The primary advantage of the disposable camera is in the fact that it costs only $4 (when taking pictures in the Sierras, I saw a family that had a dozen disposable cameras in the trunk of the car - much lighter weight than the mass of stuff I was lugging around, and $4 is something you can let a child carry (and use) without biting your nuckles when he or she wants to use a camera). These cameras are often optimized for a single purpose - some even are made for underwater photography. The disposable camera is also commonly available in places where one wishes to have a camera for the 24 exposures.

The $10-$50 35mm point and shoot cameras have slightly higher quality optics as the disposable ones which is especially noticeable in the viewfinder (which is more than a hole in the box). Beyond this fact, the other advantage of the 'almost disposable' cameras is they have a wider range of film available to them (print and slide, black and white and color, 32 to 1600 speed). It takes far less volume in a pack to carry a single inexpensive camera and several rolls of film than the equivalent number of disposable cameras.

The disposable and point and shoot cameras pale in comparison to the quality of pictures from someone moderately skilled in photography with a good ($300 and up) 35mm camera. These cameras are designed for a much longer lifetime (I would not be surprised if the point and shoot were only designed for life of a single year). The disposable and point and shoot cameras lack many useful features such as variable aperture (and depth of field), variable shutter time (for taking long exposures at night or very quick to capture the beat of a humming bird's wings), zoom, and changeable lenses.

The market for the fixed focus point and shoot 35mm cameras is slowly disappearing as the APS cameras begin to gain popularity. The APS camera is often a much better value for the individual looking to take pictures as memories and not as an artistic endeavor.

The first "disposable camera" was developed by George Eastman in 1888 (yes, eighteen eighty-eight - over 100 years ago). This development came about because the process for loading and developing film was a difficult one for the average person. This came out shortly after the invention of photographic film rolls in 1883 - and "backs" for most every plate camera available to use the new film rolls. Pre-loaded cameras were sold ($25), and after the photographs were taken, the camera was sent back to the Kodak lab in Rochester for processing after which they would be loaded once again with film with 100 exposures and then returned to the customer ($10). Within a few years, the "pocket" camera was released only $5. The ease of this process for the consumer was a major selling and advertising point - the slogan of at the time being "You push the button, we do the rest".

The goal for George Eastman was to make the camera available to as many people for the lowest possible price. By 1900 the "Brownie" camera was released by Frank Brownell, and sold by Kodak. This camera followed a similar design as Eastman's and was made out of wood and cardboard for $1 with a target audiance of children.

Comparatively speaking, Fuji's disposable camera in 1986 was very late to the game.

As the proud owner of a Canon Elan IIe, I can say that the quality of a disposable camera—while admirable for such a small, inexpensive apparatus—can never hope to come close to that of a near-professional quality instrument with control over focus, zoom, exposure, &c. Nonetheless, a disposable camera can have a range of practical uses that would be hard to fill with other equipment. For example:

  • The underwater/waterproof example above is perfect. I have played with these plastic-enclosed contraptions before, and they are glorious. You can be out on the water and not worry about dropping them in—they even float! And to buy a multiple-use camera you could actually use underwater, you'd have to drop at the very least a couple hundred dollars.

  • For a theft-prone area where you don't want to be worrying about your belongings and only need memory-quality pics

  • Keep one of these in your glove compartment, in case you get into a car crash and need to take photos of damage for evidence or want to catch the license plate when you're the victim of a hit and run.

  • Carry one around at all times in your backpack, purse, or pocket, in case you see marvelous sights you must capture on film, such as a restaurant called "Salad World", or the ghost of Jerry Garcia. Disposable cameras are the size and weight of a pack of cigarettes, and thus extraordinarily easy to schlep.

  • As a promotional item. For example, if you are a pedicab/rickshaw driver, you can keep a bag of disposable cameras, each with a sticker with your company name and phone number, on you. If a passenger wants a picture of them with the rickshaw, you can sell them one of these cameras at a slight markup to them to get these pictures, and then carry with them to record their day outing. When they go to get their film developed, they'll be reminded of the company...

  • To take surreptitious pictures, such as incriminating shots of people sleeping, sneezing, stealing houseplants, &c. Disposable cameras are small enough that they can peek out of a shirtpocket for a brief second without being easily noticed, and make the quitest of click-noises.

  • Carry one around with you, and take a picture of where you are every day—as a sort of surrealist/mono no aware photodiary.

  • When you get married, scatter them around at the reception—one or two at each table. You ask your guests to return the cameras to you when it's over, and you get photos of the festivities from dozens of different perspectives.

  • Give them to small children to enjoy their first photographic experience, without worry of damage to expensive equipment.

  • Take one on a roller coaster—if you drop it, sure, someone might get hurt, but at least you won't have to worry about losing a spendy apparatus!

  • Reverse guerrilla art: put them around the city attached to self-addressed stamped envelopes and ask people to take pictures of whatever they want and send them to you undeveloped.

...the list could go on forever. These things are hella cheap, portable, and hold the potential for endless fun. You're creative noder-humans, go on out there and have yourself some quality disposable photographic fun!

Special thanks to Joyquality for kickass idea submissions.

What to do when the disposable camera is full?

Well you could return the whole thing to the photo shop where you bought it
... or ...
Take the thing apart, extract the ansi standard roll of 35mm film, get a cheaper rate i.e. free doubles etc...
  • You then have a perfectly usable camera, and you can reload it with another roll of film
  • You can give it to your child for use as a toy camera
  • You can extract the flash's AA battery which still has lots of juice left
  • You can hack the flash hardware and turn it into a stroboscope
  • You can hack the flash hardware and turn it into a stun gun or taser (thanks Lockheart)
  • You can use the camera body as a makeshift magic lantern

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