Essay, Photography

What’s the point of single-use cameras?

Last month, Kodak introduced a single-use camera loaded with its iconic Tri-X black-and-white film. It got a lot of news coverage in the film-photography community.

I don’t buy the hoopla. Single-use cameras aren’t all that useful, and they’re certainly not economical.

The Tri-X Single-Use Camera costs about $15, and offers 27 exposures. Ilford also offers a single-use camera with HP5 Plus inside; it costs about $12. And both Fujifilm and Kodak offer single-use cameras with ISO 400 color film inside. I’ve seen them available for anywhere between $12 and a whopping $20.

Why buy one when you can buy an old point and shoot camera for under $20 at a thrift shop, load a roll of film of your choice — and reuse the camera? Even the simplest point and shoot probably has a better lens than any single-use camera, and you’d be money ahead after only a few rolls of film.

I can think of only one reason to buy a camera like this: you need a camera but don’t have one on you. It happened to me once. I had flown to Washington, DC, on business. On arrival I learned that an illness had postponed my meetings by a day. I had a whole day to myself, and I’d never been to DC before! I stepped into a drug store and bought a single-use camera, and then took the subway to the National Mall to do some sightseeing. (I stumbled upon a mostly struck set from the movie Forrest Gump that day; read that story here.) Here’s a photo I made of the U.S. Capitol with that camera.

US Capitol, 1993

But this happened in 1993, long before all of us had a camera phone in our pocket. Today I’d just use my iPhone. It’s not my favorite camera, but neither was this single-use camera I bought. Both would have gotten good enough shots for an unexpected day as a tourist.

I think disposable cameras sell primarily to people with too much disposable money.

To get Down the Road in your inbox or reader six days a week, click here to subscribe!
To get my newsletter with previews of what I’m working on, click here to subscribe!


29 thoughts on “What’s the point of single-use cameras?

  1. I have heard of one use for these that makes some sense – at a wedding reception or other similar event where you want others taking photos that you want to keep or control. A disposable camera at every table at a reception will result in shots you would never get any other way. So this makes some sense as a party novelty, but that’s about it.

  2. Andy Umbo says:

    Ditto to J.P., and today, you’d actually get the photos (they’re collected by your best man as people exit), instead of hearing how people got some great cell phone pics but you’d never see them. Tried a bunch of these years ago, and was never amazed by the quality of the acrylic lenses, always “soft” prints, even at 3X5….they fill sort of weird function and market slice…

    • I think the whole idea is iffy. Soft, over-flashed photos by people who don’t know how to compose a shot? That’s how I want my memories recorded? No thanks.

  3. Bob says:

    I use to buy a single use waterproof camera when we went to the beach. Wanted to keep sand and salt water away from my cameras. Worked ok. Eventually I bought a 70’s water proof camera that worked for several years before it decided it would no longer wind.

      • Bob says:

        Our family use to rent a beach house for a week every summer. We came from Virginia, Ohio, West Virginia and Georgia and spent the week together, good times. Waterproof camera was also good for rainey days and snow.

      • Andy Umbo says:

        I was going to bring this up, but as I remember, they used to be saved by the processors and returned to the manufacturers and “reset” and reloaded. Don’t know if that’s happening today, tho….

    • Bob says:

      Money! Apparently they are profitable. I think a lot of the younger generathink they are cool. They don’t value sharp properly exposed pictures the way I do. A Holga would be a good alternative if you like that kind of picture and not be as wasteful.

    • matt says:

      This was going to be my Ranty McRant comment/point — the conditioning our society is in to just toss stuff makes me think of Brave New World: Ending is better than mending. Ugh.

    • I’m reluctant to judge that usage. There might be something about the plastic lenses in these that they legitimately like. The look from the lenses in these isn’t for me.

  4. Single-use cameras aren’t thrown away after the film is developed, they get recycled, and that is an important point. I agree that I don’t get the point much these days and I haven’t seen any for sale for a few years now, but I know it’s a bit of a fad with communities like Lomography and Ilford has been putting out single-use cameras for years, Kodak took a while to jump on the bandwagon of black & white. I suppose that the resurgence in film photography this makes the easiest low-cost method for lazy people to get into film photography. The wedding idea is great also, I remember some friends of mine doing that back in 2013 or so and would definitely have that available as well if/when I get married myself.

    • I can buy a single-use color-film camera today at the big-box store near my home. I assume they turn over, or the store would quit carrying them! I just wonder who buys them, and why.

  5. William Smith says:

    The one and only place I have seen these cameras is weddings. Several times a single use camera has been placed on the table at post-wedding receptions. The goal is for everyone present be on film. Maybe so?

    • I’ve seen that too. I think it’s more about creating fun than it is about getting good, useful photographs from the event. A single-use camera isn’t exactly equipped to deliver high quality images.

  6. Just seconding/thirding the “wedding” point. They are never meant to take the place of a pro photographer, just a fun augmentation. And I did know someone who worked in a lab years ago and said how they would recycle the cameras, so they aren’t always tossed out.

    I’m not a fan, but there is one other reason why they exist: An easy way for people to get started with film. Yes, you can find vintage cameras, but some people (for whatever reason) are scared off by that idea. And there’s the whole “will this camera work?” factor with an old camera. A disposable will do what it’s supposed to do. And they can be found at drugstores and the like, so they are easily available.

    • I’ll grudgingly concede that these are a simple way for people to start with film. But I can’t imagine that’s enough to keep the production lines rolling.

  7. Some of these single use cameras had surprisingly sophisticated (but cheap to make) lenses. A company in China repackages them in various camera mounts. I just ordered a 30mm in Leica thread mount for all of $20 or so. Another company puts 2 of the lenses together to make a 17mm. Mr.Huss on Photrio has shown Some really nice examples from one of these inexpensive 17 mm lenses.

  8. I’ve wasted too much money on cameras but surprisingly I’ve probably bought a disposable just once for the novelty of it!

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.