to make an exposure. To use the flash, most cameras recommend putting 4 – 10 ft between the camera and your subject. After taking an image, wind the thumbwheel until the next number appears in the window on the top of the camera to take the next image.

Exposure counter window on top of a fujifilm disposable camera
Exposure counter window on top of a Fujifilm disposable camera

Repeat until all of your frames are exposed. Then send your camera off to the lab of your choice so they can retrieve your images.

Walgreens, CVS, and Walmart all develop disposable cameras but they don’t return your negatives and the scans are just okay. See this guide for where to get your disposable cameras developed for about the same price but with better scans, negatives returned, and faster turnaround time.

Retrieving Your Images from A Disposable Camera

Most, if not all, of the one-hour photo labs from the 1990’s are gone, but there are still labs that can develop your film for your and provide you with digital scans of your images (and your negatives) so you can get transfer or download them on your phone.

Retrieving your images from your disposable camera is a process. For disposable film cameras, you simply turn in the whole camera, the photo laboratory removes the film, develops the negatives, scans them, and in some cases, refurbishes the camera. 

How Do Disposable Cameras Focus?

Disposable film cameras have a small, fixed aperture (usually between f8 – f11). However, the aperture is set at a deep depth of field that allows for most everything in the scene to be in focus. This allows you to focus on framing and composing the scene while not having to worry about correct focus.

Can Disposable Cameras Freeze?

Disposable cameras can still function in sub-zero temperatures with minimal problems. Since a disposable film camera has little, if any, electronic components there is no danger of shorted circuitry from condensation. 

To prevent the outside shell of the camera from freezing and cracking, you can wrap the camera in a freezer bag. After your camera is exposed to extreme cold, let it warm up slowly.

A common technique to keep color film from degrading over time, especially after expiring, is to store the film in a freezer or refrigerator. This can also be done with disposable cameras. See this article for more information about how to store film correctly for future use.

Where to Develop Your Disposable Camera Online

See this guide on where to get your disposable camera developed, how much it costs, and the turnaround time. However, the best places in regards to price, quality, quality, and turnaround time to get your film developed online are:

Where to Develop Your Disposable Camera Near You

See this guide for the best store near you to develop film if you don’t live near the places mentioned above. However, the best place probably near you to develop film is Walmart, Walgreens, of CVS. Keep in mind, they do not return your negatives and while the development is good, the scans are just okay.

Developing Images Takes A While

Keep in mind that the process of sending your film out for development takes a while. If you use a store like Walgreens, CVS, or Walmart on average it takes at least 2 – 3 weeks or longer. For example, my local walmart said it most likely take 2 weeks but could take up to 4 weeks. The online labs differ on their turnaround time but usually is about 10 day to 2 weeks but you get your digital scans much faster and your negatives returned.

How to Safely Take Your Camera or Film on A Plane

Taking your disposable camera on vacation is a great idea, but it can cause you a bit of worry unless you plan first. 

  • Think through your trip 
  • Try to identify how many times you’ll have to pass through airport security
  • If possible, obtain a lead-lined bag (like this one from Domke on Amazon.com)
  • Keep camera and film in your carry-on in a clear, plastic bag
  • Ask for camera, new film, and unprocessed film to be hand-checked (including Instant film)

However be aware that new airport scanners like the TSA CT scanners will damage unprocessed film on the first scan. To keep your film from being ruined, just put all of your unprocessed or new film in a clear, plastic bag and request a hand-check. Also, keep in mind only new and unprocessed film will be affected.

Disposable Cameras Can Go Through Specific X-Ray Machine, But Not All

Most X-ray machines found in airports will not cause damage to unexposed film unless the film is subjected to repeated x-rays. Film up to 800 speed can go through x-ray unfazed. It is not recommended to allow film of higher speeds, like 3200 ISO to pass through x-rays. 

If you don’t want to risk damage to your film at all, you can place in a lead-lined pouch designed especially for film and cameras. 

NOTE: Digital cameras are not affected by x-rays. The electronic components do not interact with the x-rays at all, so there is no danger of erased frames or marred images from the radiation.

Disposable Camera Have Some Metal in Them

Disposable cameras do have some metal in them, but very little with all the circuitry that is required to operate them. Copper and stainless steel are used in the wiring for the flash as well. Cameras without flashes have very little, if any, metal in them at all. They are mostly made of only plastic and cardboard.

Best To Take Your Camera in Your Carry-On and Get Hand-checked

Instead of packing your disposable camera in your checked luggage, it’s a better idea to pack it in your carry-on. Checked luggage is subjected to extreme levels of radiation from heavy-duty x-rays which pose a greater risk of damage to your film. Most of the x-rays that passengers go through are not as intense, although passing through x-ray multiple times can still harm the film. However some scanners will ruin your film so it is best to have it handchecked.

The best method way to keep it safe to ask security to hand-check your camera and film if possible, so that it is not exposed to the x-rays at all. Put your unprocessed disposable film and camera(s) into a ziplock, or plastic, bag and tell the attendant you want it to be hand checked.

See this article for examples of how x-ray scanners will affect your unprocessed or unused film.

Will TSA ruin my Instant Film?

Undeveloped Instant film, like Polaroid and instax film, will be ruined by x-rays at the airport or other places. Because of this never have it scanned by x-ray machines and always ask for it be handchecked. They will mostly likely open up any of the foil pouches that instant film comes in so if you go ahead and open it beforehand it will save you time. However, the good news is film that has been developed is unaffected by x-rays.

The best way to protect instant film from being ruined by x-rays is to carry your film in a clear ziplock, or other brand, bag and ask to have it handchecked when going through baggage check.

Digital Cameras and Smartphones Almost Replaced Disposable Film Cameras

With the invention of phone cameras, the disposable film camera began to lose its former popularity. It was much easier and faster to shoot photos with the ever-present phone than to carry along an extra camera, even if it was only a small one.

Besides, with the phone camera the photo could be shot, edited, and uploaded to the Web in minutes, unlike a disposable film camera that has to sent off for development, which could take weeks.

However, some phone cameras still weren’t up to snuff when it comes to:

  • Clarity
  • Depth
  • Color
  • Authenticity

With film becoming less and less attractive to millennials, and phone cameras falling short in many ways, a new idea was born: the disposable digital camera. 

This camera combines the small, compact size of a film camera with the precision and speed of a digital camera to create the perfect solution for those who want clear, almost instant photos without needing one of the huge professional cameras that cost a fortune. These enjoyed some degree of popularity at first, but never really caught on as one would have expected. Most consumers felt that they cost too much and offered too little.

The earliest models of disposable digital cameras offered no image preview and no delete option. When those options did become available, as one might expect, the upgrades drove the purchase price higher. In addition, most people did not want to pay for the camera and have to pay for image retrieval from the camera, only to have to repeat the process from the beginning for the next time. In the end, twenty-five photos that may or may not turn out did not seem adequate justification for the cost of a disposable digital camera.

History repeats itself, and there seems to always be an interest in what has come before us in previous generations. So, recently, film manufacturer and film developers have seen a resurgence of interest in the old-fashioned disposable film camera most of us grew up with.

Why Would You Use A Disposable Camera Today?

A disposable camera would be useful on vacation when you don’t want to risk dropping, losing, or having your favorite high-dollar camera, or cell phone, stolen.

Hiking or mountain-climbing would be a good opportunity to use a disposable camera because they can stand the rough trails. 

They come in waterproof options like My recommendation is to purchase a waterproof single-use disposable film camera (2 pack) and enjoy the adventure.

Fujifilm Waterproof Disposable Film Camera
Waterproof Disposable Film Camera by Fujifilm

A disposable camera are also great for a young child who shows some photographic interest and skill but is not yet mature enough to be entrusted with an expensive professional camera.

This is the perfect camera to hone your photography skills without wasting money on accessories you don’t really need. If you’re shooting pictures for fun and not money, this camera really is all you need.

For more information about dispo

Lee

My name is Lee and I love photography and learning. I received a Master of Fine Arts in Photography in 2010 and have worked as a university professor for the last 10 years in addition to being a working photographer. I started this website to learn more about digital and film-based photography and to provide a resource for all of my students.

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