Despite having high tech cameras at my disposal, I still love using disposable cameras from time to time. I really like them for parties, trips and other lighthearted occasions where the photos taken will largely serve as momentos. You get one click, and don’t have to take it a million times, and then when you get them printed, you have something to send the friends who shared that moment with you (support the post office!)
As I learn more and more about photography, I became curious: how exactly do disposable cameras work? Do they have a crude ‘auto’ feature built into them? What’s their shutter speed? Aperture? And how exactly does the focus work?
I set out to answer these Qs, and, unsurprisingly, disposable cameras are incredibly simple.
Looking into the most popular disposable camera models out there, it’s clear they were built for versatility, to deliver decently exposed and in-focus images in a wide variety of situations. Their shutter speeds and apertures tend to hover around 1/100th of a second and f10 respectively. Those of you who read my article on shooting in low light will remember that 1/100 is about as slow as you can go while avoiding camera shake/blur. It’s fast enough that it’ll be hard to over-expose your image even in daylight, while being slow enough that you can get shots indoors and/or at night in the right conditions, especially with the help of a built-in flash. An aperture of f10 isn’t too wide, allowing a decent depth of field for a fixed focus lens, and again overexposure won’t be something you really have to worry about. However f/10 is ever so slightly on the tighter side, so if shooting inside or at night you’ll definitely want to use the flash.
This biggest thing that seems to vary between models is the ISO of the film it’s loaded with. It seems the popular models are almost always equipped with either 400 or 800 ISO film (I did see one model which has 200). Be sure to check this when buying the camera and keep your model’s ISO in mind when shooting! 800 is pretty good for low-light situations, there may even be certain interior/nighttime situations where you wouldn’t need a flash when using an ISO 800 film. On the flip side, 200 ISO film is going to be very hard to work with in those same scenarios, even with the flash.
As a general rule, I’d say:
As far as focus is concerned, check the specifics for the model you’re using. But generally speaking, for best results keep your subject about 3-10ft from the camera.
If you’re wondering what options are out there for disposable cameras, I’m a huge fan of the ILFORD black and white disposables. And for further comparison of the different models out there, the folks at Lumoid did a fantastic comparison experiment where they ranked 7 different available models, which you can read about here.