Pictures First, Cameras Second: The History of Disposable Cameras

Although disposable cameras are often associated with the 1980s and 90s, they have a long and rich history. Residing at a critical juncture between disposability and the consumer electronics industry, for decades they were the go-to option for people seeking a convenient, easy-to-use camera. In today’s digital world, they seem destined for obsolescence. Yet as people seek alternatives to the digital photography craze, might disposable cameras be poised for a comeback?

by DELLA KEYSER                    MAY 2014

© Della Keyser 2014

Two disposable cameras, a Kodak Sport and Fuji Quicksnap, for sale at a Walgreens in Newark, DE. Photograph by author.

A waterproof Kodak Sport disposable camera and Fujifilm Superia film for sale at a Walgreens in Newark, DE, 2014. Photograph by author.

Photography enthusiasts agree: “The best camera is the one that’s with you.” Throughout the evolution of photography consumers have repeatedly demonstrated that they are willing to sacrifice quality and resolution for portability and convenience. Between the late 1980s and early 2000s, no cameras fit the bill for convenience and ease of use better than disposable, or single-use, cameras. With cheery names like the Fling, Funsaver, and Sidekick, these cameras could be purchased at the nearest drugstore or supermarket at little cost. They could casually be tossed in a beach bag or knapsack and still be relied on to take satisfactory photographs.

Since the advent of digital technology and subsequent ubiquity of camera phones and tablet computers, the appeal of disposable cameras has been decimated. Why would people carry around a disposable camera, however light, when they already carry a mobile phone with a built-in camera? In an age of selfies and hashtags, why would anyone wait to have film processed when with a camera phone they can share their photographs at the click of a button? How can disposable cameras compensate for the absence of editing and video-taking capability? This is not to say that disposable cameras have been entirely supplanted by digital technology. They are commonly given to wedding guests; waterproof versions are valued by snorkelers; and they are sold at popular retailers. Yet even the appearance of disposable cameras —their chunky design and garish packaging—seems to evoke an earlier era in technology.

Far From a Flash in the Pan: Why were disposable cameras so popular?

Although the disposable camera may be trudging  down the road to obsolescence, it is easy to see why the idea of a one-time-use camera, first hatched in the 1880s, has had such staying power. Inexpensive and easy to master, it represents a profitable marriage between the interests of manufacturers and the needs of users. For manufacturers, the sale of disposable cameras was an opportunity to significantly expand the market. Typically the introduction of a new camera to a product line meant cannibalizing existing business, diverting sales from older products to the new. This was not the case with single-use cameras. Kodak, Fuji, and others targeted new users, seeing in the concept of disposable cameras the potential for attracting new customers and convincing the camera-less consumer to spend a few dollars the company otherwise would never have seen.

Viewing the camera and the photographs it produces as separate entities, each with its own price tag, users in turn had a solution for instances when the possession of snapshots was more desirable than owning a conventional camera. Especially early on in the development of disposables, the cost of conventional cameras deterred some. As cameras became equipped with more features, other users sought a simple camera without functions and capabilities they did not have the time, interest, or skill to learn. And still others wanted a cheap, temporary substitute for situations—beach days, hiking expeditions, traveling in areas with high risk of theft—when they preferred to leave their expensive cameras behind. As one Kodak jingle summarized, “They’re flashable, they’re splashable, they’re lashable, they’re stashable, they’re fashionable, when you’re on the run.”  In any case, the disposable camera provided users with the means to permanently capture their memories and, having done so, discard with what amounted to an extraneous block of cardboard and plastic.

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