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The Charm of the Disposable Camera (& How to Do This Trend Right)

Our recent cultural obsession with the past has manifested itself in a lot of ways. There’s the endless and tired stream of movie remakes with overdone special effects, the cyclical recycling of fashion trends, and, especially in the last few years, the resurgence of analog devices which had been previously abandoned for their digital equivalents. From those of us who have and regularly listen to a record player, to those who care for a keychain Tamagotchi, analog devices provide a sense of meaning and nostalgic comfort that is missing from the alternative, perhaps more convenient, digital versions. Film cameras are a prime example.

They’re everywhere these days. Disposable cameras have been on the rise for a while now, and you’ve definitely seen them on your feed at some point. It’s easy to see the appeal — the photos are distinct in an alluring, dreamy kind of way. They achieve the whimsical look of times long past while capturing modern moments. In doing so, they add a sense of distance, like you’re looking back at the “good ol’ days” from within them.

The process of creating these photographs also contributes to the experience. Physically winding the film to get a snap, charging the flash, carefully keeping track of how many photos you can take — these limitations make every shot count and add to the novelty. So does taking your camera into the photo lab for development. The weeks between taking your photo and actually seeing the physical product make the pictures valuable, something you’ve worked for and earned. Taking away the convenience of the digital age adds a new and deeper meaning to these memories. And to boot, the pictures look great on your Insta feed! 

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So by now you understand the popularity of this kind of photography. Maybe you even want to try it out yourself. By all means, do! If all you want to achieve is the aesthetic look of the photos, a quick Google search will send you down the rabbit hole of editing apps and filter formulas that can transform your phone photos into something out of a 1990s photo album. But if you’re after the whole nine yards — the wind-up camera, the weeks of developing, the final, dazzling, physical product — then there is definitely a right way to go about it. 

The first thing to consider is your camera. The single-use disposable camera is the most popular; it is by no means the best. Though it can be a good starting point for tentative beginners, they’re wasteful. On a disposable, you take 27 photos and then toss the whole thing away, which is detrimental to both the environment and your wallet, especially if you plan on photographing regularly. Instead, consider purchasing a simple use reloadable film camera. These devices function at the same level as disposable cameras, but they’re reloadable, so you can take as many photos as you buy film. They’re also affordable, and cheaper than disposables when you factor in reuse and film costs. The reloadable cameras produce the same whimsical photos and they’re just as easy and fun (and also a good introduction to the greater world of film photography).

Another option is buying secondhand. As overwhelming as it is to peer into the massive second hand camera market, there are certainly gems to be found. This route requires a good amount of research, and yes, it is a bit of a gamble. But looking through the technology sections of thrift stores or browsing the pages of eBay can be very rewarding. The key here is to make sure you know what you’re getting into. Know what to search for and what you want out of a camera. Point-and-shoot cameras are ideal for casual photographers seeking the distinctive film look, while avoiding the complex technical aspects of operating a camera. Look for 35mm cameras advertised as “tested” to be sure you’re buying something legit. Do some research about the kind of camera you’re considering buying; there are online databases including this one in which you can find actual photos taken by a certain brand and model of camera. Buying secondhand will give you many options at varying prices — if you do your research, it can really pay off.

Once you get your camera, the fun really begins. Most casual users of film cameras opt for sweet and candid shots of their friends or their surroundings. Nights out, trips, casual hangs — these moments are all beautifully transformed with the use of a film camera. The photo album vibe of these photos is phenomenal, and once again, they’re a great addition to your social media feed. But if you want to get really creative, you can even organize a photoshoot. The possibilities here are endless, from the potential outfits to the scenery. Once you get your perfect shots, you can take your film to your local photo lab and, within a few weeks, admire the phenomenal results!

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The resurgence of film photography has resulted in a wave of young photographers bringing new creativity to the table, as well as the proliferation of “vintage” photos on everyone’s Instagram feeds. This fad is fairly accessible in terms of price and skill, and it’s a whole lot of fun. So go out there and shoot something neat!

Clarissa Melendez

Columbia Barnard '24

Clarissa Melendez is a freshman at Barnard College, where she studies Art History. She loves books and movies and spends her time in Austin, Texas making collages and driving her 2003 Toyota 4Runner to the video store.
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