Throwaway cameras focus on convenience

August 30, 1993|By Charles Hagen | Charles Hagen,New York Times News Service

The niftiest development in photography isn't some high-priced whiz-bang camera with electronic everything, or film fast you can take a picture of a hummingbird flying through a coal mine at night. In fact, what may be the most important innovation in photography in recent years is decidedly low-tech, little more than a cardboard box folded around a roll of film, with a plastic lens stuck into one side. Welcome to the world of throwaway cameras.

The companies that make these cameras have a nicer name for them: Fuji, which introduced cardboard cameras in Japan in 1986, and Kodak, which entered the fray the following year with its Fun Saver line, call them single-use cameras. But whatever they're called, the models have been enormously popular, with more than 22 million sold last year, according to the Photographic Marketing Association, a trade group. With sales figures like those, throwaways have become the photographic equivalent of plastic razors.

The basic concept of the throwaway is simple: A consumer buys one of the cameras, takes 24 or 27 shots contained on its preloaded roll of 35mm film, then returns the whole camera to a lab for processing. After the lab prints the pictures, it returns the used camera to the manufacturer, which recycles the materials in it to make new cameras.

Their best points are convenience and price. If you go on a trip and forget to bring along your Nikon, you can always stop by the local drugstore or supermarket. Kodak and Fuji's basic models sell for less than $10 each, while fancier versions sell for up to $20. Getting the film processed raises the final cost of using a bare-bones camera. Most labs charge a dollar or so a print for the oversized prints produced by the panoramic models, about twice what ordinary prints cost.

Fuji and Kodak, along with Konica, which recently introduced its own line of throwaways, offer a variety of models. In addition to plain-vanilla versions for taking pictures outdoors in sunlight, there are panoramic cameras, which produce 3 1/2 -by-10-inch prints, and versions with built-in flashes for taking pictures indoors or in low light.

Kodak and Fuji also offer waterproof models that can be used to take pictures to a depth of 8 or 10 feet underwater. Both also make flash versions of their panoramic cameras, which can be used to take pictures of all the guests at a wedding banquet, for example.

A telephoto version of Kodak's Fun Saver has a medium-length lens for taking pictures at events where you can't get close to the action. And the viewfinder of Kodak's newest model, Fun Saver Portrait 35, includes a plastic outline of a person's head and shoulders that can be used to frame the subject to be sure distance and focus are accurate.

Throwaways allow casual photographers a chance to take pictures that would otherwise require specialized equipment. Underwater or panoramic cameras sell for hundreds or thousands of dollars; with a throwaway, a person can take pictures on a snorkeling vacation without having to invest a fortune in photographic hardware.

The greatest drawback with single-use cameras is that they provide few of the technological niceties many photographers have come to expect. All offer one basic exposure and are what Kodak calls, euphemistically, "focus-free." This means that the lenses are set at a small aperture so that anything more than 3 or 4 feet from the lens will appear in focus.

Still, the pictures produced are surprisingly sharp and adequate for people who only want to have snapshots of family outings. But the use of plastic lenses and fast film means that negatives cannot be enlarged substantially without the grain becoming noticeable. And the cameras' primitive viewfinders don't allow for precise framing and composition.

And, anything designed to be thrown away is bound to be wasteful, no matter how avid the companies are at encouraging labs to return the used cameras for recycling.

For all this, there's no denying the growing popularity of throwaways. And when you find yourself at a graduation without a camera, being able to pick one off the supermarket rack can be very reassuring.

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