Disposable Film Cameras: What They Are and Why Use Them Now?

Disposable cameras, also known as “one-time-use cameras,” are the convenient and affordable alternative to the high-tech digital cameras most people opt for instead. Although they might not have the ability to take pictures as sharp or realistic as a high-end digital or film camera, disposable cameras are extremely user-friendly and have a series of benefits that can make them the better choice over other film or digital cameras.

Disposable film cameras are affordable photography devices created from cheap materials, such as plastics and cardboard, and solely meant for single use. Because of these materials and the use of a flash, the resulting images are characterized by high contrast and saturated colors and produce a very specific look. They are often preloaded with either color or black and white 35mm film that allows for 24-27 exposures. Disposable film cameras are designed with easy point-and-shoot functionality, meaning just point the camera and press the shutter button to take an image, and the resulting images can easily be turned into digital images in a about a week.

If you’re interested in learning how disposable film cameras work, which cameras we recommend with prices, and the benefits of these devices, then read on for our full guide on the subject. 

Origins of the Disposable Camera

Disposable cameras precede our modern digital cameras by more than a century; the earliest example being the Ready Fotografer, which dates back to the late 19th century. This device was comprised of a glass plate, paper, and cardboard for an impressive total of 25 cents. A price that significantly rivaled the typical 1880s handheld’s cost of $50. If this sounds like a reasonable camera cost for today’s rates, remember that in the 1880s, $50 was about the modern equivalent of $1,298.42, rendering the handheld a luxury item most individuals couldn’t dream of affording. 

Cost was one of the major driving points behind the creation of disposable or single-use cameras. Not only did people want an affordable device that allowed them to capture their most precious moments, but they also cared very little for the device itself. Their main interest was in the pictures it created, not the camera. As a result, companies strived to create an affordable, user-friendly device and could be tossed away when used.

Portability was another key factor. A significant drawback of the early handheld cameras was that they were hefty pieces of equipment that required multiple components to function. Not to mention a sturdy place to sit, which meant users had to bring lengthy wooden tripods on their outings if they wanted to capture the moment. Ultimately, the process was more troublesome than it’s worth, so these luxury items were typically left at home. For this reason, disposable cameras were made of cheap, lightweight materials, like cardboard, and designed to have everything necessary within the device. All the users had to do was point and shoot.

The final version of these devices was created in 1949 when the Photo-Pac was created. This innovative disposable camera allowed users to take eight exposures with a 35mm film for the total cost of $1.29 (the modern cost of $14.36). Once the pictures were taken, the users didn’t have to do anything themselves to develop the photos. They merely sent their camera to the company, which would develop the photos and send them back to the buyer. A simple process anyone could use. Unfortunately, despite its brilliant design and business model, the Photo-Pac wasn’t overly popular at the time. The disposable camera didn’t really rise to reflect our current version until the invention of Fujifilm’s model, the Utsurun-Desu, in 1986. This camera was immensely popular, so much so that current photography company giants like Kodak, Nikon, and Canon decided to try their hand at this new device. New models were competitively released and improved until the disposable camera became a public staple for affordable and easy picture-taking by 2005.  

Image of A Kodak Disposable Camera Video on Youtube
Click on the image to see the video on Youtube.com

Source 1, Source 2

How Do Disposable Film Cameras Work?

Disposable film cameras essentially work the same as basic point-and-shoot cameras; the most significant differences between these and other cameras are the materials used in producing the cameras, limited settings, and intended numbers of uses. Digital and other film cameras are meant to last years with the proper care, whereas disposable cameras are created to be thrown away after development or recycled to be reloaded with new film and resold. 

Disposable cameras are made with a plastic, fixed-focus lens and 35mm film or an APS cartridge that is either sold separately or already loaded into the camera. Most cameras allow for 27 exposures while some cameras, depending on the model you purchase, can be equipped with additional features such as more additional exposures, being able to load more film into the camera, flash and/or filters, and waterproofing.

Front of a Fujifilm disposable film camera.
The front of a Fujifilm Disposable Color Film Camera

The film in the camera is situated in a canister on spool inside the camera, connected to a winding gear. When you want to take a picture, you’ll advance the film using your thumb to roll over the winding gear, typically located in the upper right-hand corner of the back of the camera (see the image below to find the thumbwheel).

Back of a Fujifilm disposable film camera.
The back of a Fujifilm Disposable Color Film Camera

Once you hear the click that the film is ready for the first (or next) exposure, or it no longer advances, you’ll peer through the viewfinder from the back of the camera and click the button on the top-right of the camera. Clicking this button will activate the flash, if on, and opens the camera’s shutter for a very short about of time (generally 1/80th of a second), allowing light in through the lens to capture your photo on the camera’s film.

Because of their basic components and structure, disposable film cameras don’t have many alterable settings and won’t change based on light exposure or lack thereof other than turning on or off the flash. Therefore, users have to be very careful about their pictures and consider their environment when using their limited amount of film.

Basics of Disposable Camera Use and Care

Once you know the basics of how disposable film cameras work, they’re very easy to use. However, there are some tips disposable camera users should know in terms of how to properly use all of its features and care for their cameras when necessary. 

Do All Disposable Cameras Work the Same?

The leading companies in disposable cameras are Kodak and Fujifilm. Some lesser know companies to the general public make them as well, like Ilford and AgfaPhoto, but you’re far less likely to find them in your local general stores.

Fortunately, regardless of which company has created the device, all disposable cameras work generally the same. They might have some features that slightly alter their settings and features (like a flash or be waterproof for instance) but apart from that, they all require the simple point and shoot process with a mechanical thumb-wheel to advance the film and cock the shutter for the camera to be ready for the next shot.

How Do I Know How Many Pictures I Can Take?

As we mentioned previously, the average disposable camera takes somewhere between 24 – 27 pictures. However, they’ll be labeled as exposures, not photos or pictures, which is where a lot of the confusion lies.

You can often find this labeled somewhere on the camera, usually on the top, opposite the picture-taking button. If it isn’t clearly visible on the camera itself, the exposure number will be labeled on the box or packaging.  

Top of a Fujifilm disposable film camera with a shutter button, exposure counter window, and the number of exposures
The top of a Fujifilm disposable film camera. Notice the Exposure Counter Window next to the shutter button and the number of exposures in the camera (27 exp).

There is also a plastic window with number located near the shutter button on the top-right of the camera. This number will tell you how many images are left to take by counting down with every image taken from the total number of exposures in your camera.

Should I Always Use the Flash on My Disposable Camera?

Not all disposable cameras come with a flash feature and those that do usually need to be turned on or off manually by the user. This begs the question of when it is best to use the flash on your disposable camera and when to leave it off. When it comes to flash, the rules of use are pretty much consistent across photography devices, disposable or otherwise:

  • If you’re taking a photo in a location with a lot of light exposure, you don’t want to use your flash. Whether you are outside on a sunny day or in a brightly lit room, your flash is only going to work against you in these settings and might white-out your desired image. 
  • The only time flash might be useful in these settings is to take a picture of something in a heavily shadowed location like under a tree on a sunny day or in a room at night. The extra flash might help brighten this object enough to be more clearly visible on your film than if you relied solely on the lighting provided so only turn your flash on when your photo target is in a dimly lit area. 
  • Also, when using flash on disposable cameras are not as strong as other cameras and won’t travel very far. Because of this, it’s recommended to have what you are taking a picture of about 4 – 11 ft from your camera when using a flash. If your main subject is too close to the camera it will be so bright and won’t have details or if your main subject is too far away from your camera it will be too dark to make out any of the details.

How Do I Clean My Disposable Camera?

Disposable cameras might be a one-time use device, but they can still get dirt and debris stuck on their lenses just like any other camera, which will end up on your image. In these cases, it’s good to know how to properly clean them without inflicting damage that could render the entire camera useless. 

The only component on your digital camera that could get dirty enough to cause an issue is the camera lens, so we’ll “focus” on that.

If this is your first time with disposable cameras, most likely you don’t have a camera cleaning kit. If you do have a camera cleaning kit on hand, use the hand blower tool to dislodge any dust or debris on the lens, and then use your soft-bristled brush to remove what’s left. 

If you don’t have one of these kits, some alternative tools you can use to wipe down your lens are:

  • Microfiber cloth: commonly provided with glasses for lens cleaning (don’t use your t-shirt because it can scratch the plastic lens!)
  • Eyeglass cleaner: for those really tough spots that won’t come off with simple wiping
  • Turkey baster: these staple household tools will have the same effect as a camera cleaning kit blower
  • Large eye-dropper: a great alternative to the turkey baster
  • Soft makeup brush: make sure it’s as clean as possible before use, but these are great to brush away debris

I recommend purchasing this inexpensive camera cleaning kit from Amazon.com. It comes with a blower tool, microfiber cloths, soft-bristled brush, a cleaning solution that is safe for electronics, and a lens cleaning pen/tool. I use a similar kit all the time on my expensive digital cameras as well as my cheap film cameras.

Now, we know you’re all thinking it, “Can we blow on the lens?” The answer really depends on how desperate you are. If none of the tools mentioned previously are available, using your breath is a safer option for cleaning your lens than perhaps wiping it with a tissue or other alternatives. 

However, you risk blowing saliva and other contaminants onto the lens that might do more harm than good, so weigh your options carefully. Also, don’t wipe with your t-shirt because you could scratch the lens.

Disposable Camera Development Options

Because most people don’t have a darkroom in their home, you may wonder how to get your images from the disposable film camera. If you are interested in learning what it takes to develop the film from these types of cameras see this article about the cost and what it takes to develop film at home. Also, see this video on youtube about how to remove the film from a disposable camera. However, I would still suggest only developing black and white film at home and have your color film developed somewhere else like these places we reviewed.

If you don’t have this skill or knowledge to develop film and scan them at at home, don’t worry because it is easy to your photos developed, scanned, using a service then transferred to your phone, but the downside is you do have to wait for about a week. You also have to consider the fact that this comes at an added cost and there is an element of risk with disposable cameras since you can’t see the pictures until you have them developed so you don’t always know if they turned out correctly – which is part of the fun of the process. However, this means you might pay for 27 pictures, and only 5 of them turned out well.

Although this isn’t usually ideal, the overall cost is typically much cheaper than the cost of buying a digital camera and paying to have your images printed.

Where to Get My Disposable Cameras Developed and How Much Does It Cost?

See this article for a list for places to get your disposable camera developed and how much it costs.

Can I Get My Disposable Camera’s Pictures on My Phone?

You can get your disposable camera photos onto your phone, but the process will be longer than using a digital camera.

Because there is no way to download the photos from the film to your camera, you need to first develop the film. Once you’ve done this, you’ll need to use a scanner to scan the pictures to create a digital file.

Fortunately, you have a few options to get this done. You can either develop and scan the images yourself (if you have the know how and the equipment), drop the camera off at a Wal-Mart or CVS to get developed and scanned, or you can mail them to a company that will develop and scan them for you. Read this article about places online that you can get disposable cameras developed and how much it costs.

I recommend using a company like TheDarkroom.com. I’ve used them before and I can’t say enough good things about them.

For $27.95 ($22 plus $5.95 shipping) you get:

  • Your disposable camera film developed (either color or black and white film)
  • Negatives mailed back to you (other places like Wal-Mart and Target don’t return your negatives)
  • Digital scans of your negatives uploaded to the web to download
  • A set of 4″ prints glossy prints ($5 more for true black and white prints if you have black and white film negatives)
  • You get access to your negative scans in about a week and you will get your negatives back in about 2 weeks.

Note: If you don’t want prints then the price goes down to $19.95 for both color and black and white disposable cameras.

On the other hand, places like Wal-Mart and CVS, can be less expensive, however, they take even longer (2 – 3 weeks) to send back your prints and scanned images on a disc AND the scans and prints are often not very good assuming you can find a store that still develops film or someone who can help you in the store itself. With TheDarkroom.com you not only get access to your images much faster (since they deliver them digitally) they are often very good. See this webpage for more comparisons of prices on getting film and disposable cameras developed at type of stores.

After you’ve received the scanned images you can either save them onto a laptop and transfer them to your phone or download them directly from their website. Some of them also send you a link through your email to view and download your images.  

Best Disposable Film Cameras and Film

There might not be many companies that make disposable cameras, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t many options on the market. Considering the amount of variation in features, exposures, and digital versus film design, it can be difficult to determine which disposable camera is best. 

To help the decision-making process, here is a list of our top recommendations for disposable cameras currently available. All cameras come with film. Some of the cameras come with a black and white film, different ISOs, some with color film, and some with a flash. I’ve also made a separate list of disposable cameras that are waterproof.

Best 35mm Disposable Cameras:

Camera Model
Color or Black & 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
Come with Color Film (400 ISO) but can use both
$32
24-36
Yes W/ Color Filters
Come with B&W (400 ISO) but can use both
$22
24-36
Yes
Come with B&W (400 ISO) but can use both
$49.50
24-36
Yes
Color Film (400 ISO)
$14
27
Yes
Color Film (800 ISO)
$14
39
No

Best 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.

Best 35mm Reloadable Disposable Cameras

I have also included a list of the best reloadable or reusable disposable cameras. These cameras give your film the same look as disposable camera but they are better made and allows you to take out and put in film. This will save you money on film development and shipping cost since you would only be sending in the film canister and not the entire camera.

Camera Model
Color or Black & White Film?
Price
Exposures
Flash?
Comes w/ Color Film (400 ISO) but can use both
$32
24-36
Yes W/ Color Filters
Comes w/ 2-Pack of Kentmere B&W film (400 ISO) but can do both
$30
36
Yes
Doesn’t include film but can use both color and b&w 35mm film
$49
24 – 36
Yes
Comes w/ B&W (400 ISO) but can use both
$22
24-36
Yes
Comes w/ Ilford HP5 B&W (400 ISO) but can use both
$49.50
24-36
Yes

Where to Purchase Disposable Cameras?

There are really only two places to purchase disposable film cameras – online and in the store.

Best Place to Buy Disposable Film Cameras Online

The best place to purchase a disposable camera for the best value is on Amazon.com. This is because you can purchase different kinds (for example loaded with color and black and film, different ISOs like 400 or 800, etc) by different manufacturers like Kodak, Fujifim, Ilford, Lomography, etc. so you can price shop. You can also easily find them in bulk on Amazon.com to save even more money.

Best Place to Buy Disposable Film Cameras In The Store

There are several different places to purchase disposable film cameras in the store. You can buy these types of cameras in grocery stores and stores like Wal-Mart, Target, and pharmacies like CVS, Walgreens, and Rite-Aid. Most stores only carry certain brands and types in store but it varies from location to location.

However to help you get started, here is a list of what you may find at different stores based on my online searches:

  • Wal-Mart usually carries the Fujifilm (regular and waterproof kind) and Kodak brand cameras with 400 ISO film
  • CVS usually carries the Fujifilm (regular and waterproof kind) and Kodak brand cameras with 400 ISO film
  • Walgreens usually carries the Kodak brand cameras with 400 ISO film

Disposable Vs. Digital Cameras and Cell Phones

Digital cameras and cell phones certainly have their perks for creating highly detailed and editable pictures you can easily transfer to nearly any device or upload to any app. However, some key factors render disposable film cameras an exceptional option for the right people under the right circumstances like the overall look of the image, cost, peace of mind, and, for me one of the biggest reasons disposable cameras make sense currently, the fact they are waterproof and simple to use.

Overall Look of Image

Disposable cameras have a very specific look that many people find pleasing. For example, because the camera has a plastic lens, lack of options related to exposure, where the flash is placed, and being film-based the resulting images have saturated colors (with the cameras with color film), strong contrast, and dream-like images.

Digital cameras and app filters can reproduce the look of a disposable camera but it requires editing the image while disposable cameras create the look naturally.

In 2019, a famous YouTuber named David Dobrik created a phone app called “Dispo-Live In The Moment” based on his Instagram where he only uploaded images taken with a disposable camera. When you use the app to take images they look like they were taken with a disposable camera by pushing the color saturation, contrast, and white balance of the images. The app also mimics the feeling of having to wait for your images to be developed by not allowing you to have access to your images until the following morning at 9 am. However, I found the images to only mimic the look and not replace the real thing.

Cost

Undoubtedly the biggest pull for purchasing a disposable film camera over a digital camera is the overall cost. 

The average point-and-shoot digital camera costs between $300-$900, depending on the model you are purchasing and smartphones costing even more depending on the model. The average mid-range camera, typically used by professional photographers, will cost $800-$3,500. That doesn’t even factor in the cost of attachable lenses, which can also cost hundreds to thousands of dollars.

Comparatively, you can purchase most disposable film cameras for less than $20. Sure, they can’t take as many pictures as the digital option but even purchasing five disposable cameras to take around 135 pictures will be substantially cheaper than investing hundreds into the cheapest digital point-and-shoot.

For this reason, disposable cameras are the better choice for individuals who rarely take photos and mostly need a camera for a rare special occasion, like a vacation.

Convenience / Easy To Use

Another benefit of disposable film cameras is how convenient they are to acquire and travel with. As opposed to digital cameras, you can find disposable cameras nearly anywhere. You can buy them in a retail store, gas station, and airport, whereas digital cameras are only solid in specialized stores or retail stores with a substantial electronics section. As a result, you really have to plan when you’re going to buy a digital camera versus a disposable camera can be a quick impulse buy when you’re about to jump on a tour or enter a museum and decide last-minute you want to take some pictures. 

Not only are disposable film cameras more available, but they’re also much lighter than digital cameras due to their lightweight components. This gives it a significant leg-up in terms of convenience, especially when comparing them to more professional cameras that need various lenses and tools for the best quality. 

Digital cameras and cell phones also run out of power and need to be recharged. All disposable film cameras are mechanical so they don’t need a battery to work. The battery is used to charge the flash. Reloadable disposable cameras just takes a single AA or AAA sized-battery for the flash, not for the camera to work.

Sure, the disposable film camera can’t hold a candle to the pictures mid-range digital cameras create, but for the average person who doesn’t need all that extra baggage, they’re a great choice. Easy to store, easy to carry because they are light, easy to use (even for preschoolers), and don’t require being charged to function.

Peace of Mind

One of the best elements of disposable film cameras is the peace of mind they provide. You invest very little in them for a decent-quality product, and when you’re done, you can toss it away. No one will get too attached or concerned about their disposable camera, making them a less stressful piece of equipment to carry around than a digital one. You also don’t have to worry about people stealing your disposable camera.

If you take your snazzy new digital camera on a trip and accidentally drop and break it, you’ve more or less wasted the hundreds you spent. As a result, people go to extensive measures to ensure the nice camera they bought is safe and protected, so they’ll purchase wrist rings, camera bags, covers, and other equipment that only adds to the overall cost but protects their camera.

If you dropped and broke a disposable camera, it isn’t really a loss since they’re so inexpensive. You could potentially even salvage the film in it and develop the photos you took. You’re unlikely to waste money keeping it safe since you’re going to throw it away when you’re done. Therefore, you’re unlikely to waste time worry about packing it safely or keeping it clean and protected, especially if you have spares. 

Disposable film cameras are also great for your child because of their durability and low cost. In fact, researchers found using disposable cameras with children in preschool helped them gain confidence, learn to speak better, and the teachers learned more about the children’s worlds.

They Are Waterproof

This section could go under the peace of mind section but I think it’s such a large difference it deserved its own. If you are going on a trip that you know will be around water like to the beach, pool, or a hike to a waterfall, buying a waterproof disposable camera makes a lot of sense – even in the age of cell phones and digital cameras. Sure, you can buy digital cameras that are waterproof, waterproof housings for your digital camera, or for a waterproof bag for your cell phone but the images never look good and it’s hard to see to focus with those plastic cell phone covers. Also, if you are like me you still are concerned it might leak and ruin your expensive cell phone.

Kodak waterproof disposable film camera
Waterproof disposable film camera by Kodak.

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

Final Thoughts

As user-friendly and cheap “point and shoot” devices, disposable film cameras are perfect for the individual who wants to document special moments in their life without investing hundreds in a fancy camera they’ll rarely use. 

The quality of these devices has significantly improved since 2005, so you don’t have to trade it over affordability, as they too can create vibrant and accurate images. Next time you go on a trip or family outing, consider purchasing an affordable and convenient disposable film camera to document your special moments. 

For more information about disposable cameras, see my other article about why they are coming back here

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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