The disposable camera, or one time use camera, appeared in the 1980's. They are usually made of cardboard covered plastic. Later versions had added features, such as built-in flash and weatherproofness. The disposable camera has these features:

  • one shutter speed - they usually have a guillotine-style shutter, which is driven by a spring. As the exposure is not fine-tuneable, these cameras rely on the wide exposure-tolerance of today's print films.
  • aspheric plastic lenses - this allows cheap plastic lenses that have amazingly good optical properties
  • high speed film - The Kodak disposable camera I once took apart came with 800 ASA Kodak Max film. High speed film is required because the cheap plastic lens has a small aperature - this leads to longer exposure times and deeper field of focus. To keep the exposure times reasonable, the film has to be fast.
  • reverse winding - normally, unexposed film is in the canister, and as your camera takes pictures and winds the film, the film is pulled out. At the end, you rewind the film back into the cannister. In disposable cameras, the film starts outside the canister, and as you wind the film, you wind it back into the canister. That way, you don't have to rewind the film at the end.

Because the aperature is small to facilitate no-focus photography, you can't take pictures where the subject is in focus while the background is out of focus. This is the same kind of problem you get with most point and shoot cameras.

Basically, disposable cameras are vehicles for selling film. One normally gets the film developed by sending in the whole camera. The manufacturer can then extract the film, send back your prints, reload the camera, and make you buy it again. However, you can reload them yourself, though I have heard of some models sold in Japan that are sealed shut, preventing reloading. I have not seen these in the USA.

Reloading disposable cameras

** WARNING ** the capacitor that holds the charge on the flash of disposable cameras store quite a bit of juice. Although I'm not sure it could kill you, it might, so if you want to play around with reloading these things, either stick to non-flash models, or buy some life insurance.

  • Use up the film.
  • Rip off the cardboard covering.
  • Take apart the camera. For the Kodak disposable camera, you can take it apart with a small screwdriver, using it to pry the plastic tabs that lock the two halves together. You'll see a generically labeled cannister of film. Hold on to the film for now.
  • Take apart the winder-shutter assembly. It's a bit complicated, but it's not difficult to take apart and put back. You need to reassemble the winding assembly in order to reset the frame counter. If you reload the film without doing so, you can't continue winding past the last frame on the counter.
  • Transfer the film. You need the original film spool that came in the disposable camera. The film winding wheel engages the specially socketed film spool, so you can't just use a normal 35 mm film cannister. You must:
    • Enter a dark room. Completely dark. You can't use a red safety light, because, unlike black and white film, color film will get exposed by it.
    • Open up the cannister.
    • Transfer the exposed film to another, empty cannister.
  • Have the original film developed.
  • Now, you'll have to put fresh film into the camera:
    • You'll need to get the same speed film as the original, probably 800 ASA.
    • This time, go into the completely dark room with the camera, the old spool and cannister, and the extra spool that is on the other side of the camera.
    • Take apart a new roll of film and transfer it to the old spool (with the socket) and cannister.
    • Wind it back out onto the external spool
    • Put the whole mess back into the camera. All in the dark. It's not as difficult as it seems, and if you have a minimal amount of manual dexterity, it is doable.
  • After you close the plastic case of the camera with your new film inside, you may want to tape the seams with an opaque tape, just to make sure the whole thing is light-proof.

I tried replacing the original color film with Kodak T-Max 400 speed film with good results. During processing, I just pushed the film up one stop. The photographs came out remarkably good. Beats shelling out big bucks for Holgas and Dianas.

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